Have you heard?

Have you heard the birds?

It’s spring migration time for most birds and also mating time (hey baby!).

Listen to them! Science tells us that birdsong can reduces stress, promote positivity, and improve our observational skills. It can also be good for our productivity. Who knew?

My sound therapist friend, Michael Reiley, shared this excerpt with me:

“Human ears are built to hear birdsong . . . our bodies evolved not for party conversation but rather to harvest sounds from wild creatures . . . the aural signals on which our species’ success depended.

Kathleen Dean MooreEarth’s Wild Music: Celebrating and Defending the Songs of the Natural World

Birds sing when they feel safe. In turn, birdsong sends a primal message to our nervous systems that we are safe. 

So open those windows! Or go on a nature walk. Listen to the birds and tune into the nature frequency. See if you sense a settling, a relaxing, a softening. This is your nervous system in action, downshifting to the parasympathetic zone (the calm part of your autonomic nervous system). This downshifting is a dialogue between your mind and body, essentially saying, all is well, I’m safe, I can chill out.

So chill out with the birds!

Happy Spring,
Michelle

It’s Mindful March!


What would a mindful month look like for you?
 
Maybe you practice washing dishes without thinking about anything, just feeling warm soapy water and the shape of the bowl.
 
Maybe you listen to your partner with your whole body, not thinking a bunch of thoughts about what they’re saying. Just listening completely, being fully present.

Photo by Jessica Johnston on Unsplash

Maybe it’s pausing to look at the crocus that’s coming up, noticing the purple color and the bees buzzing around them. Or maybe just feeling the warm spring sun on your face and body.
 
Maybe it’s intentionally stopping at some point in each day, perhaps sitting with a cup of tea, without any agenda – no thinking, no planning, no doing (radical, right?). Just noticing what you’re seeing and hearing and tasting – feeling the shape of the couch or chair. Noticing the textures on your skin and feet. Just mindful of the exact nature of this moment. There will never be another one exactly like this one – EVER.
 
What would it be like to practice not-thinking? Are you wondering what that even is?
 
Think of a thought as an event. It has a beginning, middle and end, unless it generates another thought and you’re swept up into that. When the thought is over, you’re in awareness. In awareness, you have sensory information: what you’re seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling on your skin, and sensing internally, like your breath.
 
What would it be like to spend a little more time in awareness and a little less time thinking?

This, in essence, is mindfulness. I hope you’ll try it.

How NOT to give the Stink Eye

Here’s a story for ya . . .
 
I was starting to write a little something for my newsletter – a piece about heart practices for Heart Month. It was about how practicing attitudes like kindness, gratitude, joy, compassion, etc., is good for your overall health and especially your heart health.
 
I put the writing on the back burner to take a weekend trip to Florida for a family visit. It was a lovely visit, but on the day I was supposed to return, Sunday, my flight was cancelled. Hmpfh.
 
Okay, so I booked the next best flight home which was Monday. Unfortunately, it meant cancelling all of my Monday classes. ‘Not happy about that.
 
Monday comes. Flight is significantly delayed. Wow, this is a fun game (not). I get to the airport at the appointed time. The board says, Flight Cancelled.
 
I’m hot under the collar now (that’s putting it politely). So, I go stand in line at the airline’s ticketing counter. It’s a long line – at least 20 parties in front of me. The wait is about 40 minutes long. Grrr.
 
Here’s where the point of the story comes in – what to do I do with this anger and frustration?
 
One of the heart practices is equanimity. Now, equanimity does not mean passivity. Quite the contrary. I’m very actively breathing and managing the story-making in my mind. I’m actively working on staying calm and not blaming. I’m breathing.
 
Think of equanimity as a kind of active boundary holding. If you work at cultivating peace and kindness in your internal world, how do you hold onto it in challenging circumstances? How do you not react with word-daggers or stink eye?
 
Breathe intentionally.
Be mindful of the mind’s story-making tendency.
Stay away from the blame game (not helpful).
Assume that each person you’re engaging with is doing their best (and perhaps even send them some kindness).
 
Finally, it’s my turn to talk to an agent. She looks very, very tired as she recites the same story she’s been telling everyone: all flights with this airline are cancelled. Nationwide their computer system is down, she says. Next shot at a flight is Wednesday. DOUBLE HMPFH!
 
Well that’s not happening.
 
I got a refund, jumped on another airline, got home very late that night. End of story.
 
The point is that heart practices are about how you relate to yourself and others. For any given situation there is a heart practice: kindness, compassion, joy, equanimity.
 
