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.

The Benefits of a Regular Practice

So it’s great that you’ve been going to class once or twice a week and you love how you feel afterward. You like the changes that have been happening, but now you’d like to have that after-yoga feeling more often. So how do you establish a regular home practice? Here are some tips:

Decide how much time you can allot and how many times a week to practice. Keep it short and achievable!

Decide on your content. Again, keep it achievable. Many times in class I’ve suggested that you find your “gateway pose.” This is a pose or movement that you love to do – it feels really good and you want to do it. So start with that (unless a warm up is needed to get to that!). Many people like cat/cow.

That’s it – give it a try! Even a short home practice can set you up for the day, establishing a pleasant mood and creating a small buffer between you and the chaos of the world.

Here are a few of the benefits of a home practice:

  • increased flexibility
  • improved posture
  • fuller, deeper breath
  • improved sleep patterns
  • relief from anxiety
  • ability to see change/growth

What is exciting is that with this steady practice you will be able to notice changes. My students have come to class saying things like, “my feet are more flexible,” “I’m having fewer migraines,” “my back pain is gone,” “I’m standing up straighter without effort,” “that breathing technique is helping me fall asleep!”

As for me, my morning practice has developed over the course of about ten years and it definitely has waxed and waned. I’ve come now to see this waxing and waning as natural and organic so I don’t get discouraged when it seems to drop off. I do my best to keep something of the practice going – a few hip stretches or a couple of my favorite standing poses, maybe a few minutes of meditation and breathing  – and know that I will move back into my full practice as soon as I am able.

Pratipaksha Bhavana

This week we’ve been talking about Pratipaksha Bhavana. It is the practice of replacing a negative thought with a positive one – and you don’t have to be able to pronounce it to do it! As I’ve mentioned often in class, your thoughts affect your body. Negative thoughts trigger stress hormones, which then take energy away from the optimal functioning of systems such as digestion, reproduction, and your immune system.

When you find yourself caught in a negative thought pattern – perhaps it’s a repeating loop that gets you wound up – look for an opposite phrase that resonates positively in your body. Stay tuned in to this feeling-tone. Repeat this phrase as often as you can.

In the article Training Your Mind to Reduce Stress by Alice Park, published in Time magazine’s issue on Alternative Medicine, Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic’s Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART) informs us that thoughts are neural pathways or grooves in the brain. Thought habits are deeply worn grooves! New neural pathways can be created when you redirect your thoughts toward a desired intent. So get groovy and think positive!

 
 

Apps to support your practice

Here are some apps to to support your home practice.

This list of meditation apps is from an article by Courtney Boyd Myers published in the Daily Beast (thanks JS, for sending it along!)

1) Calm.com
The cleverly named Calm.com, a startup out of San Francisco and London, is one of the top meditation apps to launch in the last year. The app lets you begin immediately with its free “7 steps of Calm”. Each step focuses on a different part of the guided meditation practice such as “breath”, “posture” and “mindset”. After you’ve completed the beginner’s program, you can unlock yearly pro-access for $9.99 which includes dozens of guided meditations ranging from 2-20 mins with relaxing nature scenes like forest rain and an ocean beach. (Free iOS)

2) Buddhify 2
Can’t sleep? Just waking up? Taking a break from work? The UK-based Buddhify has dozens of options for nearly every life scenario. Built for busy city-dwellers with less than 10 minutes to spare at a time, Buddhify is a carefully-designed app that offers both guided meditations and solo practice. While terrific for beginners, more serious meditators might find the 10-minute meditation maximum limiting. To track your progress, the app neatly saves your weekly stats, record streaks and percentage of app content consumed. ($1.99 iOS)

3) Headspace
Once you get past the introductory animations, the popular Headspace app’s free “Take 10” offering includes a new guided meditation each day for 10 days. Once you’ve finished the intro offer, Headspace’s most popular package costs $7.99 per month for a year. While more expensive than other apps, Headspace’s co-founder Andy Puddicombe is a former Buddhist monk and claims to have one of the most comprehensive packages on the market. Hot tip: You can also catch Puddicombe’s lessons for free on any Virgin Atlantic flight! (Free iOS)

4) Omvana
Founded by global wellness company MindValley, Omvana is oft-referred to as the “Spotify of meditation apps.” To get started, simply login with Facebook and browse through the eight available free tracks—some “new” and some “hot”—or check out the Omvana store and choose from thousands of tracks to add to your meditation mix. Tracks cost $1.99 and up. While this is a great app to see what’s out there in the world of meditation, the app lacks focus (pun intended) and any sort of measurement of personal progress. And with such a large library of offerings, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. (Free iOS)

