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.

 

Loving Kindness for Donald Trump

For this Valentine’s Day I intend to spend the day, to the best of my ability, in Loving Kindness. Loving Kindness is a practice of developing compassion and friendliness toward yourself and others. It’s a mindfulness practice that comes out of the Buddhist tradition and it helps us to cultivate an open heart, to see our habits and judgements and perhaps to thwart negative thoughts and actions.

This practice is about noticing your emotions and their interplay with your thoughts. In the full formal practice, you send kind thoughts to yourself, someone you love, someone for whom you have complicated feelings, someone who is neutral to you and finally, to someone you find challenging. The intention is to watch your emotions as you move through each category.

On Valentine’s Day I’ll choose someone for each category and send them loving kindness throughout the day. I’ll also send it to myself, first thing in the morning. As for the person I find challenging, I’ll be sending some loving kindness to Donald Trump.

The practice goes like this: set yourself up for meditation by settling into a comfortable position and turning your attention inward. Notice prominent body sensations, notice how your breath is moving and become aware of the state of your mind – are your thoughts very active or relatively calm? No need to change anything, just notice. You can keep watching your breath if you need a place to focus. Once you’ve come to a quiet state, turn your awareness to your emotions. Just see what is present. If the emotions are difficult, perhaps you can turn toward them and investigate. If they are too strong, you can return to the breath and try this practice another time.

When you are ready, send loving kindness to yourself by repeating these words with your inner voice.

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be free from suffering
May I live with ease

Notice your emotions as you hear these sentiments. How does it feel to receive these compassionate words? There’s no right or wrong way to feel. Just become aware of what’s happening.

The practice is then repeated with someone you love unconditionally. It could be a parent or grandparent or a teacher or mentor. Visualize them in front of you and send them kindness using these words or others that feel appropriate:

May you be well
May you be happy
May you be free from suffering
May you live with ease

Notice your emotions. Whatever arises is welcomed. Let it all be there.

You don’t have to do all the categories in one session. You can break it up into shorter sessions. The next categories are: someone for whom you have complicated feelings, someone who is neutral to you and someone you find challenging.

As afore mentioned, part of this Valentine’s Day’s practice is to send Donald Trump some loving kindness. He is someone I find challenging.

Donald Trump,
May you be well
May you be happy
May you be free from suffering
May you live with ease

On a soul level this works just fine for me. I don’t have a problem wishing him, or anybody well. I sincerely wish him peace and contentment. As someone who is changing the course of this country very rapidly, I have concern and I’m noticing that that concern is making my heart tighten in fear. So the work is in noticing that tightness and fear, letting it be there, repeating the words with sincerity and watching what happens. Maybe nothing. Maybe something.

And even as I take actions in protest to what is happening – marching, calling congressmen – how can I keep my heart open? How can I wish everyone well, even those who seem to wish me or my loved ones ill-will? How can I stay firm in my belief that everyone has a core of goodness? That is the work of cultivating loving kindness.

 

Renunciation

This week I had my first colonoscopy. Wow, what an experience! As some of you may know, the hardest part is preparing which involves some fasting and then an uncomfortable period of evacuating. The interesting piece for me is the fasting, the renunciation. No grains, no nuts, no seeds, no corn; the process starts about five days before and on the day before, no solid food, only clear liquid.

I’ve fasted before and also done month-long cleanses so this renunciation is not new to me. It is such a good lesson in seeing where I cling and watching the body and mind’s conversation. The body says “HUNGRY!” and these days I say, “Good, it’s good to feel hunger.” And then I realize how emotionally dependent I’ve become on food – that it relieves my stress, it is my comfort, it is my reward after anything challenging – such that I rarely experience hunger in a big way anymore. So I think it’s good to feel this hunger during fasting. Not only because reveals this emotional pattern, but also because the body goes through a cleansing process when it is in a fasting state. And, I should clarify, for these colonoscopy fasts, there are filling juices and drinks to be had so that hunger does get sated. It is not one long period of hunger.

