Increasing stress and anxiety in children – can yoga help?

Although my adolescent days are several decades behind me, I still clearly remember the stress I experienced during those years, not only from the academic pressures but from the social pressure to “fit in”, while trying to manage potentially conflicting expectations from family and friends.  Unfortunately, I was not taught ways to manage that stress, although I had to take PE classes and voluntarily participated in sports regularly after school.  So, when I moved through my early adult years and began to work full-time, I attempted to continue to participate in those sports to help relieve the chronic stress I felt, only to discover that it wasn’t working.  The only relief I discovered at that time was planning and taking vacations, where I found I didn’t want “to do” anything but relax.  And there was simply not enough vacation time to effectively create the required balance in my life to reduce the growing anxiety I was experiencing.

It wasn’t until I found yoga – in mid-life – that I experienced an immediate sense of release of tension, stress, and anxiety.  I still tell people that ask me about yoga “I wish I found yoga at 4, instead of 40!”, although I am eternally grateful for finding it at all, as it truly has been a life saver.  So when I read the recent research on how yoga can help children cope with stress and manage their anxiety symptoms, my heart’s sense of gratitude grew even more.

Eight published studies were reviewed together and found that school children who regularly practice yoga show an improved ability to cope with stress and anxiety.  And with the majority of children reporting growing academic pressures to achieve, along with more challenging family life with both parents needing to work outside of the home, it’s about time we offer our children a life-time tool to create more balance in their bodies and minds.  What makes yoga different than the typical physical education classes currently offered in schools is that it is a meditative movement practice and it does not have a competitive focus.  There are no winners or losers.  There is no forming of teams, leaving some children feeling inadequate in some way when they are picked last (or not at all) to join a team.  It is most often practiced in a group setting, yet the practice encourages and welcomes individualized, unique experiences.  It is a practice that can be done by everyone, regardless of size, shape, strength or flexibility level, and/or any other physical limitation, such as chronic health conditions, including asthma or diabetes.

The review article looked at the interventions, which incorporated postures, breath, concentration, and meditation that are different paths or parts of a full yogic practice, and came to the conclusion that these combined features of yoga, when practiced regularly by children, provide an accessible tool to reduce stress and anxiety.  The author also recommended that yoga should be integrated into schools.  It is my personal belief that by offering yoga to children – even before they enter school – sets them up not only for success in life but happiness too.  And don’t our children deserve that balance!

How much yoga would I recommend?

As a yoga teacher, I get a lot of questions about how much yoga I recommend.  The question might be posed as “How many times a week should I take a class?” or “If I practice 3 times a week, how long will it take for me to see results?” or “The length of classes vary from 50 minutes to 90 minutes, what is the best class length?”.  As I tend to answer many questions that may require a more personalized response, I typically say “It depends.”  Yoga is not a one-size-fits-all exercise program designed just for the physical body.  It is a broader practice that has benefits to the brain/mind, body, and energy we experience and can be crafted to address various unique outcomes depending upon our perceived human limitations.  And, if we consider ourselves human, we all have some limitation, whether we are open to acknowledging it or not!

There are yoga practices designed to strengthen the body and others that focus on increasing the flexibility in the body.  Certain yoga practices have the goal of mood management.  Classes can be designed for people challenged with physical conditions, such as cancer or multiple sclerosis.  Some classes may not include any movement or very little movement, focusing more on the breath and mind.  Each of us has unique needs and that is why I recommend yoga to everyone, because there is a class and teacher out there that is offering what you need.  It just might take a trial and error approach to finding a good match.

Now, as far as the frequency of the practice, again it will depend upon a person’s intention for integrating yoga into their life.  My intention in my teaching of yoga is to offer a class where first-timers leave the class feeling as though the practice is attainable and not feeling intimidated by the poses, keeping the door open to further exploration of all that yoga has to offer.  So my first recommendation as far as frequency is simply to take a class once to determine if it is a good fit.  From there, you might try another class once and another and another, until you become aware of a shift, whether it is in your body, mind, or energy.  My experience of teaching has told me this can occur with just one class!

