Neurofeedback – Promising non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies for anxiety and depression!

Many people that I connect with express a desire to try other approaches to address symptoms of anxiety and depression before turning to medications, especially when it is their children that are suffering from such symptoms, as all prescription medications come with undesired side-effects.  As a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I share the research with them that shows the effectiveness of integrating these two (yoga and talk therapy) healing arts to support the shift in focus toward health promotion for those who prefer to take a more natural, holistic approach to healing. Now I am excited to share recent research that demonstrates combining neurofeedback with heart rate variability training (e.g., deep slow abdominal yogic breathing) provides another viable non-pharmaceutical approach to address the symptoms of anxiety and depression.  And the research showed a reduction in symptoms for both children and adults!

Neurofeedback is not new and is a form of biofeedback, where instruments are attached to the body to provide information to the individual on the functioning of their body.  Biofeedback, including neurofeedback, as a field of study has been growing since the 1960s.  Neurofeedback (or EEG biofeedback) is the form of biofeedback that enables people to change the brain’s electrical activity.  An EEG (electroencephalography) is the device that captures the real-time brain wave activity so it can be displayed and assessed for any unhealthy patterns that might be contributing to symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.  Being able to offer a way to change unhealthy brain wave patterns through neurofeedback is of special interest to those of us working with clients to relieve such distressing symptoms because the brain is a central contributor to the emotions, physical symptoms, thoughts and behaviors that define many problems for which people reach out for support.

Yoga and it’s slow, controlled deep abdominal breathing is also not new.  What is new is the research that is showing how this yogic breathing impacts heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV has been shown to be linked with an increase in cardiovascular disease, specifically when the variability is low.  (Please refer to last month’s Reflection to learn more about HRV.)  Stress and anxiety increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the flight-fight response in the body, leading to increases in heart rate and a lowering of heart rate variability. On the other hand, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the rest-digest response in the body, has been shown to decrease heart rate and increase heart rate variability, specifically through the stimulation of the vagus (Cranial X) nerve that controls the heart, lung and digestion.  It is the controlled breathing found in a regular yoga practice that stimulates the vagus nerve, bringing balance to the activity of the sympathetic nervous system activity.

Even more recent research has brought these two healing modalities together to assess the impact of stimulating both the brain with neurofeedback and the vagus nerve with deep abdominal breathing on symptoms of anxiety and depressing in both children and adults.  The results showed evidence that such training may provide an effective, non-pharmaceutical approach to reducing such symptoms, with some additional benefits such as improving blood pressure!

To read the full research article, click on the link below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Shining Light on the Human Need for Acceptance

The Summer Solstice is upon us as we are celebrating Pride Month and making plans to mark International Yoga Day on Thursday, June 21st!  As I reflected on the intersection of these events and celebrations, I came upon a thread that runs deep, connecting the acknowledgement of the light on the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, dignity, equal rights and self-affirmation, and discovering the sense of oneness – ACCEPTANCE.  Rejection is the darkness, so tapping into the light of acceptance opens the door wide to better mind, body, and spiritual health.   

As humans, we have a fundamental emotional need or desire for validation that we are intrinsically valuable and worthy of belonging.  We can try to ignore or discount – or dare I say reject – this basic human need in our culture that puts a very high value on independence, yet when we do so we are simply rejecting a part of ourselves, making us even more vulnerable to the rejection of others.  When we are a part of a group, we tend to feel protected and safe.  When we are rejected or excluded, it can contribute to a sense of isolation and feelings of embarrassment and loneliness.  Research has supported that the experience of rejection leads to poor health – both physically and mentally – and increases the tendency toward violence, both towards oneself as well as towards others.

So, below I have offered intention-setting ideas to allow the external light of the sun be a reminder to keep our own internal flame burning brightly, so it can bring light to those dark corners of our minds and hearts that have us holding the false belief that because we are housed in different earthly human vessels with unique expressions of being in the world, we aren’t valuable and don’t deserve to be here unless we conform to what others say is acceptable.

