I just posted an article to the Chicago Center for Integration and Healing online magazine with this topic. Check it out…
Let’s face it, New Year’s resolutions can be shame-inducing suckers. So much optimism so quickly shattered on the cliffs of Life’s reality. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe approaching the resolution with some knowledge of how we humans actually work could lead to greater success in the long run.
Very often the culprit is too much too soon. We jump into our resolutions with no buildup, lots of enthusiasm, and unrealistic expectations. “I’m going to go to the gym every day!” says the couch potato. And maybe it starts out that way, but somehow it doesn’t last.
The reality is that humans change in degrees – a little bit at a time (kinda like how my grey hair grew in!) and we need to know why we are doing what we do. What’s the end goal? And also what’s the immediate reward? Torturing myself now for some reward later only works for a select few. For the rest of us, there’s got to be some immediate reward in order to keep going. What can you reasonably and realistically expect from yourself?
During my yoga teacher training, Goswami Kriyananda lectured the class about how to start meditating. He said to get everything set up and then sit and enjoy for one minute. Then get up and go on your way. Why? Because the mind can enjoy a minute. And then it might not resist going back for more. But if you tell yourself you have to sit for 40 minutes, the mind is likely to rebel.
A minute is manageable and pleasant (the immediate reward). The mind says “Uh, that’s so easy, I can do that!” So the next day you might find that you sit for longer without the mind complaining. Or you can choose in a week to increase the length of time to 2 minutes. Before long you’re doing 10 minutes (or more if that’s your desire) without the mind getting in the way.
I used the same strategy with my elliptical. I started with 2 minutes and it was easy. In a week I was up to 12 minutes with no resistance from my mind. I’m motivated to get on it to see how much more I can do today. Each day brings more time or distance with enjoyable effort but without a mental or physical struggle.
The reality is that we are drawn to what we enjoy. And having unreasonable expectations leads to a lack of enjoyment. Start small and build up. Enjoy your progress.
Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose. Do not look at your body like a stranger but adopt a friendly approach towards it. Watch it, listen to it, observe its needs, its requests, and even have fun. To be sensitive is to be alive…
To twist, stretch, and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.
There is an unexpected delight in meeting earth and sky at the same moment!
-Vanda Scaravelli in Awakening the Spine
My last post described yoga as a feeling practice. When I read this quote by Vanda Scaravelli many years ago it resonated deeply, and I began to explore the idea of the practice being “an unexpected delight.” The result is that my yoga mat has become a really fun place to be. A place to be tired and energized; a place to be terrified and gleeful; a place to struggle and a place to find ease; a place to laugh.
Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing, says you can’t be curious and traumatized at the same time. And what is that if not the yogic principle of self-study (svadhyaya) combined with santosha (being with what is)? So for me, engaging curiosity on the mat has meant noticing what feels freeing and what feels constricting. The magic unfolds on my mat as I get curious about what feels right versus what is an imposed should – an external idea of how my body should be. Where is the prana (life energy) moving freely, where is it not, and how can I allow it to be free?
Every summer, in Chicago, I teach yoga to girls from West Africa who are in the US as part of Expanding Lives, an amazing leadership and empowerment program for young women. The girls have a blast on their yoga mats. They groan and exclaim when a pose is hard, they sigh and smile when it feels good, they bliss out when we’re “just breathing.” They have no sense that they should be serious and self-contained, so they just experience the practice.
When I started letting go of the shoulds on my mat, I began to also experience my practice as fun! Instead of struggling to make a difficult pose “right,” I decided to get curious and relax, and often the pose would feel better and a smile would spontaneously emerge. Eventually I chose to smile rather than struggle, and before I knew it I was laughing from the sheer joy of moving my body in space (or even just holding still).
Sometimes I laugh because it’s hard! It’s exhilarating to be able to hold a pose until my muscles shake and my heart beats fast – listening for when my body says “Ok my dear, that’s quite enough.” My heart delights at the lyricism of a slow vinyasa. It’s fun to fall out of a balance pose, giggling like I did as a kid. It’s exquisite sensory bliss to lay in savasana (the rest pose at the end of class) with yoni mudra (a hand position) over my navel and feel prana move.
The body is a sensory instrument. How much we miss when we don’t befriend it.
I do have to admit it’s a bit of a challenge in group classes – I have to giggle softly to myself or risk disturbing the class. I’m told I have a particular way of laughing, so busting out in class the way I do sometimes on my mat at home might not be appreciated. I’m not suggesting we turn group classes into a free-for-all, but this holiday season, I wish for you that your practice can be a “body holiday.”
Do you laugh on your yoga mat?
Many years ago I met a yoga teacher who said that “yoga is a feeling practice.” That resonated with me, and at the time I realized that I was only feeling my practice some of the time. The rest of the time I was so involved with my thoughts that I was barely present with what my body was experiencing until my muscles started to protest.
