THIS is the Best Part!

I just returned from a short vacation. Before going, I created a mantra – “THIS is the best part!” What’s that about? Let me explain…

A mantra can be a word or phrase used for concentration in meditation or, in my case, this mantra was a statement repeated frequently to remind me of an intention. The intention was to not cling to the vacation. “Clinging” is a term used in Buddhism to describe our tendency to want the good stuff to last, to never end. Clinging leads to anxiety about the ending of this good stuff. I was concerned that the vacation was too short, just a long weekend, and that I would feel deprived for not having a more substantial  vacation. I wanted it to be great and to fulfill all of my vacation needs – to get enough rest, to explore new territories, to laugh/eat/dance with friends, to get absorbed in a book, to get a different perspective on my life – and all the other great things that come when you get away. I wanted it to be longer and I was clinging to it before it even started (thus, I was anxious). I wanted my mantra to help me recognize each moment for the beautiful thing that it was – and there were so many!

I was aware that this “clinging” was also about the end of summer. The end of the glorious weather that takes us outdoors; the end of playtime; the end of flowering gardens (though we still have some time with that); the end of barbecues and beach days. I love summer. I get depressed when it ends. This depression is really grief – the loss of the season. Grief only happens when we are not in this moment, not present with what’s right in front of us. I’ve been aware for a while that I cling to summer. I start clinging to it in May. So this mantra was to help me with that also – this is the best part! This one right here where I appreciating the moment!IMG_0123

And really, to keep it all in perspective, my end-of-summer depression ends around September 10th, and then I fall in love with Autumn – crisp air, colorful fall leaves, soups, sweaters and boots, pumpkin pie. What’s not to love?

I used my mantra well on my vacation and explained it to my friends so that when I said it out loud – over a fabulous tapas dinner, in a treehouse with a bunch of kids, enjoying affection from a big happy dog, playing “I spy” on the long drive – they would all smile knowingly. Yes, THIS IS the best part. Somehow naming all the great times helped me to realize how many wonderful moments there were, to acknowledge and appreciate each one fully and then to let it go. There are so many great moments in any given day. We just don’t usually acknowledge them because we’re often swept up in thinking about the future or past. And truly, this moment right here – the one where you’re reading this line – is the only one we have.

IMG_0122

Practicing Gratitude

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. Melody Beattie

gratitude

I often recommend cultivating a gratitude practice to the cancer survivors I work with. Why? Because it is easy to become consumed by anxiety and fear and to get overwhelmed by everything you need to do to take care of yourself. Gratitude – thinking of something you’re grateful for and feeling that in the heart – shifts you out of negativity. That in turn has an affect on the body. It affects mood and your sense of well-being.

I use gratitude as a way to stop my chattering mind and come into the present moment. Sometimes I’m acutely aware of this chattering “monkey mind,” so instead of letting it run wild, I think of things I’m grateful for. There are usually plenty of things even when I’m not having a good day. I’m grateful that the weather is nice or if it’s not, that I have a warm car that is running well. I’m grateful that I have people around me that love me; that I have an awesome pair of cats; that I live in a country that, while it has its problems, is still pretty great; that I get to do work that is gratifying. What I notice then is a shift in the feeling tone in my body. Feeling tone is a particular quality of awareness measured in terms of pleasantness and unpleasantness. Gratitude shifts me into a pleasant feeling tone.

You can practice gratitude toward other people – your support people, caregivers; the doctors and nurses and other people who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping you heal. You can be grateful for a smile from a stranger on the street or a bubbly personality on the other end of the phone. Cultivate gratitude for the small brightenings of the day.

You can also direct gratitude toward yourself. Thank yourself for getting to yoga class, for taking care of yourself. Thank your self for being patient or for enduring discomfort, fear, and uncertainty during a difficult time. Even when things are especially hard, being grateful for what’s going right can be helpful.

I feel gratitude each day for the circumstances that have brought me to this fascinating work. I feel gratitude that my job is to work with the whole person. I’m continuously heartened that so many people share their deepest hopes, fears and loves with me. I’m grateful that this work asks me to be my best self.