  1. Embrace your intelligence.  Alfred Binet’s research from the early 20th century on what is intelligence is ‘so yesterday’ if I might say so!  How many of us felt stupid if we didn’t excel at math or science or language.  I know I did!  I hated English until a teacher gave me permission to be creative in my expression.  As I allowed myself to be more creative in my writing, I discovered a whole different part of myself.  Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, theorized in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, that there are nine categories of intelligence.  If what he suggests moves us in the direction of recognizing and valuing the diversity of human expression, it definitely supports our basic human need for acceptance.  And I am all for not limiting the definition to just logical intelligence, where dare I say most of us would count ourselves short, which feels detrimental to the experience of being human. So consider setting aside some time to read more about Gardner’s theory of nine intelligences to see where your natural gifts might reside within your brain!
  2. Acknowledge your accomplishments.  At the end of each day, think about taking a few minutes to focus on what you accomplished that day.  Most of us have VERY LONG “to do” lists and are not able to cross everything off each day, which tends to invite self-defeating thoughts.  To cut off the stress that accompanies those self-defeating thoughts, close your eyes for a few minutes and reflect on what you did do that day.  What you may realize is that you accomplished way more than what was on your list, including some less tangible tasks, like making someone smile or listening to a friend in need, which are invaluable.
  3. Express appreciation towards yourself.  Most of us are taught to thank others when they do something kind for us, yet I bet most of us were not taught the practice of thanking ourselves for making ourselves a priority.  In fact, I suspect most of us were taught the exact opposite, that putting any attention on ourselves would be considered selfish and thus not acceptable.  Therefore, I challenge you to identify something that you did to take care of yourself recently and formally thank yourself for doing so.  And if you can’t identify anything, might I offer that it’s been way too long and that you plan to do something for yourself this week.  And don’t forget to thank yourself for taking care of yourself, remembering that self-care does not mean selfish!
  4. Say something kind to yourself.  How radical would it be for you to stop right now and say something like “You are intelligent” or “You are lovable” or “You are worthy”?  Remember how our mothers would tell us “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”?  Well, I personally wish my own mother would have empowered me to apply that to myself!  If we were able to record our thoughts and then listen back to the recording, I suspect most of us would experience more negative, critical judgments of ourselves than we would hear expressions of loving kindness.  And if you are like most people and experience “out of sight, out of mind”, then consider identifying something kind you would like to say to yourself and write it down on an index card and place it by the bathroom mirror, where you can see it each morning and night as you brush your teeth.
  5. Get in touch with our common humanity.  When we make mistakes, there is a tendency to beat ourselves up mentally and emotionally, and sometimes physically. Yet the expression ‘it’s only human’ exists as a reminder that to be human is to be perfectly imperfect and that it is by design that we are all fallible and will make mistakes.  So why are we so harsh on ourselves?  Why are we able to comfort a friend when they are being down on themselves, yet find it difficult to offer comfort to ourselves when we are suffering?  When we can consciously open ourselves up to and explore the concept of common humanity, we are more able to remind ourselves that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal, a shared human experience.  We all experience the same pain even though the mistakes we make may be different.  Remembering we are not alone in our pain and suffering brings comfort, acceptance and peace.  Try it out soon!!

Heart Rate Variability, Stress Reactivity, and Diaphragmatic Breathing – How Yoga’s Basic 3-part Breath Practice Supports Body-Mind Health

One of the designations for the month of May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month with the social media message of #MoveInMay.  So in support of this awareness effort, I would like to share the benefits of learning how to move your diaphragm to support your body-mind fitness!  Yes, that large skeletal muscle that divides our chest cavity from our abdominal cavity.  Did you know that the diaphragm is the primary muscle responsible for our ability to breath?

