Take a Peek Inside Your Mind

I’ve been so excited about neuroscience lately!

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I’m learning about things like neuroplasticity which is our ability to change our habits no matter how old we are.

I’m learning that we all have negative bias which means we’re hard-wired to dwell on our negative experiences instead of the positive ones (it’s a problem-solving mechanism for us humans).

And then there’s something called entrainment  which may explain why it’s easier to meditate with a group than by yourself. Who knew?

One thing that I’m consistently hearing is that meditation will help you understand your mind and behaviors and help you make positive changes. It’ll also help you calm your nervous system, reduce stress, lengthen attention span, fight addictions, and maybe generate kindness and ward-off Alzheimers!

There are many forms of meditation, many places learn it and many apps to help you find a peaceful state without going anywhere.

If you’d like to try a guided meditation, here’s a recording of me leading a breath-focused meditation.

If you’d like to try a simple practice that helps develop concentration, try this.

In any case, I hope you take a peek inside your mind to see how it ticks!
Happy Autumn,
Michelle

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

 

 

Movement Awareness

A simple way to connect to your body is to move it in any easy way and really feel what’s happening. Develop mindful awareness of sensations like joint range of motion, breath rhythm and a sense of circulation.

If you raise one arm, how high does it go without pain? Take that arm into a big circle (or small circle depending on your shoulder). What does that shoulder feel like? Try lifting your breastbone as you do this. Does that give you more freedom? If this movement doesn’t feel good, change the angle, make the circle smaller until the shoulder feels fine. Then do the other arm and notice what it feels like. This is the range of motion in your shoulders.

Notice your breath rhythm. Does it change when you move like this (are you taking bigger breaths or more breaths)?

When you stop moving, notice what your upper body feels like.

Now turn your awareness to your lower body. Stand with your feet wider than your hips and shift side to side, bending one knee then the other. What do your joints feel like – your ankles, knees and hips? Avoid straining and make it comfortable. It can be a really small movement. Then try circling your hips: pointing your tail behind you, to one side, forward, and to the other side, all the while feeling your hips sockets, knees and ankles. Reverse directions.

Come to stillness and notice how you feel. Do you feel a sense of circulation? This is good!

Your body needs movement, even simple movement, because movement increases circulation which helps fuel all the muscles, joints and organs with fresh nutrients and oxygen. And this circulation also helps remove stress hormones from the blood stream (it calms you down).

There are other simple movement strategies like going for a brisk walk around the block or – my personal favorite – kitchen dancing to fun music! Or try some gentle moving like this simple chair yoga sequence.

Here are some rules for your safety:

  1. Do all movements with awareness; do them carefully
  2. Honor your limitations – don’t push or strain
  3. Stop if you feel any pain or discomfort especially in your joints (like the knees)
  4. Modify as needed

Your relationship to your body is precious. Give it some quality attention with simple movement and develop mindful awareness of your range of motion, breath rhythm and a sense of circulation.

The Gift of a Quiet Mind

I’ve been writing about gifts to give yourself as a way of approaching different aspects of healing and developing awareness. This month I’m diving deeper into this idea of giving yourself the gift of a quiet mind.

Have you tried to meditate and find that your mind just insists on chattering away?

Maybe you’re trying to empty your mind, but instead your thoughts are stuck on rehashing a conversation or figuring out how to handle something that’s coming up? This is normal, but sometimes you’d like that obsessive thinking to STOP.

Because when it does stop, that magic moment arrives when you become still. No more thoughts! The anxiety drops away and it feels like everything is alright. It gets really, really quiet inside and you get to just BE; to simply sit and feel your breath flow in and out. It’s deceptively simple. And it’s blissful! You’re just being. How often do you let yourself do that?

And it can be so relaxing – you’ve tapped into the relaxation motherlode! It’s the parasympathetic nervous system in action. That’s the rest and digest part of your nervous system (the opposite of fight or flight).

Let’s talk about the brain science behind all this: in Kelly McGonigal’s amazing audiobook, The Neuroscience of Change, McGonigal says that your brain is a sophisticated problem-solving tool. When it’s busy thinking a million thoughts at once it’s actually trying to solve your problems for you. (Thanks!)

But it doesn’t know how to turn itself off! For many of us it’s stuck in overdrive!

This is the evaluative part of your brain and it’s actually what your brain does most of the time.

The way to pull it out of that overdrive state is to direct your attention to something you’re experiencing in this moment. This brings you into the experiential part of your brain.

So here are two ways to move into your experiential brain:

1. Uses your senses.
Look around. What are the details of what you’re seeing? Notice what you’re hearing. Is there a taste on your tongue or a scent in the air? Any of your senses can help you experience the present moment and quiet your busy mind. And since you’re always breathing–I hope so–the breath is also a good place to put your attention. Feel its rhythm and movement. Do this without changing it; just notice its natural flow.

Come to your senses!

There will probably still be some mental commenting in the background of your mind, but you can choose to not entertain those thoughts and simply stay with what you’re sensing in the moment.

2. Focus on a simple task.
Another way to quiet your mind is to give yourself a simple concentration task. My favorite is a breath counting practice. To do this, silently count your exhalations (without changing anything about your breath). With your first exhalation, let your inner voice say, “one.” With your next exhalation, say, “two.” Keep going up to “ten” then count backwards, “ten to one”. You can do just one “loop” or set a timer to go longer. Note: this is a great technique for getting to sleep!

Give your monkey mind a toy to play with like breath counting!

Even when you get good at this, your mind will wander at times. This is normal. Just keep bringing your attention back to your breath and the counting. Even experienced meditators wander from time to time. Every time you “wake up” from wandering/thinking and come back to your breath, you’re strengthening your concentration – think of it as a muscle!

Learning techniques to quiet your raucous mind is especially good if you’re dealing with anxious thoughts that repeat themselves over and over. With practice you’ll gain control over your thoughts rather than your thoughts controlling you. This is the gift of a quiet mind. When you can manage your thoughts and allow yourself to settle into each moment, you give yourself the gift of silence, which greatly increases your capacity for contentment and peace.

 

Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

 

 

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!

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.