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.

 

Are you feeling your yoga? Or just thinking about it?

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

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.

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

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!)

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 Pursuit of Happiness

Happy 2016!


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?
I’ve realized in my years as a therapist that there is an underlying message in our culture in general – or perhaps it’s best to say in our society in general, because there really isn’t just one “American” culture – that if we’re doing this human thing right, we should be happy.  And apparently we should be happy all the time no matter what happens. I’m curious about how this came to be, but the main issue I have with this premise is that when people find themselves unhappy, there is often a presumption of failure. If I’m supposed to be happy (all the time) and I find that my life situation has caused sadness or despair or frustration or anger then it must mean that I’m failing at this thing called “being human.”
The reality is, that by virtue of landing in a human body (however you believe that happened), you were set up for a life experience that likely will include a wide range of emotions, of which happiness is only one. Even the most optimistic of souls (and I live with one of those souls) occasionally gets sad, disappointed, frustrated and even angry. Every human experiences physical and emotional pain. It’s part of the package. It’s not a sign of failure.
Now there is the definite possibility, especially if your life involved overwhelming trauma, that your human system might actually no longer remember how to recognize pleasure. If that’s the case then there is some work to be done. Pleasure is part of our birthright. It’s part of the package. For happiness to happen, in my opinion, the ability to experience that which pleases us is required. And through the wonders of neuroplasticity, human systems – even after years of deprivation – can learn to recognize pleasure.
So while happiness isn’t necessarily the goal, a complete lack of happiness is also an indication of a system that’s lost its ability to be resilient. (Not a failure, an indication of a need for more resiliency). Daniel Siegel describes “integration” as the healthiest human state. Peter Levine discusses being in a state of flow. Either way, we are able to have the capacity to experience the range of life’s experiences, to be present for life and make some choices about how we want to respond, rather than going into reactivity. (And really, even reactivity is part of the package!) When we are in an integrated state of flow we are able to allow life to happen. We can be with ourselves, and others, as we are – happy, sad, lonely, joyful, disappointed, angry. We don’t have to get stuck in any one of these. Isn’t that a worthier pursuit than happiness?

Breathing to Live

Hope that you are well and enjoying this moment of Life!

I’ve been fascinated with the breath lately. It’s pretty amazing that the thing we need most to survive (air) is abundant and free! We walk around in it!  Your breath can have a calming effect on your nervous system, and yet constrictive breathing patterns can be agitating to the mind. That’s one of the reasons yoga is so focused on breath. Free your breath and you free your spirit!

Our bodies are such fascinating instruments, and so wonderfully interconnected. Amazing, really. Did you know that tension in your jaw can affect the health of your pelvis? And that chronic tension in your shoulders can be an indication of constrictive breathing habits?

I do breath awareness work in my Yoga for Pelvic Health classes and with many of my psychotherapy clients, simply because the breath influences so much about the body and mind. Read on below for more tips about breathing. And don’t worry! If you’re alive and reading this, then there’s a good change your body is breathing well enough right now! And with compassionate curiosity you can develop awareness of how you could free your breath even more!

Quick Facts about Breath and Breathing 

I’ve become really fascinated by the breath and the mechanisms of breathing lately, and I’m especially interested in the ways that the breath affects our nervous systems, and therefore our state of anxiety or relaxation. Here are some facts that might surprise you, or might be enlightening!

  • When you’re relaxed your breath is usually slower & deeper, but not forced or strained
  • When you’re agitated or afraid, your breath is faster and usually higher in your chest
  • Your breath should change depending on the context – if you’re running, you need to be breathing faster and deeper than if you’re sitting and reading this email
  • More oxygen is not necessarily a good thing. You need a balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in order for your body to function well (yes, you need carbon dioxide!) Too much oxygen can be as problematic as not enough, and breathing too hard or too fast all the time can alter your balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide actually causing anxiety & other problematic symptoms
  • Your lungs span the area from just below your collar bones to your lower ribs (there are no lungs in your belly/abdomen).
  • Think of breathing in through your nose and down into your lower ribs
  • The belly moves out as a result of the downward movement of your diaphragm – a muscle that connects to your lower ribs & spine – when you inhale. Forcing the belly out isn’t a good idea and doesn’t help you breathe better.
  • Your lower ribs should move when you breathe. When you’re exerting yourself, your upper chest should also move to allow more space for your lungs to fill. Your shoulder muscles generally shouldn’t be used for breathing
  • Allowing ribs and belly to move when you breathe provides for a freer breath and a more balanced & content nervous system.
  • Tucking your pelvis under (squeezing buttocks in) and holding your belly in wreaks havoc with your breathing and isn’t good for your spine (or your pelvis). Whether sitting or standing, the pelvis should optimally be in a neutral position with a curve at your lower (lumbar) spine
  • A “deep” breath doesn’t mean forcing the breath into your belly or taking a big, loud breath. It’s best for the breath to move quietly, freely & deeply into the body at a relatively relaxed rate – depending, of course, on what your body is doing. 
  • The average number of breaths per minute is 15-20 for adults.