From that point, I offer that your view of yoga will expand as you continue on the journey of exploration through the practice.  I might suggest that you consider beginning to integrate some of your favorite practices into your daily routine at home, whether first thing in the morning upon awakening or as the last thing before bed, to improve your sleep.  Over time, what will begin to emerge is a growing sense of acceptance and compassion for yourself and others, supporting the connection between all of your parts that make up your authentic and highest self.

So, my response to the original question might just become a question in return:  “How quickly do you want to experience a shift in consciousness, that aligns you with your truth?”.  There is no prescription for change, as change happens whether we want it or are ready for it or not.  We do have a choice though to work with our circle of influence around change and yoga can be our ‘go to’ support as we ride the waves of change.  We just need to be ready and open to the change we desire and then yoga will simply become a way of life, instead of specific practices we make time for in our lives.

If you might be skeptical that just one yoga class can make such a difference, click on the link below to read the recent research on the effects of one yoga session for service recipients in a behavioral health intensive outpatient program:

Has the fountain of youth been found?

I think many people might agree with me when I say that the best holiday gift we could receive would be a way to slow down time and the aging process.  Well, what if I were to tell you that researchers may have identified a way to slow down one of these – would you be willing to do whatever it takes?  What if “whatever it takes” is a pretty simple change in lifestyle choice that may hold the key to delaying the aging process?  Are you with me??

When I first discovered yoga, I was simply trying to find some sort of exercise that I could do by myself since work began to interfere with my first passion, tennis.  In addition, the stress of work and lack of exercise contributed to a painful herniated lumbar disk in my back, further limiting my movement options.  Little did I know that “doing yoga” would not only help heal my back pain, but would also support reframing the painful thoughts that I experienced in my mind as well.  As I experienced these significant shifts in my life, I found myself longing for more time on my mat.  My mind and body began to crave it as my sleep improved, my blood pressure lowered, and my ability to respond (instead of react) improved.  So, as you can imagine, I was hooked!

Now, years later, in my mid-50s, I find myself in the minority of the American population that does not require a prescription medication to maintain my health.  I feel blessed that I found yoga when I did and recommend yoga and meditation to anyone that might be interested in trying a different approach to improving their body-mind-spirit health.  Now with this new research, I might take a different approach to “selling” yoga, because yoga and meditation now have been shown to demonstrate improvement in biomarkers of cellular aging and longevity!

After just 12 weeks of a yoga and meditation based lifestyle intervention, there was a positive change in almost 10 different biologically-based indicators of physical aging.  Participants’ ages ranged from 30 to 65 years of age and the intervention included a 90-minute practice (including yoga poses, pranayama or breath practices, and meditation techniques) derived from a mix of Hatha and Raja yoga that was performed 5 days per week.  The results reflect that although we may not be able to change our biology or chronological age, if we commit to such a lifestyle we can certainly reverse or slow down the pace at which we age, prolonging a youthful, healthy life!  Are you in?

And let me challenge any thoughts that might arise as you read this reflection that might suggest to you that you are not flexible or strong enough to “do yoga” or that it’s too late, I’m too old, or I’m not in a physical shape that would allow me to participate in a yoga class.  There are yoga classes available to “every” body and mind, including gentle, breath-centered, trauma-informed, restorative, chair, mood management, and sound healing to name just a few.  There are also yoga classes designed for beginners, ones geared toward athletes, and others intended for people living/recovering from chronic diseases, such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.   It might take a little research to find the right class/teacher for you to take the first step towards integrating a yoga and meditation practice into your life, but I promise you it will be work the time and effort!

If you would like to read more details on this latest research, click on the button below:

Do essential oils truly calm stress and boost the immune system?

I remember my first exposure to essential oils through my yoga teacher training and was fascinated by the claims made that certain aromatic scents had differing impacts on the mind and body.  Now, I’m not the type of person that believes everything I hear, so I figured I would try it out for myself.  What I immediately experienced was a sense of attraction to some oils and a sense of resistance to others.  It also reminded me that one of the first perfumes I liked as a little girl because it brought me a sense of calm was one that smelled like lemons!