Gratitude can connect you to your heart and, given that we live in a world that seems to require us to reside in our intellects, this is a gift. Gratitude connects us to ourselves and to others through the heart.

Yoga Nidra and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

I recently returned from a teacher training on yoga nidra. Yoga nidra translates as yogic sleep and it’s a practice that guides participants into that realm between wakefulness and sleep. It’s much like hypnosis however the nidra practitioner is encouraged to stay awake and alert.

What I found most phenomenal was the state of deep relaxation. Being a yoga practitioner and regular meditator, I thought I understood what relaxation felt like in my body, but yoga nidra took it to a whole new level. Incredibly relaxed yet still lucid, I was guided through different layers of my being – the body, the breath, sensory perceptions like hot and cold, and imagery – all while I felt, aware, safe and protected.

It turns out that this deeply relaxed state is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) in full force. The PNS is the relaxation response and it’s crucial for healing. The body can’t begin to repair and restore itself, to heal, until we move out of the stress response, which is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and into the parasympathetic nervous system. I’ve touched on this in two previous posts, A Relaxation Revolution and Meditation and the Relaxation Response.

The way we live today, so technically connected and with our schedules so packed, we hang out in the stress response. We’re attuned to it. It’s the norm for us to constantly be concerned with what’s next or how can I fill this moment? What else do I need to do or how can I entertain myself now? We stay ‘on guard’ and thus are chronically activating the stress response. It’s part of our goal-achieving mentality and it has served us well . . . up to a point. And that point is when we can’t turn it off.

I recommend that you know what gets you into the relaxation response (PNS) – a hot bath, a walk in the woods, a massage, a love-fest with your pet – and use these often. It’s for your health! If you’d like to try yoga nidra, here’s a sample from my teacher, Jennifer Reis.

I’ll be offering a yoga nidra session in Mt. Airy on Sunday, May 15th at Springboard Studio. Details are here. Let me know if you’d like to join!

How Yoga Heals

This article was written for the Shuttle, a local newspaper in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy Neighborhood.

“Inhale, raise the arms. Exhale, lower them.” Perhaps you’ve experienced these yoga moves. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed moving and stretching in yoga class, feeling the heart rate gently increase as the body becomes warm and supple; feeling the body’s strength and power and how easily the breath flows. Then there’s that quiet, blissful state at the end of class – everything slows down, way down. You become deeply still inside.

While you may know how great yoga feels, you may not know how yoga is working on the inside to heal the body.

Yoga facilitates healing on multiple levels: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The word yoga means “union” or “to yoke.” It yokes the power of the mind to the body; it brings into union both breath and movement; it yokes our deeper sense of spirit to our mundane actions. Yoga is an ancient body/mind practice, but when it moved to the West, the physical practices came to the forefront. Traditionally, yoga was concerned with the mind and higher states of consciousness. Yogis sought to achieve and sustain the calm that we now associate with meditation. Now through contemporary neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we see how deeply entwined mind and body are.

Yoga works through four main activities: breathing techniques, movement and poses, meditation, and deep relaxation (savasana).

One of yoga’s many breathing techniques is especially effective in reducing anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the calming part of the autonomic nervous system. The belly expands on the inhalation. On the exhalation it either softens or pulls in toward the spine. In yoga, we use the breath to either calm or stimulate the nervous system. The breath is the connector, yoking our awareness to the body.

For many, yoga is just about movement – stretching, strengthening, finding balance and increasing circulation. Healing occurs through this increased circulation, which feeds cells and tissue with fresh nutrients and oxygen. Yoga’s physical practice keeps the heart and lungs healthy, and its inversion poses help the lymph system clean up debris and pathogens. Certain poses help the digestive system to stay regular, and circulation reduces inflammation, as in arthritis. Even gentle, easy movement accomplishes this, which is one reason why yoga is making its way into medical settings.

