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.

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!

Like falling snow…

I was watching the snow falling last week and was struck by its silence and gentleness. I remembered having the same impression watching a snow storm in New York in 1996 that practically shut the city down.  Last week I was struck again by how this gently falling snow, so silent and light, could have such huge effects and how force is often not necessary to make a big change.  In fact, as humans we often use much more force than is necessary, since we’ve come to believe that strenuous effort, even struggle, is necessary to get results. 

As I watched the snow last week, I also recognized the effect of the falling snow on my body and my psyche.  There is a spacious, expansive quality to falling snow – the snowflakes suspended in the air as they gently float to the ground.  There is freedom in their surrender, and as I watched I could feel expansiveness, silence, and a sense of surrender.  Something inside me settled and I felt lighter and more at ease. 

Nature reflects the qualities that also exist in us – since we are Nature as well.  As Nature hibernates and moves into low gear, might we also be encouraged to find time for stillness and quiet?  Like the quality of the falling snow, perhaps we might take time to check in and acknowledge the spaciousness, expansiveness, silence and surrender that live within our own minds and bodies. 

I’ve been listening to some wonderful guided meditations by Jeddah Mali.  In one of these she invites us to notice the lightness that is here now.  Thinking of the snow automatically (for me) brings that sense of lightness.  Noticing the movement of my breath also helps me feel that lightness & expansiveness as physical sensation. 

Sometimes when you’re struggling with day-to-day living, it is hard to imagine that there could be any relief because you’re focused on the struggle.  But right here in your breath and in your body is the possibility of relief.  It only takes a momentary shift of focus.

Notice how you feel now, notice body, breath and mind. What image brings a sense of lightness, expansiveness or ease for you?  Perhaps something from Nature?  Pick any image that resonates with you and notice how your body and breath might change as you hold that image in your mind.  As you go about your day-to-day activities, you might want to check in with this feeling again and again.

May you experience lightness and ease of wellbeing this holiday season.