My yoga teacher training also expanded my view of what yoga is.  Most of us think of it as a movement-based practice, commonly perceived as stretching.  However, what I learned is that before you even venture on a mat to move your body, there are actually two rungs of the ladder to step on before coming to the asanas or poses.  The first rung is known as the Yamas or guiding principles in how we interact with others and the second rung is known as the Niyamas or guiding principles to how we interact with ourselves.  The Yamas and Niyamas are 10 “common sense” guidelines for leading a healthier, more peaceful life and have as much to do with the mind and spirit as they do with the body.

So what do these yogic guidelines have to do with essential oils you ask?  Well, one Niyama in particular, Santosha or contentment, suggests being at peace within even while experiencing life’s challenges.  For many of us this idea seems quite elusive, especially if we suffer from the lingering impacts of trauma.  When our bodies are in a hyper-alert fear state, it is very difficult for the mind to focus on being happy with what we have.  Instead, we find ourselves simply doing what we can to survive and our immune systems suffer right along with the mind.  So when I read a new research study that showed encouraging mind-body results by merely inhaling orange essential oil, it got my attention!

This recent research looked at PTSD symptoms and the types of immune cells that play a role in the PTSD disease process when mice passively inhaled orange essential oil.  The results indicated a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms and decrease in the related immune cells.  These outcomes are very encouraging since essential oils are much more economical than the medications that are currently prescribed and do not have the adverse side effects of such medications.  Plus they’re pleasant to the nose!

Whether or not you suffer from PTSD symptoms, we all live in a very stressful world.  So what do you have to lose by simply buying a bottle of orange essential oil and a diffuser (prices range from $10 to $50 dollars) and setting it up at home or even in your office?  You can sit back, breathe deeply, and tune into your level of Santosha and that of your family, friends, and co-workers.  Worst case scenario is you might find them craving oranges and wondering why!

If you tend to be a little skeptical about all of the complementary and alternative medicine practices that claim to produce the same benefits as our more traditional, Western medicine, click the link below to read more on this recent study:

Does Yoga Change Our Brain and Improve Memory as We Age?

At any age, in today’s fast-paced world, we may be challenged by our ability to maintain our focus long enough to actually create a memory worth remembering!  I hear myself saying almost daily “Thank God for Google” or I wouldn’t be able to remember the name of the new restaurant in town I saw on my way home from the office to tell my husband or the movie I saw last week to tell my friends.  We have come to rely more on our electronic devices with all of the available apps to assist in reminding us of where we need to be and when, to keep track of our finances and when to pay our bills, and to prompt us so we don’t forget a birthday or anniversary.  There are even apps to remind you to get up from your desk every hour and to stop whatever you are doing and simply breathe!

As we age, the brain does change and it is not unusual for all of us to experience some level of memory loss, specifically working memory.  This expected memory loss due to aging does not necessarily mean we are developing dementia.  However, with an increasingly older population, it is important to understand ways to support our brains and our memories to maintain our mind-body health.  A new research study has shown that yoga may be one of those ways!

In this research, the intention was to focus on the brain’s cortical thickness, which has been shown to decline with age and is associated with executive functioning relating to memory and attention.  With the assistance of MRI scans, the results showed an increase in the cortical thickness, specifically in the left prefrontal cortex which supports working memory and cognitive flexibility, in the older women who had practiced yoga for at least 8 years.  The researchers suggest that it is the unique contemplative or attentional component that is an integral part of yoga that differentiates it from other conventional forms of physical fitness exercise.  So even if you consider yourself active and regularly participate in other forms of physical movement, your brain may not be getting the same boost as it would from integrating yoga into your self-care routine.