Any of this sound new or contrary to what you learned in yoga class? It’s been an education for me to study the breath more deeply too & I’ve had to relearn some things! It’s also been wonderful to observe how psychotherapy clients and yoga students have benefited from learning more about how their breath works.

Please feel free to leave a comment to this post and let me know what you think…

New possibilities for compassionate transformation

Happy New Year!

I love this time of year.  It feels so fresh with possibilities.  But that’s an illusion, though, right?  Every moment of every day is fresh with possibilities.  Yet maybe it’s the collective agreement about the specialness of the New Year that provides an extra wave of optimism that we can use to feed our own New Year resolutions.  I’ve also noticed a growing wave of cynicism this year.  There seems to be an expectation that no matter what your resolution is, it won’t take long for it to fade away.  Again, that may be a collective tendency, but why assume that will be the case for you? We don’t have to be victims of the collective influence.

When we choose to do something different with ourselves, we almost always move away from a comfort zone and toward something we have to learn to be comfortable with.  New possibilities can trigger the fears that live below the surface of our minds. Years ago I was talking with my husband about an issue I had been struggling with for a long time.  “Why can’t I just let this go?” I wondered.  He offered (and I accepted!) the possibility that it was because I had held on to this way of thinking for so long and it had become a part of me.  He suggested that it was because I didn’t know who I would be without it that I chose to hold on.
Sometimes we hold on to the most uncomfortable aspects of ourselves because they are familiar.  We are afraid of who we might be without them – afraid of the unknown and unfamiliar.  Fear is a powerful motivator – you only have to look around at the political and economic climate to see evidence of that.  Fear sells a lot of products, garners a lot of votes and keeps the status quo in place. Even the prophecy around 2012 is feeding into that collective fear which affects us all and yet goes largely unacknowledged. Fear can also warn us of impending danger, or be an indicator that we’re growing out of our comfort zone – it’s all about how we choose to see it.
I believe that we each are integral parts of the collective that is humanity.  Goswami Kriyananda writes that we are each “microcosms of the macrocosm.”  From this perspective, when one of us makes a change to our way of thinking or being in the world, it creates a ripple that affects the whole collective.   
So what if we were to create ripples or even waves of change this year by acknowledging and stepping out of the vortex of the collective fear of gloom & doom through the recognition of our individual fears?  I don’t mean “fighting” or “pushing through” or “ignoring” your fear. Just being willing to see it with compassion is itself a revolutionary act of courage.

Sometimes just seeing clearly is all it takes to recognize anticipation of the new versus an actual threat to well-being.  Imagine if, as a collective, humanity could recognize change as a marvelous potentiality versus impending doom & destruction.  In a comment to a post about Fear as Opportunity that I wrote in 2010, a reader named Christine offered a wonderful mantra she uses when faced with fear:  “I am willing to dance with you.”  I think that just about sums it up.

So how do we cultivate this capacity to view ourselves compassionately?  I offer below a version of the Buddhist Metta meditation that has helped me to cultivate self-compassion.  It has helped me in the process of acknowledging, and in many cases moving beyond, the many fears that held me hostage for years.  
Have I overcome all my fears?  Heck no!  I don’t even know if I will, and that’s actually okay with me.  What I do know is that seeing a little more clearly and a little more compassionately helps me to be curious, rather than contemptuous about myself and this mysterious, fascinating, sometimes-seriously-hard-to-deal-with adventure we call Life. 

So here are the 4 phrases that I use for my Metta practice:

May I be filled with loving-kindness,
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be free from suffering and self-deception,
May I be healthy and happy, and free from fear.
The traditional phrases are:  May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease.  (I know, a lot less words!)  For more information on Metta, Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, talks about the traditional practice in which you also offer these phrases for others.  Personally, I like to do “drive-by Metta” silently for strangers I pass on the street, for the patients in passing ambulances and even for politicians & acerbic TV talk-show hosts!  It provides me a small way to transform a wave of apprehension, anxiety or fear into an act of possibility.
Namaste, and may 2012 bring you peace, curiosity, compassionate self-awareness and ease of well-being!!

We already have Peace on Earth

In my yoga classes and with therapy clients and meditation students, I often lead a mindfulness exercise where we notice discomfort or tension in the body and then also notice where there is ease, relaxation or comfort.  It usually comes as a surprise that both tension and ease can exist in the body at the same time – what you experience is determined by where you place your focus.  This works the same with emotions – we can have multiple seemingly opposite and often conflicting emotions happening at the same time.  What you experience is determined by where you choose to focus. 
This all might come as news to some of us.  Yes, we have multiple emotions and sensory experiences happening at once, but we usually only focus on one – and usually it’s the more challenging or unpleasant one.  The idea that I could change my experience based on what I focus on actually irritated me when I first heard it because it seemed to be saying that I should ignore the feelings I was having.  Actually, rather than ignoring what you’re feeling, the ability to notice what else you’re feeling can open up a wider range of experiences and possibilities.  The more we notice, the more the experience expands. For example, noticing that there is also comfort or ease in the body often has the effect of alleviating some of the tension!
I led this exercise for a group yesterday, and then this morning in my meditation I had a thought:  Maybe what we need to do is not keep working for Peace on Earth as some future ideal that seems only vaguely possible.  Maybe what we actually need to do is to open to the Peace that is actually already on Earth.  Noticing the softness of your breath, the gentleness of the wind, the smile and coos of a baby, the stillness or soft movement of the lake, the softness of a loved-one’s embrace, the gentle  falling of the snow or grass swaying in the breeze, the moments of quiet.  Accessing the feeling of peace in your body – the felt experience of peace – you can perhaps also begin to experience this even in the midst of chaos.   You can begin to notice the peace of the Earth underneath us and the peace in the air all around us – even when there is also anxiety and hurry and fear.  The more we can notice the Peace that is already here, the more it can expand.
This holiday season, may you experience the Peace that is already here on Earth.
Namste!