When I attended my first yoga class, I struggled with the instruction to allow my belly to expand on the inhale and to pull my belly button in on the exhale.  This was due to several societal messages that informed me that I needed to hold my belly in to look thinner and to hold in my powerful emotions as it was not acceptable (or safe) to reveal such feelings openly.  I had become what is referred to as a “reverse breather” where I held my belly in on the inhale and let it soften on the exhale.  Reverse breathing keeps the diaphragm from participating in the natural breath process, slowly starving the body of the oxygen it needs to function optimally.

When we get stressed navigating overwhelming situations, our bodies naturally react by pulling and holding the belly in, while our minds support the stuffing of our emotions down deep in the well of the body.  So for most of us who have suffered some adverse childhood event or events that traumatized our bodies and minds, allowing our breath to release the tight grip in our bellies is scary!  So reconnecting to this powerful muscle might be a slow process for many and yet, the research is showing that the effort is well worth the reward of improving our overall body-mind-spirit health.

A new measure of our health status, known as heart rate variability (HRV), is being researched as a marker for overall body-mind health identified through imbalances in our autonomic nervous system (ANS), between the sympathetic (flight/fight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) branches, as reflected by the variation in time between heart beats.  When the variability is low, your overall health is reduced and we experience life as more stressful.  When there is greater variability, your overall health is increased and your ability to navigate stress is improved.  We may not have any conscious control over our ANS and the beat of our hearts; however, this does not mean that we have no way to impact our HRV to improve our overall health and well-being.

Recent research out of the University of Pennsylvania showed that learning to re-engage our diaphragm in our breath process has a direct, positive impact on HRV.  The research studied indices of physiological stress reactivity in varsity athletes before and after introducing a task that created cognitive stress.  Slow diaphragmatic breathing was shown to significantly increase HRV, while also reflecting a trend toward greater relaxation.  So if we are not able to eliminate stress in our lives, we now know we can simply look to one of our most basic processes of life – respiration – for relief.  And with that inner resource to relieve the external stressors of life, we can improve our health – body, mind, and spirit!

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

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas for Navigating Times of Transition and Transformation

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ― Socrates

Change can happen all of a sudden or it can creep up on us without truly recognizing it as such!  Either way, change often brings fear into our hearts.  Humans are creatures of habit and comfort so we naturally tend to resist anything that might impact the familiar flows we have created in our lives, sometimes even when those habits are uncomfortable.

And I think most of us will agree that sometimes our habits can begin to feel stale, dare I say boring!  It is when we consciously become aware of those habits that have us feeling a little stuck in life, that we begin to open ourselves up to change, even welcoming it.

So how might we work with something that might both strike fear in our hearts and invoke feelings of excitement at the same time?  A good starting place might be to acknowledge that fear and excitement feel very similar physiologically in our bodies.  Consider a moment where you felt fear and excitement, maybe while waiting in line for a roller coaster ride or a scary movie, or your first day of school – whether it was kindergarten or college, or the day you and your significant other learned that you were expecting your first child.  Can you sense your heart rate increasing, your breath getting more shallow, the butterflies moving around in the belly, and the pent-up energy needing expression as you consider those moments?

So, to help tilt the scales away from fear and more towards excitement during such times of change and growth, below I offer intention-setting ideas that might help you navigate such transitions in your life with more ease and excitement:

  1. Embrace impermanence.  Evolution and transformation require change.  That’s both the good – and bad – news:  change is inevitable.  It is truly the one thing that we can count on.  So when our bodies signal that it is moving into the grip of fear, a helpful Mantra that you might keep handy is “This too shall pass”, reminding us that change in the moment is neither bad nor good, yet is moving the collective consciousness towards transformation where it is most needed for our ultimate evolution.
  2. Ground through asana.  Sensing the pent-up energy that needs expression when we feel fear and excitement, offer the body some specific yoga poses (asanas) to give direction to that energy.  Consider Mountain (Tadasana), Warrior (Virabhadrasana), or Goddess (Utkata Koneasana) pose as a way to ground our energy into the earth and tune into the natural rhythms of life reflected through nature.
  3. Calm through pranayama.  Pranayama is the practice of bringing control to your breath, ensuring that your life force energy – prana – is able to flow into the body.  When change comes upon us suddenly, it can often times feel overwhelming to the mind and body, narrowing our attention and shutting down the connection to the parts of our brain that assist with decision-making as well as tightening the muscles in the body, including the diaphragm, the primary skeletal muscle responsible for the process of respiration.  Therefore, if we can consciously turn our attention to our breath during times of transition, it will help to relieve the tension in the muscles, including turning the connections back on in the brain, opening the windows to the unlimited possibilities change can bring.  Try simply closing your eyes and bringing your next breath in through the nose on a slow count of four and release the breath through the nose on that same slow count of four.  Repeat that breath pattern two more times, feeling how the in-breath creates a sense of expansion in the torso and the out-breath creates a sense of release.  Adding this conscious lengthening of the breath to the above Mantra (This too will pass) supports the body-mind connection while riding the waves of change.
  4. Turn to the guru inside.  The Sanskrit term Svadhyaya translates to ‘self-study’ and it is one of the basic tenets of a yoga practice as well as talk therapy.  Through this practice, we learn what it is we believe, think, and need and why.  Without such awareness, we position ourselves to be at the mercy of the changes we experience. Perhaps adding this practice through journaling to those moments after pranayama and mantra, so you can gain more clarity around the changes that you want to make in your life, thus becoming a co-creator of your heart’s desire.  You will be wonderfully surprised how cooperative the Universe is!
  5. Meditate through uncertainty.  When we are sensing we want to make a change yet we are feeling indecisive around the new direction we might want to take, I encourage you to lean into the uncertainty by inviting it to sit with you for awhile.  Instead of trying to distract yourself or seeking advice from others, perhaps find a place where you can sit quietly for 5-10 minutes, allowing the body to find some comfort, and let the mind focus on the uncertainty.  You might spend the first few minutes practicing your pranayama to release some of the tightness in the body and mind.  Then simply notice what comes up in the mind, without judging, dismissing or discounting, allowing all possibilities to float into your awareness.  What you may begin to notice is how the body responds to some of the possibilities.  Certain options might create a sense of restriction somewhere and others might create a sense of relaxation.  You may not gain immediate clarity with all of the details, yet perhaps what you will sense is an inclination towards one of the possibilities.  Taking any small step toward that inclination will bring even more light to the direction of change, with course-correction opportunities too!

Does the ability to be self-aware of our inner emotional world contribute to our mental health?

In March of last year, I explored alexithymia when reflecting on how this difficulty in identifying, describing, and feeling our emotional world may be a factor in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically how early childhood trauma impacts the developmental ability to integrate thinking and feeling.  I find myself revisiting this topic again due to recent research that suggests alexithymia has a role in anxiety and depression in general, placing an even greater emphasis on the importance of the intelligence of our emotional experiences and the need to promote both self-awareness, and cultural acceptance of emotional expression as a way to improve mental health.

From my own personal experience growing up, I spent a great deal of energy navigating between the emotional overload of one parent (AKA chaos) and the emotional desert (AKA rigidity) of the other.  Initially, rigidity was winning the battle as I did everything that I knew how to in order to suppress my emotions, including disassociating from them altogether and relying heavily on logical intelligence to figure life out.  What rigidity taught me was how to be on my own, embracing the cultural value of independence and discounting the need for human connection (or is it the human need for connection?).  What I came to understand many years later is that you cannot ignore your emotional world for long without severe consequences.