This study is important for people of all ages, not only those of us that may believe we have reached the peak of our life span.  Yoga comes in many different forms and styles and is not one size fits all.  Yoga ranges from very little movement at all, such as with yoga Nidra or Restorative Yoga to the other end of the spectrum, with continuous movement, such as with a Vinyasa or Ashtanga class.  So no matter how old you are in the present moment, it is a great time to explore this practice and find a style that works for you.  It is never too soon or too late to integrate yoga into your overall preventive health care efforts.  Your body and mind will thank you now and well into the future!

Spreading the word, expanding awareness, lifting consciousness – healing trauma with yoga!

Growing up in a family that was “broken” by divorce for multiple generations, I experienced a great deal of stress as a young child navigating the after-effects of such an interpersonal event without any logical awareness that such an event would someday be viewed as trauma.  Many people may view post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a condition that predominately affects our military service members.  And while it is true that research focusing on veterans returning from war contributed significantly to the creation of a formal diagnosis of PTSD, the experience of combat is not the only source of trauma leading to this diagnosis.

To support efforts to bring more awareness to the experience of trauma during PTSD Awareness Month, I want to first highlight what type of events and/or experiences may underlie the diagnosis of (complex) PTSD and second, recent research that suggests yoga is a promising complementary treatment that not only helps to reduce the symptoms of PTSD but also supports personal growth, including increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude, acceptance, and empowerment.

According to the National Center for PTSD, types of traumatic events that can lead to PTSD include:

  • Combat and other military experiences
  • Sexual or physical assault
  • Learning about the violent or accidental death or injury of a loved one
  • Child sexual or physical abuse
  • Serious accidents, like a car wreck
  • Natural disasters, like fire, tornado, hurricane, flood or earthquake
  • Terrorist attacks

And as I talked about last month, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) measured additional types of childhood trauma, leading to a diagnosis of complex PTSD, including the following:

  • Personal trauma
    • Physical abuse
    • Verbal abuse
    • Sexual abuse
    • Physical neglect
    • Emotional neglect
  • Trauma related to other family members
    • A parent who is an alcoholic
    • A mother who is a victim of domestic violence
    • A family member in jail
    • A family member diagnosed with a mental health disorder
    • The disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment

As the understanding of how the human body-mind interprets situations that don’t appear immediately life-threatening from the casual observer but none-the-less traumatizing to the person grows, it is vital that alternative treatments beyond medication and therapy be considered when considering the percentage of the overall population impacted by such experiences.  When considering complex PTSD which stems from a child’s inability to utilize the body’s natural “flight or fight” distress response to escape from a destructive family dynamic, such as the psychological ware zone of a contentious divorce, the body is forced into a freeze response for survival.

In this freeze state, the body is still full of adrenaline and cortisol, yet the child shuts down, dissociating from the body’s natural response sensing its inability to help.  At this point of development, the logical brain’s cognitive abilities to understand and act are still forming, so the body and mind are at odds, where the body continually senses danger yet the mind feels helpless to relieve the threat.  Symptoms that reflect a diagnosis of complex PTSD include:

  • Loss of emotional and physical awareness
  • Dissociative episodes
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Difficulty regulating emotions, such as anger
  • Somatic complaints, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Overdeveloped sense of responsibility
  • Chronic sense of guilt
  • Difficulty trusting people or feeling intimate
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness

As a “thriver” post PTSD and a trauma-informed yoga practitioner, teacher, and psychotherapist, I understand the need to engage both the body and mind along the healing journey toward re-integration and balance after trauma.  So it is not only important to familiarize ourselves with the nature and impact of trauma but it is vital to know what treatments are available and found to be effective so we can guide our loved ones with compassion towards healing and provide hope.