Meditation is the oldest aspect of yoga. Meditation is an exercise in reducing external stimulation and watching what’s happening internally. It strengthens concentration and cultivates a compassionate witness to all we experience. Beginning meditators find this very difficult because the mind seems like a wild beast, going off wherever it wants. But using concentration practices begins to tame the beast and direct the mind toward calm awareness. Once achieved, that meditative state slows the heart rate, slows brain waves, reduces muscle tension, lowers stress hormones, and, for some, decreases blood pressure.

All yoga sessions end with a few moments in savasana. Here the student rests in a profound state of quiet, calm awareness as the teacher directs the relaxation of different body parts. It is typically a deeply restful experience, not intended for sleep, though many do fall asleep. Physiologically speaking, the body enters a hypometabolic state in which its energy goes into repairing and restoring tissue.

If you are interested in beginning yoga, look for “gentle” or “beginners” or even “chair” yoga. Be sure to tell the teacher that you are new to yoga. Or you can try a yoga app at home. Here are a few: Yoga Studio, Fit Star Yoga, and 5 Minute Yoga. Make sure you listen to your body and honor your limitations. And keep breathing!

Developing Internal Awareness

My job in teaching yoga to cancer patients is to facilitate a healing process. One of the first things we look at in this process is internal awareness. In turning inward, participants begin to tease apart the different internal phenomenon, all of which will, in general, fall into one of three categories: physical sensations, emotions or thoughts. Why is this important? In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, we’ve become so externally focused that we’ve lost our ability to feel and to understand what we’re feeling. We intentionally ignore internal sensations in order to accomplish tasks. Over time, with enough ignoring, we lose that ability to feel. We lose internal awareness and with that we miss messages that the body is trying to send us.

When you close your eyes and turn your attention inward, notice the transition from external to internal awareness. Notice what is prominent. Is it a sensation, an emotional state or mental activity? Scan the body and notice what sensations are prominent. Cold toes? An ache or pain? Tension in the shoulders? See if you can begin to notice the difference between the actual sensations in your body and the thoughts you have about those sensations – the comments, stories or judgments – in your head. Separate those two actions – sensing and thinking. Just focus on sensations. Imagine you are a scientist collecting data – what are the prominent sensations on the body?

Now shift your awareness to the emotions. Label what you notice even if it is uncomfortable. This is not about changing the emotion or pushing it away, but acknowledging that it is there. Try not to get pulled into the emotion and it’s story. Stay removed and cultivate a witness-like quality of attention. If it is not clear what is present, tune into the feeling tone in the body. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? This is how we sense emotions. They create feeling tones in the body. You can always use, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral to understand the nature of your current emotion.

The third realm of internal phenomenon is mental activity or your thoughts. Notice the general state of the mind. Is it very active or agitated? Or is it sluggish, sleepy, and heavy? It may feel awkward to try to notice the mind without actually “thinking” but just imagine that you could stand outside of yourself and see the activity of the mind. How would you describe it? Try not to judge what you find, just notice, and avoid getting pulled into the mind’s activity. Just label what you notice. Keep in mind that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go like the weather. You do not have to believe your thoughts!

Our culture values fast-paced, multi-tasking, high-achieving behavior. We’ve come to think it is a necessity for survival. Perhaps for some this busy-ness has become an obsession and for others it’s a distraction from what’s really happening inside. Of lesser value, culturally speaking, is internal steadiness and peace. How do we maintain a sense of calm awareness regardless of what’s happening around us? To observe and detach from the chain reaction of thoughts-triggering emotions-triggering-physical-sensations is a huge accomplishment. Whether on a healing journey or simply wanting more of this steadiness, it is worth spending time developing your internal awareness.

The Untethered Soul

I can’t recommend this book enough, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Singer describes the process of moving into calm awareness and quieting the mind as if it were a ‘how to’ on washing dishes. His language is simple, direct and accessible. What I especially liked is that he barely used citations and references from religious and spiritual practices. It really is his own words from his own experience. Seriously, wash the dishes, watch the mind. He makes enlightenment seem so doable! Okay, maybe a little effort.