Women’s Pelvic Health: If it’s in your body, it’s not “all in your head”

Warning:  This post contains discussions of “girl stuff.”  You’ve been warned!

I was teaching a Yoga for Women’s Pelvic Health workshop this weekend and that always gets me on my soap-box.  One of the things pelvic health educators encourage women to do is talk to each other about their pelvic health issues.  So now I’m bringing the soap box to this blog! Self-disclosure is always a little risky, but I think it’s worth it if I can help just one person to realize she’s not alone.  There’s so much suffering we deal with silently & alone as women that doesn’t need to be.
About 15 years ago I was diagnosed with a pelvic pain disorder.  I got lucky because my nurse practitioner at the time was up to date on her female pelvic health and diagnosed me right away.  That was as far as it went, however, because there was no known cause, no treatment, no cure.  I say that I got lucky because many women with pelvic disorders spend a lot of time going from doctor to doctor being told “It’s all in your head” as if mental/emotional issues that may in fact be affecting their physiology aren’t “real.”  The fallout of that attitude is that sometimes these issues, which can be contributing factors in pelvic pain, are rejected in favor of finding a “valid” physiological cause. 
The ancient yogis knew that the mind and body aren’t separate. It’s not likely that you’ve taken your body anywhere recently and left your mind behind.  (Okay, I know some people will try to argue that point!).  It’s often stated in body-centered psychotherapy circles that “every thought has a corresponding sensation.”  I was one of the speakers at a recent seminar on Pelvic & Abdominal Health and Trauma sponsored by Rush University Medical Center’s Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health.  It was thrilling to hear physicians acknowledge the ways traumatic life experiences can affect the body and advocate for a multi-modal approach to pelvic healthcare that includes addressing psychological factors.  Times are a-changin’!
From the yogic perspective, the first chakra at the base of the pelvis develops during the 1st year of life, and affects our sense of safety and our ability to really be present in the world.  The second chakra at the pubic bone develops between 6 -18months and  affects creativity and sexuality.  The 3rd chakra at the solar plexus develops between 18 months and 4 years and affects our self-esteem & sense of our own power.  In a culture where women are objectified, sexualized, shamed and encouraged to be less than we are, is it surprising that we might experience dysfunction in these areas?  According to oneinfour.com, 1 in 4 college women report experiencing some kind of sexual assault since age 14.  So that number doesn’t includes girls assaulted/abused before age 14.  According to webmd, “Doctors don’t really understand all the things that can cause chronic pelvic pain. So sometimes, even with a lot of testing, the cause remains a mystery.”  Hmmm.
Many women are hypertonic in the pelvic floor – muscles gripping too tightly.  I call it “holding on for dear life.” This could happen as the result of sexual trauma but not necessarily so.  Bodies develop habits because they seem to work.   Tightening the pelvic floor may give a sense of control or safety that works for the short term but becomes problematic over the long term.  Some women are hypotonic – not enough strength in the muscles at the base of the body. Usually there is a lack of awareness and either state represents a weak base of support.  Strengthening, stretching & relaxing the muscles of the pelvis (including the “core” transversus abdominis muscles and the pelvic floor muscles) can have a definite impact on one’s ability to feel grounded, optimistic, creative and confident.
There’s a fabulous book called The V Book that is subtitled “Your private parts shouldn’t be private to you.”  We could take some of the mystery out of our own pelvic health as women just by becoming more aware.  There’s another great book called “The Female Pelvis” that gives lots of exercises for developing awareness.  
Overcoming vulvodynia and dealing with issues during pregnancy & delivery through mindfulness, yoga and physical therapy helped me realize that I’m one of those hypertonic folks.  Somewhere in life my body figured out that when the going gets tough it’s time to hold on for dear life. Now that I’m aware of the habit, I can consciously relax muscles that shouldn’t be chronically tense.  Is that “all in my head?” Um… No.  It’s definitely in my body too.   Mind/body connection?  I’d say so.
For more information on women’s pelvic health check out:  Women’s Health Foundation, Rush University Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health
For more information on yoga for pelvic health check out:  Leslie Howard
For female-centered affordable gynecological & mental health care check out:  Chicago Women’s Health Center