On Thanksgiving this year I had the rare opportunity to spend the day alone and in silence. No talking. And the first thing I noticed was how much time and energy I spend thinking. So many words! Planning, contemplating, analyzing, theorizing, prognosticating about what other people might be thinking… On a silent retreat I wanted silence, but my mind had other ideas.
The endless rambling of the mind is easy to get caught up in, and for a lot of people, this constant spinning of the mind is what causes the bulk of their anxiety. Don’t get me wrong – we want the mind to be able to do the work it needs to do, but when it is just spinning in circles and causing anxiety, that is not effective.
The same thing can happen in our yoga practice. We may be moving our bodies, but our minds may be miles away in space or in time – or we may be judging ourselves. We end up doing the practice for its residual effects, missing out on the experience each pose can generate. Or, we move our bodies around with little regard for what the body is telling us it needs – we aren’t actually listening or collaborating with our bodies.
In any given moment, thinking is accompanied by our sensory experience. The physical body is a sensory instrument. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations on our skin, all this is happening at this very moment – even as you’re reading these words. Can you feel your fingers touching whatever they are now touching? What are you hearing at this moment? What are you smelling? What do you see with your actual eyes (versus your internal landscape)? What emotions arise as you pay attention to your senses?
On the yoga mat, while in a pose or even while resting, what do you experience with your sense of touch? What do you hear, see, smell, sense, feel? What is the immediate experience of now? How does it feel to be present here and now? Very often, when we come back to the present moment, we actually feel more relaxed, more “here.” When we quiet the endless rambling of the mind, we have a chance to experience what is actually ok in the present moment.
If the mind really wants to get involved, you might occupy it with the question: “Is this pleasant or unpleasant?” or “What feels good about this pose?” Let the mind be in service to the experience rather than spiraling out with judgments, shoulds, associations, plans or other elements that aren’t directly related to the experience you’re having now. Of course that spiraling might still happen, and you have the choice to follow, or to do something different. Instead of jumping on the “thought train,” you could acknowledge the mind, give thanks that it can do what it does, and then gently direct your attention back to the sensory experience of the moment.
Who knows? You may begin to notice that your yoga practice actually feels good. Before you know it, you might find yourself smiling or even laughing on your mat. (Yes, that’s allowed!)
The holidays are fast approaching and one of the challenges for lots of folks is how to handle all the gatherings of different sorts that may seem more like obligations than fun.
I’m lucky that I actually like my family and colleagues, but in case you happen to fall into the “obligations” category, Susan Auman (my friend and business partner at CBW), and I have come up with 10 tips for a Holiday SOS Toolkit. Here goes…
(1) Remember it’s temporary. One of my unfortunate college summer jobs was selling educational books door-to-door in California. One of the phrases I learned was Og Mandino’s “This too shall pass.” Pretty much all social events are time limited, or you can set your own time limit by deciding how long you’re going to stay.
(2) Orient to safe others. When arriving at your destination, look around for familiar and/or friendly faces. If there’s someone you know you prefer over the others, spend time talking with that person. Make a new friend, or bring someone along you know you enjoy being with. Continue to check for people who seem friendly or inviting. Sometimes those safe “others” might be 4-legged or leaf covered!
(3) Choose to notice what’s pleasant. In any holiday gathering there’s likely something that qualifies as pleasant – or at any rate less unpleasant than the rest. Maybe the food smells and tastes good? Is there a real live Christmas tree that smells like an evergreen forest? Maybe the holiday music is cheerful? Or maybe there are pleasing pictures on the wall or friendly pets to play with? Even small things can shift a generally unpleasant experience, but you have to look for them or they might pass you by.
(4) Notice body tension and let it go. Difficult situations can make the body tense. Anxiety and stress generally show up as muscle tension in the body. Knowing the places you generally get tense can be helpful. If not, check for tension in your brow, jaw, shoulders, abdomen, pelvic floor or arms. You can choose to let go of tension in these areas. If your body’s not keen on letting go of tension you might have to consciously tense a little more (I know that sounds contrary), then stop your conscious tensing. Usually the muscles will let go – at least more than they did before.A little tip: your tongue can be an indicator of how tense you are. Tongue pressed fiercely up against the roof of your mouth? You’re probably revved up. Relax/soften your tongue and notice what happens in the rest of you…
(5) Move around! Bodies actually become more tense when forced to sit still. Moving around can ease some of the tension (freeze) in the body and help you to relax. Sometimes just stretching in place or moving at the joints can help. For example, rolling the shoulders, wrists and ankles or gently stretching the sides of your neck might not appear too strange and can relieve some tension in those areas. Less tension means the brain thinks you’re more relaxed!
(6) Take breaks. If you’re like me, your inner introvert gets a bit overwhelmed by all those nervous systems in one place. Or maybe you just get overstimulated by lots of activity, color & noise? Removing yourself may be as easy as taking a trip to the loo! (That’s the restroom btw). While you’re there, check on your muscle tension, do some breathing with nice long exhales to relax the body and maybe even check for something pleasant – magazines? nice soap? interesting wall art? :-)Depending on where you are, going outside “for some fresh air” might also be and ok way to escape for a while.