My own journey of healing first led me to the traditional psychotherapy experience, which did help to move me from victim to survivor through awareness and understanding.  However, I still found myself chronically anxious and easily triggered into an unbalanced state of mind.  Then I found myself in a yoga class.  I was immediately hooked by the change I experienced in my body that day, although not completely aware of what the change was exactly.  After integrating a regular physical yoga pose and breath practice on the mat into my life, I increasingly became aware of a palpable sense of relaxation in my body and a sense of peace in my heart.  My breath pattern became a reflection of my state of mind and a guide toward maintaining balance in my body-mind connection.  I learned that I could control my breath and when I focused on my breath I was able to change my reaction to a trigger to a response to a stimulus.  I found that the breath creates space to keep the body-mind aligned when navigating the world.  As I continued my practice and explored additional mindfulness techniques over time, my capacity for gratitude and compassion grew, I felt more connected to myself and others, I was more accepting and less judgmental, and my ability to remain centered even in chaos has steadily increased.

With my own personal healing journey as evidence that body-mind strategies are necessary to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and release chronic tension in the body, and reflect to discover the beauty in our challenges, I am excited to share some recent research that supports my experience with yoga as an important treatment option for complex PTSD.  In this study, 31 adult women with PTSD related to chronic childhood trauma participated in a 10-week Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TSY) class.  For the results, click on the link below:

The Sights and Sounds of Silence

Recently, I was blessed to find myself on a hike on a morning where the sky was the most amazing color blue and the spring flowers were in full bloom.  I was not hiking by myself so I suggested to my hiking partner that we travel back down the trail in silence, practicing a silent, walking meditation, as research studies are showing how beneficial meditation can be to our brains and our bodies.  When we reached the end of the trail, we sat together and shared our experiences.  We both admitted we had experienced some challenges, yet overall felt a surge of inspiration!

We both found it hard not to respond verbally to other fellow hikers or mountain bikers that offered a friendly exchange of “good morning” or “hi” as we passed along the way.  I chose to smile and wave my hand in response to honor my practice of silence while also embracing my intention for my meditation to stay deeply aware of and present to my surroundings.  I’m not sure what they thought about my response and I had to trust that they felt the connection through gesture and not words.

Another challenge I experienced was how I began to notice that some of my fellow beings on the trail that morning were quick to anger or were not connected to the experience of others along the way.  One fellow traveler expressed his frustration when a hiker did not get out of his way as he was biking up an incline.  What the biker did not realize is the young person did not speak English and thus may not have understood his words while sensing his anger.  Another group of hikers included a child that got very excited about seeing the butterflies, repeating himself several times to gain the attention of the adults, yet no one responded to him, missing the opportunity to join in the excitement and joy of such a simply pleasure as only seen through the eyes of a child.

And even though I experienced these challenges, I still felt inspired as I recognized my silence was facilitating a deepening of a present moment awareness that can be elusive if we are engaged in a conversation.  On the way up the trail with my hiking partner, together we enjoyed hearing and seeing a bird kicking up the dry leaves on the ground presumably looking for food to feed the babies keeping warm beneath the leaves and seeing a solo rabbit hop along the trail with us, seemingly unafraid of our presence as we chatted.  However, it wasn’t until the hike down in silence that I began to not only see but hear my own footsteps on the path, to see and feel the sun shining through the leaves of the trees overhead, and to feel the cool breeze on the back of my neck as it played with my hair, sending a shiver down my spine.  I too noticed the many colored butterflies gently floating from one beautiful flower blossom to the next.  I heard Woodpeckers drumming in the trees above seemingly marking their territory and working to attract a mate.

I even found a sense of peace and calm when hearing the sounds of the other hikers and bikers as they communicated with their friends and family or listened to music from their electronic devices, although others may have found those sounds disturbing in their search for silence out in nature.  These sounds actually brought a smile to my face as it reminded me that we all have more in common than we do have differences, and when we take the time to use the two ears we have to listen twice as much as we use the one mouth we have, we might just remember that we are all connected and never alone.

