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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!

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!

greg-rakozy-oMpAz-DN-9I-unsplash

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

Slow down, you move too fast.

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.

If you’d like to get better at this come to my meditation class this fall or to any upcoming Yoga Nidra and Meditation events.

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

 

 

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

5BestThings (1)

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.