(7) Pre-plan for contact with the sane world. If you know you’re going to be in the midst of a chaotic or highly unpleasant crowd, plan with a friend you can text or call (on those trips to the loo or when you’re breathing fresh air). Sometimes you need someone else to remind you to breathe.
(8) Get helpful. I’ve found that purposeful activity can be very rewarding. Probably due to all that dopamine that gets created when you feel productive? Hosts are often happy for help and it’s sometimes also a way you can meet other people who are also helping.
(9) Plan an activity for the group. Directing the group in an activity can be a fun way of interacting, and also setting the tone of the gathering. Susan suggested the post-it note game. To play, you draw different characters on post-it notes and without the person knowing who the character is, each person gets a post-it on their back. Other people give people clues and each person has to try to figure out what their character is.
(10) Bring or wear something soothing. If all else fails, this is a back-up plan. Maybe you have a smooth stone that soothes you that you can keep in your pocket? Maybe there’s a lotion you like the smell of? Maybe a scarf with a texture you enjoy? Maybe your favorite colored shirt or tie or comfy shoes? Maybe your favorite tea? Maybe you can check in with your favorite meme or funny YouTube video on one of those trips to the loo.
Whichever activity you choose, make sure you’re mindful and focused on that. Leave any aggravation, frustration or stress behind and stay as much in the present moment as you can. Much of what we experience comes from what we choose to focus on. Whatever you celebrate, wishing you a wonderful, mindful, pleasurable Thanksgiving and very Happy Holidays.
I recently had the honor of being on a panel of body-centered therapists following the reading of a play by Dayle Ann Hunt titled The Trauma Brain Project.
This play is powerful, moving, intense. It is the story of a woman’s journey to heal from the repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Dayle takes us on this journey of her own life experience as someone who was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a child, who was also experiencing paralyzing migraines, unexplained nausea, psoriasis, sinus growths and a string of inexplicable conditions that followed her throughout her life; all of which led her (in her 50s) to shadowed memories of what had happened and to eventual healing with somatic therapy.
The cast is amazing. The direction is expert. We the audience were riveted for the duration of the piece.
This play is a must-see for anyone who works with diagnosing illness. Dayle Ann is passionate about medical professionals, therapists, and trauma survivors knowing that their symptoms may be trauma-related. The body and mind do actually influence each other.
If you’re interested in this topic and have any ideas on how this play can be more widely disseminated, please contact D
ayle Ann at www.thetraumabrainproject.com
After the play I led the audience through a few basic exercises to help with regulation since watching anything traumatic can have an impact on our bodies. And it struck home to me again tonight that we are being inundated daily with news of traumatic events. This doesn’t mean we are all traumatized by this, but we are more than likely affected. So I thought I’d quickly share one of the techniques that I shared with the audience in the hopes that you might be able to use it in your day-to-day. It’s called 3-2-1
- Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
- Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
- And now notice one (1) thing you’re feeling with your sense of touch.
How are you feeling now? You can repeat that sequence one more time if you’re feeling a little more focused or settled than you were before you started.
Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)
I know it sounds crazy to even imagine “loving” your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.
Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe.
Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe. But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There’s a fascinating book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.
Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression.
So what’s the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that’s not going to happen!). At the
very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action.
What’s your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it’s telling you you’re overworked and need a break? Maybe it’s telling you that you don’t feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don’t have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel.
Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:
- Allow it to be without judging it as “bad” or “wrong” or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of “shoulding” just makes the anxiety worse.
- Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
- Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
- Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
- Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
- We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: “OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?”
- Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
- Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
- Stay away from coffee – yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
- Look around your environment, recognizing that you’re physically safe and that there aren’t any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.
Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us!
Went to see X-Men Apocalypse with my family today (loved it – except for what they did with Storm’s character!) and been catching up on Agents of Shield. Ok, yes, I admit it I’m a sci-fi/superhero fan.
So the theme in the latest Agents of Shield and in this Apocalypse move is of villains who think that the world will be a much better place if only everyone does what they say. If we’re all the same then we will have peace on earth and none of this nasty fighting against each other that human’s seem wont to engage in.
The thing I realized is that this isn’t so far-fetched from what we human’s actually think. We see it playing out in political arenas right now. If only we all believe the same thing then we’d have peace. Of course “the same thing” is each of our own particular thing. But really, would that bring peace at all? We humans are a pretty contrary lot. No matter how much we want to be the same, we will always find a way to be different. And really, isn’t it our differences that make humanity awesome? The dialectic is that these differences can also make us dangerous to each other… We’re all human in the end. Scared for our survival and yearning for connection. What would happen if we didn’t demonize each other I wonder?
I saw an ad for a course recently that promised “total happiness” as one of the course’s outcomes (along with “your best body and beyond” – and all in less than a month!). Isn’t that how New Year’s resolutions are made? Out of the pursuit of happiness?