Meditation as a practice to increase body-mind health can be done in a variety of settings and in a variety of manners.  I personally have found that simply spending time in nature, allowing my mind’s awareness to rest on what is physically right in front of me, helps me to sort through the overlapping thoughts and conversations in my head when trying to solve a problem, even inspiring me to approach the solution in a more creative way that might have a broader reach.  I have also experienced a deeper connection to my “inner knowing” of what I need when societal messages tell me something different.  Honoring that connection supports my efforts to remain true to my authentic self, valuing my uniqueness and resisting the urge to conform, while increasing my felt sense of compassion for myself when I make a mistake or fail or judge or criticize as I remember I am a life-long member of this most amazing and wonderful experience of a human BEING!

If my most recent experience with a silent hiking meditation has peaked your curiosity about the benefits of meditation, don’t take my word for it, check out a recent study (by clicking the button below) that demonstrated that meditation activates specific areas of the brain, inducing functional and structural brain changes, supporting the idea that prescribing different meditation techniques could help treat and prevent disease:

Honoring Heart Health Month – Yoga-based lifestyle reduces inflammation and risk of cardiovascular disease.

Last month, I wrote about how a part of the brain, specifically the amygdala where emotions are experienced, is impacted by chronic stress, the connection to our heart health, and how talking about our emotions is potentially a part of the physical healing journey towards a reduction in cardiovascular disease.  This month, in recognition of American Heart Month, I want to highlight how embracing a yoga-based lifestyle, including movement, conscious breathing exercises, and mindfulness, can further enhance the reduction in the physical inflammation triggered by the amygdala and the risk of heart disease.

When many of us hear the word yoga, we think of the many photos we see in magazines of people in twisted, inverted positions posed in breath-taking places, such as the top of a mountain or a rock sticking out of the ocean.  Not too realistic for the majority of us, both the poses and the locations! I find myself in awe of such photos, yet being an avid “yogi”, I don’t understand the intention behind such photos.  I don’t find them inviting and, instead, find them intimidating and potentially defeating.  Yoga is not about competition and getting our bodies into “the perfect pose” to show off to the world.  If anything, I think these photos promote competition, which, if we believe we cannot compete due to our body-mind limitations, tends to guide us to not engage at all.  And now that more research-based evidence of the health benefits of a yoga-based lifestyle is coming out, we should be doing whatever we can to reflect that yoga is more of an internal journey towards self-acceptance and compassion, not an external experience of comparison.

A yoga-based lifestyle does not mean going to the gym and getting on a mat to exercise and actually does not require a great deal more than what we normally do every day.  In fact, you can do yoga without owning a mat or ever leaving your home!  What it may mean is that we give ourselves permission to create time for ourselves, reduce our unrealistically long “to do” lists, and prioritize our self-care activities.   Simply taking just 30 minutes a day to include some physical and breathing exercises will make a significant change – and it does not have to be 30 minutes in a row.  You can even do it while sitting and watching your favorite TV show – using the commercial breaks to simply close your eyes, bring your awareness to your breath, and invite your breath to lengthen and deepen as you take 3-5 inhales and exhales through your nose.  Then, if you need a challenge, try focusing on your breath for the whole 2-minute commercial break and notice the body-mind response.  You might notice a physical sensation in the body or you might notice an increase in the clarity of your thoughts.

And, as far a yoga positions, when someone asks me for my #1 suggestion, I offer what is referred to as “legs-up-the-wall”, also known in Sanskrit as Viparita Karani.  I guide clients to try this pose for the first time with only the heels touching the wall at first (see photo accompanying this post), so there is no tension in the back of the legs.  You can do it anywhere, including against the back of a door.  Simply lower yourself to the floor near a wall, using a chair if needed to transition to (and back up from) the floor.  Find yourself first seated on the floor and then lowering yourself all the way down to one side of your body, curling into a fetal position, with your knees up toward your chest.  Now, roll onto your back, extend the legs up into the air and rest the heels on the wall.  Once settled into the pose, notice your breath and try smoothing it out as you inhale and exhale through the nose.  You can hold this pose as long as it feels comfortable in the body.  When ready to release from the pose, reverse the steps you took to get into it.  Bend your knees, bring the soles of the feet to the wall and slide them down towards your hips.  Roll to one side coming back into a fetal position.  Use your top hand to press down into the floor to raise yourself up into a seated position, moving gently and slowly.  Take a moment to notice any physical sensations or thoughts in the mind and, when it suits you, transition back to standing, using the chair if needed.

