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!).
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.
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-break–a 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.
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
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
One of my yoga class participants recently said that she’s never still – she’s always busy doing something, gardening, cleaning, community projects, etc.. This is all great, but it left me thinking about our cultural programming around stillness and busyness. We’re taught to value constant productivity. It’s not okay to just be still.
What I mean by stillness is really mindful being or meditation/contemplation/prayer or even just reading a book. Remember books? I suspect what she meant by stillness was the dangerous state of being a couch potato. These are two different things.
Our country thrives on do more and do it faster! And that mentality has given us some amazing gifts like outta-sight technology, for which I’m very grateful. But that mentality has also seeped into our nervous systems, and done so to such an extent that anxiety and sleep disorders are a national epidemic. We no longer know how to slow down, to be still, to connect to ourselves.
And yes, it’s in our nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system settles into patterns at an early age. When we’re constantly looking for the next thing to do, we’re in an exteroceptive state (constant external stimulation) that’s fueling the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system). When we slow down and relax, especially when we let our selves feel that state of relaxation (interoception – internal awareness), we move into the rest and digest part of the nervous system (parasympathetic nervous system) where the body restores and heals itself.
So what’s a person to do? Take a mindful moment. Notice what your senses are offering you: what do you see around you – even if it’s mundane, really notice the colors, shapes and textures. Then notice what you’re hearing and smelling. Notice the textures on your skin or temperature of the air. Notice what your breath rhythm is feeling like right now. Take a moment to think about what you’re grateful for today. Notice what if feels like to just be still for one minute. Then go for broke and try 10 minutes.
What does it feel like to do nothing, to just be? Did thoughts come up like, I don’t have time for this or is this really doing anything? What you’re practicing is mindfulness – noticing what’s really happening in this moment. And when you do it regularly you’re rewiring your brain (that’s cool). You’re teaching it to slow down, pay attention and maybe even relax.
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.
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
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).
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 thefeel-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.
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!