Even if you only read the first two chapters – which are on the self-talk we do in our minds, that chattering – it is well worth it.

Here’s his interview with Oprah
Here’s the link to Amazon

Enjoy.

A Relaxation Revolution

I just started reading Dr. Herbert Benson’s book, Relaxation Revolution. I’ve been excited about Benson’s work for a while now and first wrote about him in an earlier post, Meditation and the Relaxation Response. In the 1970s, Benson started researching the physiological changes that happen during meditation and these changes are collectively known as the relaxation response.

The relaxation response is the opposite phenomenon to the stress response, more commonly known as fight or flight. Research has shown a multitude of benefits that arise from the relaxation response including reduced pain, reduced hypertension (high blood pressure), improved sleep and reduced anxiety.

What I was most surprised to learn in reading Relaxation Revolution is that the relaxation response can change gene expression. If you have a gene that would predispose you to a certain condition, such as cancer, you can affect your internal environment through consistent practice of the relaxation response to reduce the chances of that gene expressing its particular behavior. If research continues to show this, it could mean a radical shift in health care and how we approach healing.

Here is a link to Dr. Benson’s instructions on how to elicit the relaxation response. Basically you are practicing concentration – giving the mind a simple task like repeating one or two words over and over – and letting all other thoughts dissipate. In a state of quiet concentration, the brain sends signals to the body that say, “everything is okay; we can relax; all is well.” The body then lowers its heart rate, relaxes muscle tension, and reduces production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

This is significant in regards to any need for healing. The relaxation response can support the immune system simply by turning off the stress response. Consistent practice will program a new message to the body, all is well. Medical researchers continue to investigate this profound shift in mind-body medicine in order deepen our understanding of its healing potential.

Earthing

Just as I was considering taking some of my yoga students outside to do standing poses barefoot in the grass, my friend Kevin Starbard, a Qigong teacher, sent out a blast about “Earthing.” Earthing is the practice of grounding yourself by walking or standing barefoot on the earth and Earthing enthusiasts purport that it has numerous health benefits. From the Chinese perspective, it is absorbing the earth Qi through the Bubbling Springs point (Kidney point #1) located on the sole of the foot. From the modern Earthing view, it is filling the body with electrons to neutralize free radicals in the body, and most importantly eliminate or reduce chronic inflammation.

For more information on Earthing read this article by Dr. Andrew Weil.

Kevin will be teaching outdoors in Fairmount Park on Sundays 10am to 11:30am. To study with Kevin and learn more about Earthing or Qigong, contact me and I will connect you to him.

Meanwhile, kick your shoes off and wiggle your toes in the fresh spring grass!

Setting Intentions

This is the time of year when we consider resolutions, which are just a form of setting clear and conscious intentions. Setting intentions are a common aspect of the yoga tradition. A teacher will often open or close a class by asking you to set an intention for your practice. In essence, they’re asking you to consciously decide how or where you would like to direct the good energy that you generate during your practice. Do you want to direct it to your health? Good relations? Your work? In the Buddhist practice I follow, we often end a meditation session with the phrase, “may the merits of this practice be dedicated to the end of suffering.” This is a form of setting an intention – dedicating whatever “goodness” flows from the meditation to the end of suffering for all beings.

While it hasn’t typically been my practice to offer a moment for intention-setting in my classes, I’m setting an intention to start setting intentions! At least for the month of January, we will take a moment in class to set an intention.

Consider that whatever positive benefits you experience in yoga have a ripple effect into the world. When you feel more pleasant, you are more pleasant to be around. When your mental state is full of joy or is simply content, it is contagious. So setting an intention to improve  your health and happiness is not only a service to you during your yoga practice, but to all those around you once you leave class. As you make resolutions think about what will bring you into a state of peace, health and happiness – not only for yourself, but for the world. Yes, I know, that sounds really big. Don’t worry about it, just set an intention.

Here are two great articles on this subject:
5 Steps to Setting Powerful Intentions by Deepak Chopra
3 Ways to Set an Intention in Your Yoga Practice by Kimberley Stokes