Practicing such a gentle inversion turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, the system of “rest and digest” bringing balance to the sympathetic system that is responsible for activating the “flight and fight” responses instinctual in the human survival optimization system. It is such balancing experiences that support the body’s natural ability to process input, not only the foods we eat, but the sights, sounds, and smells that enter our body through our five senses.  When we support our body in this way, we create a healthier environment for the body to maintain its own natural balance, as reflected in measurements of weight, blood pressure, glucose levels, etc., thus reducing the inflammatory response in the body, along with the level of cortisol and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Making a conscious choice to slow down, embracing the mantra of “less is more”, might be a good place to start when considering a yoga-based lifestyle as a prevention and management intervention for heart disease.  And, if you are inspired to “get on the mat” in a yoga class, remember that there is NO perfect pose, only the perfect variation of a pose that moves you both inside and out!

If you are interested in reading more about the research around how a yoga-based lifestyle can reduce the risk of heart disease, click on the link below:

 

Care for the Caregivers

I discovered yoga while still working in corporate America and it truly became my anchor in the storm of doing more with less.  I found the practices soothing to my nerves while uplifting to my mind, allowing me to remain present in the chaos and go with the flow as the direction of my goals and objectives changed practically on a daily basis.  I found the changes in my body and mind were so profound that I decided I just had to bring this ‘medicine’ to others that might be suffering from the same pressures.  So I took a basic 200-hour in-depth yoga study and teacher certification training to become a yoga teacher.  At the time, I didn’t know how impactful this training would be when I later decided to pursue a mid-life transformational career change to become a psychotherapist!

What I have found from personal experience is that these same yoga practices work to avoid vicarious trauma and prevent burnout, which is so prevalent in mental health professionals.  Burnout is not a sign that we are a bad therapist and, in fact, it is probably an indicator that we are a good therapist because we are empathic towards others and have compassion for their suffering.  However, if we don’t practice what we preach to our clients about self-care, we may move from being a compassionate witness to the suffering of others to experiencing vicarious trauma or burnout.

Not only does having these yogic practices available in my self-care took kit help me clear my body and mind in between sessions and at the end of the day, I am able to offer many of these practices to my clients to assist them on their healing journeys.  And it is good to learn that the research is lending credibility to the effectiveness of yoga as an adjunctive clinical intervention for many of the mental health challenges experienced by our clients, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

So, based upon my personal experience, and now having the research begin to validate my personal experience, I encourage all mental health professionals explore how they might integrate yoga into their practices, not only to enhance their own lives, but to enhance the therapeutic relationship and the lives of their clients.  I think it is important to highlight that pursuing certification as a yoga teacher does not mean you have to teach yoga classes as many might expect.  In fact, as a yoga teacher trainer myself, it has been my experience that the majority of students taking the training do so to deepen their own personal practice versus having the intention to teach yoga.

I also think it is important to highlight that not all yoga – and in-depth yoga study and teacher certification trainings – are the same.  Just as it is critical that there is a “good fit” between our clients and ourselves as reflected in the therapeutic relationship, it is critical that there is a “good fit” between yoga students and yoga teachers.  Therefore, when venturing into the yoga world, I encourage everyone to shop around.  Most yoga studios and schools will offer introductory specials where you can take unlimited yoga classes for a limited period of time so you can experience multiple teachers relatively quickly in order to determine if there is a fit, before making any further financial, physical, and emotional commitment.  And if you find a fit, I suggest approaching the teacher and asking where they took their training.

So, if you have been considering adding yoga to your took kit and have wondered what options are out there, click on the button below to read an article addressing the empirical research on yoga and offering practical suggestions for mental health professionals interested in using yoga.

Can yoga help transform your relationship with food?