In holding on to my basic right to autonomy so tightly, I kept the door closed to connecting with others, viewing their emotional needs as monsters that would eat away at my independence.  I used to say “I don’t need anyone.  I may want you in my life, but I certainly don’t need you!”  At that point, all I understood was that if I was not independent, I would be judged as co-dependent and needy, which was not acceptable and dangled rejection over my head.  I didn’t know that neither end of the spectrum (from dependent to independent) was ideal for my overall health and well-being.  When I started to learn that humans are part of a complex system that requires interdependence to thrive, I was able to start the journey towards wholeness, unlocking the doors that had been holding my intense, seemingly uncontrollable emotions out to be heard.  The anxiety that I felt for most of my life was because I had rejected those parts of myself that I thought would make me unacceptable in the world.  As I learned to listen to my emotions and the wisdom they had to offer, I was able to accept all parts of my human self and to open my heart to deeper connections with others.

The lessons of both my familial and societal cultures had impaired my emotional self-awareness and my sense of the emotional experiences of others and thus my ability to emotionally connect with others, creating a great deal of anxiety.  With the support of a kind and patient therapist, I was able to allow myself to feel again, learn to reconnect with my emotions by giving them names, listen for understanding as to why those emotions arose, and, perhaps most importantly, that by allowing them to flow through me instead of denying them, learn to value them as much as my logical intelligence bringing more balance and compassion to my experience of the world.

So, how excited was I when I read this research that reflects how experiencing difficulties with identifying, describing and feeling emotions (alexithymia) explains the association between finding the healthy balance of interdependence (autonomy-connectedness) with anxiety and depression as it validated my personal journey.  Prior to this research, evidence showed that the concept of autonomy-connectedness was related to anxiety and depression, yet little was known about the underlying causes.  The results of this research offer guidance to mental health practitioners when supporting people experiencing anxiety and depression, specifically assessing, supporting, and increasing emotional awareness.

If you would like to read more on this research, click on the link below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Reduce Stress

“We can never attain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”― Dalai Lama

The month of April, among other things, has been designated Stress Awareness Month.  The first step to making any change in our life is awareness.  Without awareness, we tend to  continue on our journeys doing the same old things, repeating old patterns, all while hoping the results will be different.

With awareness comes understanding, which leads to compassion and choice.  One of the best habits we can develop for our body/mind/spirit health is learning our personal triggers and noticing when and where we feel stress.  To this end, below are some ideas to consider to support this healthy habit:

  1. Understand common sources of stress.  Change – good or bad – tends to create stress.  Therefore, recognizing the amount of change we are experiencing in the moment can help the mind to understand why we might not feel ourselves.  With this awareness and understanding, we might be more willing to offer ourselves some compassion, letting that compassion support our next choice.  We all might recognize that the loss of a partner or other loved one as being stressful, yet we might not be as aware that marriage, pregnancy, retirement from work, quitting smoking, vacation, and/or moving to a new home are stress producing life events.  Consider taking a moment to complete the Life Change Index Scale (The Stress Test) to deepen your understanding of what life events are considered stressful and determine your current level of stress from those events.
  2. Know the symptoms of PTSD.  The source of our stress might not be coming from our current experience of change but may be emanating from a past experience of trauma.  Most of us are aware that war Veterans may experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); however, many (I dare say most) of us are not aware that PTSD can be a result of early adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, having a parent with a mental health challenge and/or addiction, and/or witnessing domestic violence, non-the-less more overt abuse and neglect. Consider taking a moment to complete the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Questionnaire to determine your ACE score and how your childhood experiences may be impacting your current body/mind/spirit health.
  3. Identify where you experience stress in the body.  Once you have gained a greater awareness of what life events (past and present) cause change and stress, consider taking a moment to sit in reflection, welcoming your stress to be present in your awareness, and sense into your body.  We all experience stress in our bodies differently.  Some of us might experience headaches/migraines.  Others might experience digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  And others may experience frequent, diffuse muscular and nerve pain.  Our bodies hold great wisdom, so taking the time to welcome the sensations and notice where the mind’s awareness is drawn into the body, contributes to the foundation of the healthy habit of acknowledging when and where we are experiencing stress.
  4. Give yourself permission to learn to relax.  Many of us were not taught to value fun and relaxation as a basic human need.  In fact, I think the message most of us sensed was that we must work hard to be successful (whatever the definition of success might be for each of us) which does not leave time and space for anything else.  So know that it is up to you to challenge that message by embracing a new message, one that allows you to prioritize you.  Prioritizing your self-care is not selfish!  It is absolutely necessary to find balance and peace and health!!  Therefore, consider finding what works for you, whether it is movement, writing, connecting with others, anything that is a way to release stress from the body and mind and give yourself permission to just do it.
  5. Set limits.  I discovered a mantra many years ago that I found very freeing:  Say no so others can grow.  And yes, it can be easier to say than do!  However, with a little practice and a change in perspective, you will find it gets easier.  The change in perspective is seeing “saying no” as a gift you are giving the other person (and also to yourself!).  For example, when teaching a little one to tie their shoes, at some point you must say to them, “No, I’m not going to do it for you today as I know you know how to do it yourself.”  And, although they might get mad and cry (and even scream), if you stick it out, the joy they experience once they have done it themselves is the gift.  When you can really embrace this new perspective, you will begin to think “Who am I to think I have to do everything myself and rob others of opportunities for growth?”  If one of your personal values is growth then saying no to others can be seen as the necessary rain for the growth of others (and, oh, by the way, for yourself).  Setting limits in this way results in growth while reducing stress by reducing the probability that we will overcommit ourselves