Luckily, I know that the hunger will end soon. That it’s healthy for me to feel it. I’m grateful that it’s not a life situation where I have no choice. I have food if I really need it. Then I pray for those who are suffering from serious hunger and starvation, those who have no choice. They have no food. May they find relief soon.

Dream Yoga

I’ve been interested lately in Dream yoga. This was sparked by an article by Andrew Holecek and his research on the Tibetan Yogas of Sleep. The basic premise is that in sleep you are most spiritually awake – a vast array of experiences are available to you; you are not encumbered by the earth’s physical laws; the deep patterns of your subconscious will choose the direction you go (here’s where the practice of lucid dreaming comes in). And when you are awake, we are most spiritually asleep – limited by our physical experience and by the habituated patterns of our egos. If we could see our wakeful experience as dreamlike – not permanent, illusory ­– we would cultivate a different perspective on our sense of self, and the arising of various circumstances and phenomena.

Consider this as a kind of Jedi mind trick for yourself: Deep sleep is reality. Try to remember your dreams and set intentions for what you’d like to see happen. Wakefulness is not reality – it is all changeable and impermanent, for the good or the not-so-good. View it with less attachment. Set intentions for what you’d like to see happen.

 

The Importance of Retreats

 

Have you been curious about retreats – what they’re like, how you’d benefit? Why not just go on a vacation instead? While vacations can certainly be inspiring and rejuvenating, retreats can be an important time for self-care, for realigning with the vision for your life or for evaluating what is really important for you. They can be especially important if you are on a healing journey, whether that is physical or emotional/mental. It is time away to get much needed rest, regain strength, and to listen to messages your body may be sending you. A retreat can create a state of internal peace and spaciousness, which in turn can allow for insight, a perspective shift or even a significant transformation.

Yoga and meditation retreats can be especially supportive in the healing process. They offer the opportunity to experience a more sustained shift into the quiet, calm state that these two ancient practices can generate. Facilitators often go deeper into practices that you might only taste in a typical yoga or meditation class such as yoga nidra (the yoga of sleep) or extended meditations.

In retreat mode, the nervous system has the opportunity to slow down, to shift into the parasympathetic end of its pendulum, which is the part that says, “Everything is okay, we can relax, no need to stress out.” The immune system likes this and can operate more efficiently in this state. Retreat mode is also an opportunity to see how patterns of anxiety thinking may be affecting the body. And even if discomfort is present, perhaps you’ll come to a place where you simply allow it to be present and listen to what the body has to say. If that sounds impossible, you may actually be primed for a retreat.

If you are unsure if a retreat is the right thing for you, you can give yourself a taste of retreating even just for one hour. Do something to feed your soul – walk in the woods, take a hot bath, do some journaling. Doing one or all of these things could give you an idea of the potential a retreat could bring to your life. It’s best to do these alone, or at least tell those around you that you will be in silence so that you can listen deeply to your own inner drives, your inner world.

Retreats are an opportunity to see what is really going on under the surface of your busy-ness; to allow mental chatter to slow down so that you can feel what’s connected to that chatter, even if it is uncomfortable. Often, when we look at our situations straight on, they are not as scary as our minds build them up to be.

Maybe this healing journey you’re on is not so scary, but simply an opportunity to make the lifestyle changes you’ve been telling yourself you’ll make someday. So then a retreat is just a much-needed break from your routine, an opportunity to make those changes or learn some new methods for self-care.

In any case, a retreat offers many benefits, the best of which might be creating breathing space to just be. It could be the best vacation of your life!

Come to my day-long retreat, Awaken the Healer Within
Saturday, October 29th, 2016
10:00am – 3:00pm (registration at 9:30am with tea and coffee)
Houston Room in the Parish House
at The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields
8000 St. Martins Lane, Philadelphia PA 19118