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

Lift Up!

If you’ve been taking my class for a while, you’ve heard me say numerous times, “keep the shoulders down, lift the upper chest, find that regal posture!” Here’s more as to why we should “lift up” and out of a rounded upper torso.

Often we hunch forward when working at the computer, washing dishes or driving our cars. We don’t really think about it. The task just seems to lend itself to sinking in the spine. Or perhaps we established a postural habit in our youth which was related to emotional issues such as shame, fear, embarrassment, worthlessness, or guilt. While those feelings may have passed, it’s possible they actually took-up permanent residence deep in our muscle tissue. Unlearning these habits may call for more that just muscle repatterning.

We rarely get the opportunity to learn good posture unless we joined the military, graduated from ‘finishing school’ or took up a physical activity such as dance or sports.

A lifetime of a hunched posture can affect the body in several ways. The most common complaint with this rounded posture is the pain in the neck! Upper back and neck tension can lead to pinched nerves or nerve damage which may cause neck pain and/or migraines.

In addition, the upper torso is home to two very important organs, the lungs and heart. With the heart, a rounded upper back may be putting pressure on the heart. It might cut off circulation to and from the heart or possibly cause nerve irritation in that area. As for the lungs, full lung capacity means being able to breathe into all areas of the lungs: upper, middle, lower and the back aspect. A rounded posture is usually caused by a muscular imbalance, which makes it difficult to move the rib cage into its neutral position. Without this ability to mobilize all the ribs, a big full breath is impossible. We want fuller breaths in order to get more oxygen into the blood stream. This makes all tissues and organs happy, most especially the brain!

There are two glands in this area of the upper chest, the thyroid and thymus. The thyroid regulates metabolism and hormone function. The thymus develops T-cells which are part of the immune system. If the nerves are restricted in the upper chest/neck area, this stress impinges nerve communications from brain to glands (thyroid, thymus and others) and organs and vice versa. The signals can’t get through. The same goes for blood circulation. And that’s not good!

So grab a book, balance it on your head and walk through your house. For fun, chant “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” Enjoy.

What to do with this Anxiety – Part III

In Part I of the Anxiety writings, I talked about the kind of anxiety that won’t go away. You’re in the middle of something intense, a crisis, and anxiety is omnipresent. In Part II, I talked about mundane anxiety, the kind that visits us regularly due to mental habits.

In Part III, I want to discuss the more subtle aspects of this mundane anxiety and another strategy for dealing with it.

So much of our worrying, and mental chatter, is about the future or the past. We’re hoping something will go well for us in the future or we’re gnawing on something about the past.  This mental state is a kind of default mode for the brain, according to Health Psychology researcher, Kelly McGonigal. The mental chatter that is always commenting on what’s happening or has happened or might happen is the activity of the evaluative part of the brain.  The way to quiet this activity is to move into the experiential part of the brain. This is mindfulness practice or present moment awareness. We have to train our minds to observe what’s happening in THIS moment and to cease wasting mental energy on that which is not about the present. It doesn’t mean we don’t plan for the future – planning is a present-moment activity, just as learning from the past can be a conscious, present-moment process.

You might find this helpful: use the five senses to help get grounded in the present. What do you see? Really see it. What do you hear? Really hear it. What do you smell, taste and feel on your skin? Tune into your senses to bring yourself into your body, to experience what’s happening in this moment. Notice what you notice.

For more on living in the present moment, read this great article by David Cain from his blog, Raptitude.

What to do with this Anxiety – Part II

In Part I, I talked about anxiety being a big hairy beast that sits on your chest. Here in Part II, I want to talk about all those other times when the beast is not quite so big. It is more like a nagging pest. So here you have more room to work with it. First just notice how anxiety feels in your body. Probably not good, but notice the details. Does it upset your stomach? Is your blood pressure up? What else do you feel? At this point it’s helpful to acknowledge that thoughts affect the body. Taking a moment to acknowledge this interconnection is a big step in taking control of your thought habits.

The next step is to employ pratipaksha bhavana – replacing a negative thought with it’s opposite. Find a positive thought in relation to the situation. Perhaps it’s acknowledging that you are actually okay in this moment Are you safe in your home or wherever you are? Are you with family or friends that love you? Are you taking steps to care of yourself? Get this positive thought into a short phrase so that it’s easy to retrieve when the negative thoughts arise. Right now I’m doing just fine. And make sure it is a thought you really believe; one that brings a positive feeling tone to the body. It doesn’t mean the negative situation goes away, but you now have a choice as to what thoughts you will entertain. 

Then the task is to keep bringing this positive thought in every time the anxiety arises. Remember that anxiety will produce stress hormones (see the Stress Response) and those, over time, will tax the immune system – exactly what we don’t want!

What to do with this Anxiety – Part I

I’ve been thinking about anxiety a lot lately and about how to deal with it – it can be so overpowering at times! The following are my thoughts and suggestions on how to get control of this troubling mental state.

Sometimes anxiety is just a big hairy beast that sits on your chest. Nothing will make it go away – it is too big and ominous. What to do? In this situation, the best you can do is to just accept it. It just is what it is. Get present in THIS moment and just acknowledge it. Okay, I’m anxious. This is anxiety. Fine, I’m anxious. Then breathe. Notice exactly what anxiety feels like in the body. Observe it like a scientist, without judgment. From there continue to investigate the present moment. Tune into your senses: look at your environment, notice the sounds, smell the smells, notices textures and temperatures. This is the present moment. Does your anxiety have to do with this exact moment? Acknowledge that you are doing the best you can. Try some diaphragmatic breathing which is good for these anxiety beasts. Know that before long, the situation will change. Everything changes.

The Diaphragmatic Breath

Of all the breathing techniques I teach the diaphragmatic breath is the most foundational and useful. I especially recommend it in times of anxiety or crisis since it slows down your breath and helps to relieve tension.

Here’s how it goes: place a hand on your belly. As you inhale, gently expand your belly outward and downward. Your hand will feel the belly expand. As you exhale you can either just soften the belly or, more actively, pull the belly in towards your spine. Minimize the movement of the rib cage with the breath and maximize the movement of the belly. Do this for about a minute then breathe normally.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle that lives just behind the low ribs. When you breathe in, the diaphragm moves downward and outward, pushing the abdominal organs out. This action is actually what causes the inhalation – the downward action creates a vacuum, causing air to rush into the lungs. As you exhale the diaphragm softens upward, back to its resting state.

For some people the diaphragm holds tension and they find it difficult to expand the belly on the inhalation. Their rib cage wants to expand on the inhalation and the belly pulls in. Know that this is okay; that you’ve gotten along just fine all these years breathing like this and you’ll probably make it a good deal longer. But it’s that tension in the diaphragm that we’d like to address. Releasing that tension has a domino effect on tension in the rest of the body. This deep, relaxing breath will encourage any unnecessary tension to release and dissipate.