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!

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Support Our Sense of Smell

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”― William Shakespeare


I found myself noticing the scent of the orange blossoms in the air this week.  It is one of my most favorite scents and I make sure to stop and smell the small, delicate white flowers on my neighbors’ trees as often as I can.  It is a reminder of why our county was named “Orange” and how grateful I am to be living in Southern California.

However, as we march (pun intended) in the direction of Spring, many of us still remember the direct experience of coming down with the flu or that nasty head cold or at least, being around someone that was sick and doing what we could to stay healthy.  Then, with Spring, comes the experience of seasonal allergies, when many of us are challenged to take in full, deep breaths without sneezing and are unable to enjoy the Neroli oil in the air.  It is not a pleasant time when our nose is inflammed and we are cut off from our natural breath, restricting our connection to our life force energy, and from experiencing all of the wonderful aromas that are blossoming at this time of year.

The connection between our nose as our scent sense organ and the brain is different than our other sense organs.  Our senses of sight, hearing, touch, and taste all pass information through the thalmus to the cerebral cortex, allowing thoughts to be a part of our response to the external stimuli.  On the other hand, scent data is sent to the olfactory bulbs in our brain, which then relays information to the limbic system, including the amygdala, which is our emotional memory center.  And, as we age, our sense of smell, along with our sense of taste, begins to fade as does our memories.  And when our sense of smell fades, like when we experience a head cold, life is not as pleasant.

In fact, studies have shown that losing your sense of smell can actually be dangerous, such as when you are unable to detect a gas leak or lose interest in eating.  Therefore, below I offer some intention-setting ideas to help maintain the healthy function of your nose and support a full five-sense experience of life:

