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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!

A Happy Body

I’ve been writing about gifts to give yourself and this month I’m writing about the gift of a happy body.

What’s a happy body? I think of it as a body that can move with ease and has no, or only small, discomforts (those are normal).

Happy Body image.2

I also think that a happy body means you have a relationship with your body. In that relationship, you actively care for yourself. You offer your body what it always needs – movement, healthy food and rest. And you listen to its signals like, I need more water! Then you respond to those cries for help like giving it more water or getting a massage or going to the doctor.

Many of us don’t have this kind of relationship with our bodies.

Much like a long marriage, we settle into habits with our bodies. Maybe you’ve been sweeping things under the rug for a long time. Maybe you’ve given up on exercise. Maybe you don’t take care of yourself because everyone else needs your attention and you tell yourself that you just don’t have the time.

Or maybe you ignore sensations until they turn into real pain. One thing I’ve noticed in my work is that many people only pay attention when pain is screaming so loudly they can’t ignore it, even though they’ve been getting signals for weeks.

All these ways of avoiding a relationship with your body are simply habits.

So let’s build some new habits. How? Here’s a simple 3-step process to building a new relationship with your body: Offer, listen, and respond.

  1. Offer your body what you know it needs:
  2. Listen to messages from your body. We can be so externally focused sometimes it’s easy to miss signals from the body. Take a moment each day to quiet your mind for a moment and check in with your body. What’s it telling you? Maybe try learning how to body scan.
  3. Respond to your body’s needs. When you don’t know how to respond to a body issue, try taking a baby step in one direction (like trying a new lotion for a skin condition) or find someone to help you.

Your relationship to your body is precious. Give it quality attention by offering, listening and responding.

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!

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!