I found myself thinking a lot recently about the journey that brought me to my current relationship.  No, not with my significant other, but with food!  I have to admit, in the past, I turned to food for comfort and as a reward.  When people meet me today and I talk about what and how I used to eat, they cannot believe that I once would “super size” a Big Mac meal at McDonald’s or order a large pizza ‘just for me’ and proceed to eat the whole thing in one sitting.  I remember trying to control my food intake by not eating breakfast or lunch and then allowing myself to eat after working a long, stressful day, often seeking traditional comfort foods, such as a box of macaroni and cheese or a bowl of fettuccine alfredo.  I would eat so quickly and so much that I would feel uncomfortably full and disgusted with myself afterwards as I realized I had no self-control, and then finding myself repeating the same pattern the next day.  It wasn’t until I discovered yoga that I was able to change my relationship with food.

So what was it about yoga that helped me transform my view of food from one of comfort to one of simply fuel for the body, like learning is fuel for the mind?  Turning to the research literature for some answers begins to shed some light on what I personally experienced.  It is a critically important subject to explore due to the millions of people who suffer from eating disorders in the United States.  In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).  (EDNOS is now recognized as OSFED, other specified feeding or eating disorder, per the DSM-5).”

Recent research is focusing on how someone’s ability to tolerate distress is related to self-destructive behaviors and exploring yoga as a way to increase an individual’s level of distress tolerance to change those behaviors.  What the research suggests is that yoga does support an increase in distress tolerance and subsequent reduction in emotional eating behaviors.  One particular study had women that struggled with, as I did, emotional eating, participate in a yoga practice twice a week for 8 weeks with amazing results.

When I first started taking yoga classes, I found myself on my mat in as many classes as I could attend, sometimes 5-6 times per week.  What I learned from those early classes is that yoga encouraged me to stay present on my mat and simply breathe.  By focusing on my breath as I stretched and challenged my body, I was able to step back from reacting to any dis-ease I might have been experiencing in the moment and simply observe how it moved and changed.  I also learned that it was within my control to move my body and breath in a way that made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.  From those early experiences on my mat, I quickly internalized that simply breathing consciously in moments of distress creates space between a trigger and my resulting behavior, opening up the opportunity for me to ‘respond’ instead of ‘react’, which I began to experience as extremely empowering!

As I became more conscious of how my body felt and learned to pay attention to sensations and feelings that arose on my mat, I learned how to choose between backing off or deepening into a pose based upon the messages my body would send to my mind.  I began to value and honor the wisdom of my body, which allowed me to begin to understand why I developed the ‘reaction’ of emotional eating to self-soothe in times of distress.  I had basically used the normal, naturally adaptive human response of dissociation to tolerate distress, separating my body from my mind and ignoring the body and its innate intelligence.  Once I understood that my eating behaviors were not ‘abnormal’ and, in fact, were quite adaptive, I could then begin to have compassion for myself.

As I created opportunities to pay attention to my body’s messages, my mind-body connection got fired up and rewired.  I began to notice when I felt hungry.  I could then make a more mindful decision of what to eat and how much I ate.  I then began to observe how my body would respond to the foods I ate, guiding me and supporting healthier choices.  My cravings for fat, sugar, salt and carbs shrunk and new cravings for salad and hummus grew.  I no longer skipped breakfast and gave up McDonald’s altogether. I no longer felt the need to deprive my body of fuel, forcing it to run on empty until it ‘deserved’ to be rewarded with food after the mind had accomplished a very long daily ‘to do’ list.  And as my distress tolerance increased and my eating behaviors changed, my body thanked me by releasing the excess weight I gained over the years.

My personal “case study” of how yoga transformed my relationship with food would be considered only anecdotal evidence by the research community and not valid to recommend yoga as an alternative healing modality for eating disorders.  So, it is encouraging to see that research is beginning to emerge to validate my personal experience and the research community beginning to support yoga as an effective way to improve the overall health of individuals that have experienced a significant amount of distress in their lives.  If you are interested in reading the research study mentioned above for more details, click on the link below.