I laugh on my yoga mat. (Really, I do!)

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?

Namaste.

 

Holiday SOS Toolkit

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.

The Trauma Brain Project

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

  1. Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
  2. Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
  3. 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.

Namaste.

Loving Your Anxiety

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! 

The peace that is always here…

So the holidays are here and maybe the stress is starting to settle in a little deeper.  For me there is the hustle and bustle of the gift-buying and preparations and the general collective stress that sets in, there is the excitement and anticipation of the kids hoping for wonderful presents, the holiday lights and the darkness of winter and Nature’s stillness that underlies all of this activity.  All this is available right now in this minute – all at the same time.  So, since I get to choose where I place my focus, I choose to place it on the peace – the stillness and silence – and sometimes I’ll chose to focus on the excitement and anticipation. 

Even though I’ve had a sense of this underlying peacefulness, to focus on it is a big departure for me this year. Usually I just get stressed worrying about travel plans, what to get for whom, whether the receivers of gifts would like their gifts, and on and on.  This year, everybody gets tie-dye (my kids’ idea) and the kids and I are excited to get started on this make-at-home project.  They’re already picking out which designs for whom and which colors.  It’s fun.  Hopefully people will appreciate their gifts, and the love with which they were made and offered.  But none of us can control what others think or feel.  All we can really control is that we do our best to love, we place our focus on what nurtures us and those around us, and we give ourselves a break, every so often, to check in with the peace that is always here.

Not sure how to check in?  Try this:  Notice that you have a body, and that your body is breathing.  Begin to follow the flow of your breath.  Notice that each time you inhale and exhale, the breath comes from stillness and goes back to stillness.  You may also feel that it arises from silence and goes back to silence.  Just notice the rising and falling of the breath, from stillness and back to stillness, from silence and back to silence.  Now instead of focusing on the breath, focus on the stillness, or the silence.  You might begin to feel that it is always there, and that your body begins to feel more peaceful as you focus your attention on the stillness or the silence – the peace that is always here.  Doesn’t take long to check in, but it feels pretty good, and you can even do it in line at the mall!

Happy holidays!

A ghost in the house – shaking up the “I”

I’m working on trying to be brief and use less words – let’s see how I do…

Last October I asked my Akashic Records how I could live from a place of deeper clarity.  The answer was surprising:  “Be willing to be wrong – about everything.”  What?!  I had to ask for clarification.  The reply: “Being willing to be wrong doesn’t mean you are wrong.  It means you give up the need to be right, which is holding you back.  It means shaky ground… Release the need to be right.”  All my life I’d seen knowledge as a reinforcer of my worth.  Being wrong was to be avoided at all cost.  But what the heck, I was intrigued.  Besides, I could always go back to being right if it didn’t work out.  What I got was a big surprise.  As I let go of the need to be right, something shifted inside.  It was like when you’ve eaten too much and then you loosen the button on your pants – relief!  I understood it later as being freed from the constant effort to protect and reinforce my “I.”

Sutra II of the Yoga Sutras describe the five klesas as the sources of our discontent, the obstacles to freedom.  The klesas are: avidya, or not knowing our true nature as beingness or oneness; asmita – identification as “I,” “me” or “my”; raga – desire for pleausre; dvesa – aversion or avoidance of pain; and abhinevesa – fear of death.  When I first read this sutra and the notion of the identified “I” as being problematic, I thought that was ridiculous (those crazy cave-dwelling yogis – what would they know about real life?!).  After all, who would I be without a sense of my own individuality? If I let go of that I’d be left with nothing – I wouldn’t exist!  At the very least it seemed to me a prescription for mental instability.  I didn’t realize that even that resistance was the manifestation of this “I.”

Dzigar Kongtrul in his book It’s Up to You suggests:  “This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do.  Yet it can’t actually be found – which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home.”  Michael Stone in The Inner Tradition of Yoga describes asmita as a storyteller, and the stories as a rubber band ball, wrapped around and around with more and expanding preconceptions about ourselves.  Even when these stories cause us suffering and separation, we still hold on because we identify them as who we are.  A Course In Miracles Lesson 69 begins:  “My grievances hide the light of the world in me.  My grievances show me what is not there, and hide from me what I would see.  Recognizing this, what do I want my grievances for?  They keep me in darkness and hide the light…” 

So last month when I decided it was okay to be me, I found she was very elusive – like mercury, hard to pin down.  At the same time I found the klesas.  Ah the humor of it all.   It’s been fascinating – sometimes funny, and sometimes really unpleasant – to recognize the storyteller arising, especially when I’m wanting to be right, or in control.  I often recognize my “I” when it is acting up as a shadow that when noticed and acknowledged, shifts slightly to the left to reveal a sliver of light behind.  A long exhale follows, a tightness releases in my chest, and in that moment, I can allow.