  1. Eat more nuts, seeds and dark chocolate!.  What do these three food items have in common you might ask – ZINC!  If you diet does not include enough daily zinc, it will impact your sense of smell.  With meat being a big source of zinc, many of us who are vegetarians or vegans just might be experiencing a zinc deficiency and not know it.  Consider adding flax and/or sesame seeds to your morning cereal or shake, eating a handful of dark chocolate covered peanuts and cashews as a mid-day snack and adding pumpkins seeds as a bed time snack (they help you to sleep better at night!) to make sure you are getting enough zinc in your diet.
  2. Eat only when you’re hungry!  Our sense of smell and taste are heightened when we are hungry.  Research has shown that olfactory function improved when fasting and demonstrated reduced activity during satiation.  All of our body systems are impacted by the nutritional balance and chemical state of the body, including our olfactory system.  It serves as an internal sensor, so when we are hungry, our ability to perceive odors is enhanced.
  3. Invest in an essential oil diffuser or humidifier.  Science has begun to focus on experiences that up to this point where mostly anecdotal, like how our sense of smell seems to be sharper when it rains in the spring.  Well, the research is now able to confirm that humidity acts as a transporter of smells in the air, bringing the odor molecules to our nose.  So the higher the humidity, the more odor molecules in the air, the more intense the scent perceivable to our noses.
  4. Try using a Neti pot for a week.  In Ayurveda, the sister science to yoga, this daily nasal cleansing practice is encouraged, similar to and along with teeth brushing and tongue scraping.  The warm, saline water washes away any irritants (think air born environmental allergens), reducing inflammation, and moisturizing the sinus passages, once again improving the sensitivity of the olfactory nerves.  I recommend this practice if you tend to suffer from allergies or are prone to sinus infections as well.
  5. Stop and smell the roses.  Don’t take your sense of smell for granted.  It is a major source of information and pleasure.  Since our sense of smell is tied so closely to our emotional experiences, when we lose our sense of smell we may begin to experience more sadness, increasing the risk of depression.  Give your sense of smell as much attention as you would your senses of sight and hearing.  And, if you are experiencing a decline in your sense of smell, possibly consider exploring more structured retraining of this sense by working with the four scent groupings:  flowery (i.e., rose), fruity (i.e., lemon), spicy (i.e., clove), and resinous (i.e., eucalyptus).

What is my purpose and why does seeking it matter?

As a young woman working in the predominately male corporate culture, I struggled to find purpose, or meaning, in the work that I did to reduce the frustration, among many other mixed emotions, that I felt on a daily basis.  In fact, I still have a framed print hanging on a wall in my home from a previous employer reflecting a vision that resonated with me on a deep soul level:  Discovery & Hope.  It was also at this same employer that I experienced what has come to be referred to as ‘sexual misconduct’ today.

When I reflect back on that time of my life, one of the things that stands out for me is how I still managed to get up every morning and feel motivated to go to work.  I really enjoyed what I was doing and was able to remind myself that what I was doing was closely tied to improving the health and well-being of others, which was a personal value of mine.  So, although my work conditions were not mentally and emotionally healthy, creating meaning out of the actual work I was doing seemed to propel me forward in life.

Now, flash forward many years later, including a mid-life career change to better align my personal values and gifts with how I engage in the workforce, what weighs on my mind is the rise in the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.  I know, through my studies on the normal, natural developmental stages of life that memory loss is to be expected and is a normal part of the aging process.  However, what may not be so well understood is the underlying causes of dementia.  What is coming to light is that chronic stress is associated with damage to a critical part of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, and memory loss and may predict progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

So, when I became aware of recent research suggesting that cultivating a sense of purpose, or meaning in our lives demonstrated a 30% reduction in the risk of developing dementia, it caught my attention!  I don’t believe there is any corresponding research showing such a significant reduction in risk by using any currently available prescription medications when it comes to this age-related disease.  Even more encouraging is that this research suggests that the results are independent of psychological distress, in other words, even if you find yourself in a mentally and emotionally stressful environment, if you are leading a meaningful and goal-driven life, this sense of purpose may be protecting your brain against the risk of developing dementia.

With this new discovery comes hope.  If you feel lost or sense your purpose in life is not so clear, therapy can be a resource.  I know it personally helped me to get in touch with my needs and values, identify false or limiting beliefs I had collected along the way, and gain clarity on aligning my personal priorities and professional goals.  Sometimes we just need to create a sacred place for the exploration to reconnect with our own inner wisdom and ask a fellow journey(wo)men to assist in fine tuning our sense of purpose and meaning to serve as a guide on the journey toward lasting body, mind, and spirit well-being.