And bonus – they all have positive physiological effects on the body like lowering blood pressure (very helpful in this story), improving heart rate variability and reducing stress hormones.

Practicing on regular basis helps you use these tools in a crisis. It may still be challenging to be mindful and kind in a tough situation, but it gets easier with practice.
 
Try out these heart practices this month – just see what dropping a little kindness into any given moment does for you.

Your Cousins

Every breath you take comes from a tree (sorry if I just planted an earworm in your head).

Think about that.
It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? 

Every breath you take is oxygen that was released from a tree.

We have a symbiotic relationship with trees. Our every exhale is an offering to them. It’s like a constant gift exchange! 

It’s easy to forget that our bodies are of the earth!

It’s easy to forget that the calcium in our bones is the same calcium that’s found in rocks, shells and minerals. That the water in our blood, lymph, tears, and saliva is a cousin to the water in the ocean, rivers and rain. The electricity that runs through your nerves to tell your muscles to move is related to the lighting you saw in last week’s thunderstorm. The air that turned into a mighty wind in that storm–that air that’s all around you right now–is the stuff that trees are giving out all the time . . . and that you are taking into your lungs in this breath right here.
 
And this one.
And this one.
 
When I pause to remember how interdependent I am with all the elements of this planet, I quickly fall into awe and gratitude. What a complex system! And we’re just a little piece of it.
 
Since this is the month of gratitude, Thanksgiving, I’ll intentionally pause a little more often just to tune into this interconnectivity. Will you join me? I’d love to hear your thoughts (shoot me an email!).
 
In gratitude,
Michelle

Photo Credit: Victoria Palacios on Unsplash

This won’t happen quite like this ever again.

Noticing.
Paying attention.

Are you noticing . . . the trees changing, their color show just beginning. The birds are migrating and doing funny bird things. I’ve seen squirrels outside my window performing crazy acrobatics to get the farthest berry on the limb. The light’s becoming more golden, the sun lower in the sky, blinding me now as I drive around that certain curve at 5:00. Days are shorter and will get shorter still. The air cooler, crisper.
 
When you notice this earth-dance into autumn, do you pause and take it in? This moment in the change of seasons, and in your personal change of seasons, won’t ever happen quite like this again. This moment is unique. Even a brief pause to take it in, to tune into your senses, can help your body and nervous system relax. It doesn’t have to take a long time, maybe the duration of one full breath. Just drop your thoughts for a moment . . . and notice.
 
Enjoy the season,
Michelle

Rapid Restoration – Napping 101

You may think napping is just sleeping. But there’s so much more to this afternoon rest!

According to Arianna Huffington, in her book, The Sleep Revolution, research shows that napping boosts your learning power and lowers your blood pressure.

Huffington also reports that older adults who take a thirty-minute nap and engage in moderate exercise can improve the quality of their nighttime sleep.

If you’re not sold on the beauty of napping, consider it a brain-breaka time to mentally reset and prepare for your afternoon work.

Or consider it a time for creative problem solving.

Try taking a current problem to your nap spot. Settle in and let your mind relax (focus on your body and breath).  Then drop-in the issue. Like dropping a pebble into a pond, pose the problem to your relaxed mind. Let your mind free-associate and notice what it’s like to swim in the world of the issue without grasping for answers. Let go of any expectations for a solution. Let your relaxed, creative, right-brain play around with the issue. At a certain point, you’ll either find an interesting clue or drift off to sleep or both. 

Napping helps you shift into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). That’s the calm, relaxed zone. If you can spend more time in PNS (i.e. stay calm and relaxed), you’ll have an easier time with your evening sleep.

What we’re talking about is retraining your nervous system.

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 chronic, low-grade activation of the stress response (fight or flight) which is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). It’s hard to downshift from SNS when it’s a habitual way of being. Taking time to focus on your body, breath and quieting your mind, as one does in napping, is a great start in this retraining.

And 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. 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.

For many people, it’s the cultural stigma around napping that keeps them from doing it–you’re lazy and weak if you nap. But if you’re more interested in your health than what people think of you, take the nap!

Right now is peak napping season–summertime! So this afternoon, find a comfortable spot, settle in and tune into the sensations in your body and the movement of your breath. Thoughts will come and go, like clouds in the sky. Let your mind be the sky . . .  watching everything arise and pass away.

Sweet dreams.