5) Simply Being
A woman’s slow, calming voice eases you into relaxation with 5, 10 or 15 minute guided meditations. You can choose from voice-only or add music and nature sounds like ocean, rain and stream. Simply Being is as simple as it gets and a great free app to download if you’re just wanting to test the water. ($.99 iOS)

This one below is for the physical practice. Please stay mindful of your own limitations if you choose to explore this one.
Yoga Studio

May you care for yourself with joy and ease~

Chill Out – Deep Relaxation

All yoga classes end in a pose that is designed to take you into a state of deep relaxation. The pose is called savasana and, in my class, I also weave in elements of Yoga Nidra. During this deep relaxation, the body enters a hypometabolic state. Here it restores and regenerates tissue and this is what happens every night when you sleep. However you can also experience this kind of ‘reset’ from even a short restorative session. 

In class I offer several poses for entering this state: savasanalegs up the wallconstructive rest and legs on a chair. Choose one of these poses and move into it slowly and mindfully. Close the eyes and tune into the movement of your breath. If the mind is very chattery you can use one of the concentration practices we’ve worked with like breath counting. If you fall asleep, that’s okay, but ideally you will just move into a calm, meditative state. Ten to fifteen minutes is a good amount of time for this. Come out of the pose slowly, taking the time to gently come back into the present moment. What is the feeling-tone in the body? Do you feel refreshed?

We live in a world that prizes the go-go-go behavior, that goal-oriented striving that gets so many things done, but may leave us feeling anxious and depleted. Perhaps we’re evenaddicted to busyness. This incessant striving triggers the stress response. The next time you feel stressed, note how that feels in the body. This stress, especially chronic stress, suppresses the immune system. Yikes!

Know that you have the tools to counteract this stress. You have the power to change your inner chemistry with these yogic practices. Use them to help you move toward more vibrant health.

Why Keep Moving?

Movement keeps you alive. Movement stimulates the circulation of blood which carries oxygen and nutrients to every cell in your body. Without that delivery system, your cells and tissues become stagnant and they begin to operate less efficiently. 

Your lymphatic system, which removes cellular waste, dead blood cells and pathogens, relies completely on movement.  It’s your internal cleaning service! But lymphatic fluid doesn’t have its own pump like the heart, which pumps blood. Instead it relies on your movement and muscle activity to circulate. As the fluid passes through lymph nodes, the nodes filter out pathogens such as cancer cells. The cleansed lymph then flows upward in your body, toward your neck, where it enters the bloodstream. 

In my yoga classes for cancer patients, the kind of movement I emphasize focuses on circulation, instead of movement for strength building. It’s that circulation that moves lymphatic fluids, blood, oxygen and nutrients through your body. Some strength building may be appropriate depending on your condition, but circulation becomes even more important if you become debilitated and/or bedridden. Then even small movements of the arms will stimulate circulation and help move your lymphatic fluid. Flex and point the feet, roll the wrists, wiggle the fingers, shrug the shoulders. Any movement will do! 

“I move, therefore I am.”
― Haruki Murakami1Q84

 

Meditation and the Relaxation Response

Meditation is garnering impressive scientific backing as well as much media attention in recent years. I enjoy teaching meditation in my yoga classes and feel that it’s equally important to understand what is happening in the body when one meditates – the changes are so beneficial! Below is a synopsis of what I teach.

Meditation elicits the “relaxation response,” a term coined by researcher Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School in the early 70s, to describe a phenomenon in which the following physiological changes take place:

Heart rate lowers
Muscles tension is reduced
Brain waves slow down
Blood pressure decreases
Metabolism decreases
Chemicals associated with stress, cortisol and adrenalin, are reduced

Meditation calms the sympathetic nervous system and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” process of the limbic brain. It sends adrenalin and cortisol through the body, which in turn sends blood to the extremities – arms and legs – leaving the organs at the core of the body functioning with less blood and interfering with their efficient functioning. In this situation the digestive and reproductive systems are suppressed and the immune system altered.

The parasympathetic nervous system tells the body that everything is okay, that it can relax. It returns the blood to the core organs so they can operate efficiently. If stress is prolonged and the body is continuously exposed to the stress hormones, one becomes at risk for heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression and memory impairment.

A simple meditation technique is to watch the breath. Settle into a comfortable position (not lying down – you might fall asleep!). Notice how the breath is moving in the body. Hold your attention on the most prominent sensation of the breath. If you like, you can use your inner voice to label the breath “in” and “out.” If the mind wanders, don’t worry, it’s natural. Just bring it back to the breath. Try doing this for 3-5 minutes. You can build up to a longer practice over time.

Know that the mind is a powerful tool. Use it to bring yourself into full, vibrant health.