Michelle Stortz, C-IAYT, ERYT500, MFA, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in cancer and chronic illness. She works in numerous medical settings in the Philadelphia area and enjoys designing custom yoga programs that anyone can do regardless of ability. Michelle also teaches meditation, drawing on both the Buddhist tradition and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum. She conducts classes, retreats, and private sessions. http://www.MichelleStortz.com

Photo by Sarah Ball on Unsplash

Your Home Yoga Practice

Think of your home yoga practice as basic self-care.

Self-care is taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally.

As well as attending to the body, mind, and emotions, regular yoga practice creates a container for developing interoception – your ability to hear your body’s signals, messages and intuitions.

Remember that yoga means the union of the body, mind and spirt.

A daily practice can take as little as 10 minutes!

In general, a daily yoga practice can consist of three elements:

  1. Physical movement – it can be a simple as decompressing the spine and moving the major joints through their range of motion
  2. A breathing practice – think of the breath as the link between body and mind
  3. Meditation – this helps cultivate healthy mind states and minimizes negative thought habits

Below are a few suggestions for each category.

Physical Movement

Decompress your Spine:

Add range-of-motion movement to the major joints:

  • Shoulder rolls, elbow circles and rolling wrists
  • Standing hip circles and ankle circles
  • Side bending (either sitting or standing)

From here, you can add any favorite poses you feel comfortable with.

Breathing Practices

Below are two relatively simple yogic breathing techniques. Choose one and do it for 1-2 minutes. Never strain when working with your breath. Always keep it easy and comfortable.

Meditation

Developing awareness is key to cultivating a steady mind and overriding the stress response. Meditation is the main tool for developing that awareness. Below are 3 simple meditation techniques.

  • Breath counting
  • Mantra: use any two words, like Peace and Joy. Silently say one word on the inhalation and the other on the exhalation. Don’t change the rhythm of your breath.
  • Breath-centered meditation (focus on the sensations of breathing)

Let me know how it goes! Ask me questions. Share your wins!

Photo by Scott Broome on Unsplash

Breath-Centered Meditation

Using Your Breath as the Focus of Your Meditation

Breath-centered meditation is one of the most common forms of meditation. In this sequence below, I point out aspects of the breath to pay attention to. Focusing on these subtle sensations will pull your attention inward and help to keep you from wandering off.

Notice the sensations of breathing.

  • Notice all the places where you feel the breath moving in your body (belly, chest, throat, nose). Try not to change the natural rhythm of your breath.
  • Choose one of those places and hold your awareness there.

Pay attention to duration.

  • Pay attention to the duration of just the exhalations. Without changing the rhythm of your breath, notice how long your exhalations are.
  • Then notice the duration of your inhalations (without changing anything).

Notice the turn-around points.

  • Now focus on the turnaround point between the exhalations and inhalations. Perhaps there’s a pause here. Perhaps not. Just notice when the exhalation turns into the inhalation.
  • Then notice the turnaround point between the inhalations and exhalations. Again, maybe there’s a pause, maybe there’s not.

Focus on the entire breath cycle.

  • Then pay attention to the full breath cycle and stay with that for as long as you like.
  • When the mind wanders into thinking, just label it “thinking” and come back to the breath (no judgement, it’s normal).

Meditation is the most tried and true tool for steadying your mind, developing awareness, and cultivating equanimity.

Deep peace is waiting for you.

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Post Traumatic Growth

A cancer diagnosis can be traumatic and scary! It can make you want to run and hide under the covers or put your boxing gloves on. Or both.

Yoga can help.

The word Yoga means union. It means to bring all parts of yourself – your body, mind, emotions, and spirit – into union, into this present moment.

And Yoga is all about self-care –
It’s about tending to the body and helping it move and breathe.
It’s about soothing the anxieties of the mind and finding peace.
It’s about listening to the heart and making space for its wounds and joys.

Some people actually emerge from their cancer experience with positive growth and some actual benefits (gasp!). There’s a term for that  . . .

Post-traumatic Growth.

Yes, it’s a real thing. It means that trauma can actually initiate a positive transformation.

You might emerge with a greater appreciation for life, positive growth in your relationships, a new sense of possibilities, greater personal strength or a sense of spiritual change.

Yoga can help you through your cancer journey – dealing with treatments and side effects, managing the anxiety around doctor appointments and scans, maintaining or regaining strength, improving lung capacity, or learning to move again after surgery.

Few people know that yoga offers some of the best tools for physical, mental, and emotional self-care.

The first thing to do is take a breath.

Then let’s begin. Let’s do some yoga together or find a yoga therapist trained in cancer care near you.

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