If you would like to read more about this emerging research, click on the link below:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Make Yoga a Daily Home Practice

“Tension is who you think you should be.  Relaxation is who you are.”― Ancient Chinese Proverb

As Chinese Astrology follows the lunar calendar, we recently celebrated the Chinese New Year and entered into the year of the Yang (Brown) Earth Dog at the time of the second new moon of the calendar year.  As an expression of unconditional love with an innate sense of intuition and resiliency, a dog’s energy is a reflection of the best parts of ourselves.  The element of earth reminds us that we must remain connected to the earth through our roots as it is the earth that provides the nutrients for our growth.  The masculine yang – or doing – energy of the year will support us in laying our new foundations to elevate our sense of security and balance this year and into the future.

So as you explore reconnecting with the unconditional love and acceptance that resides in your own heart on your journey this year of building a new, more secure foundation for the future, I thought you might need a little assistance in maintaining the balance between “doing” and “being” that will be required to sustain your forward moving energy this year.  Therefore, below I have offered some intention-setting ideas to consider to support a daily yoga practice no matter where you are in the moment:

  1. Breathe.  As we create space for ourselves on our mat for our yoga asana practice, what many of us quickly realize is that our breath contains the power – both the strength and flexibility we desire.  The connection to the power of our breath is often the first practice we take off of our mat and out into the world.  Our breath becomes our best internal guide on how to move in the external experience with the most ease and grace.  So when you begin to sense an experience of overwhelm from all of “the doing”, let it be a reminder to you to simply invite your breath into the moment, breathing deeply, expansively, and with great attention for several minutes, to bring back perspective and balance.  You can do this anywhere – even in traffic!
  2. Mudra.  Many of us might have been “doing” yoga for many years on our mat and still not have learned about mudras.  Mudras are yoga poses, often practiced with a focus on the hands and fingers, with the intention of supporting your body’s energy flow.  The Sanskrit word mudra is translated as “seal” or “gesture” and they are powerful tools to facilitate the flow of energy in our subtle bodies.  One I would recommend to practice when feeling ungrounded, scattered, and/or overwhelmed from “the doing” and to reconnect us to the earth, is Adhi mudra.  Simply curl your thumbs into your palms, wrap you fingers around your thumbs, turn your knuckles down towards the earth and rest your hands on your lap.  Again, you can do this practically anywhere, anytime – but maybe not in traffic!
  3. Mantra.  Mantra is the practice of repeating a sacred sound, word or phrase, often in Sanskrit, in order to support an increase in our ability to focus or concentrate or create a shift in consciousness.  Research has shown that chanting the Sanskrit sound “OM” (pronounced AUM) can change the structure of the human brain.  A more modern understanding of mantra has been offered through the use of affirmations.  Although different in the origin and purpose, identifying an affirmation that resonates with you and repeating it several times in a row, several times a day for several weeks might create the desired shift in perspective!
  4. Meditate.  An often heard response to this idea is “I don’t have any time”, which is the truest indicator that such a practice might have the greatest impact.  When starting a meditation practice, it does not require you to find a quiet place to sit with your legs crossed in silence for 20 minutes trying to stop your thoughts.  Today there are many free applications that you can access on your mobile device and follow along with the guidance provided.  Some of these meditation practices are for as little as one minute.  Can you set aside just one minute each day for yourself?  What you might discover over time is that you experience the world differently – with more joy or ease – after meditating, so you tend to practice longer, maybe for 20 or 30 minutes a day!
  5. Practice present-moment awareness.  I have found that the ultimate body-mind-spirit balancing practice is the experience of presence.  When we are fully present in our interactions – when we are “doing” – you can experience a resounding sense of peace and clarity.  To begin to sharpen this tool of presence, stop everything you are doing for just a minute.  Focus on your immediate environment, taking mental notes of the objects around you, including the colors, shapes, smells, movement, and sounds that the mind becomes aware of, possibly even engaging the sense of touch by running your fingers or hand across one of the objects.  Pretend you are taking a mini video with your mind, capturing as many details as possible with the intention of describing what you see, hear, smell, and feel to someone else who missed the opportunity to experience what you are experiencing.  At the end of the day, allow yourself to close your eyes for another minute to reflect on this experience to see how many details you can remember and, more importantly, sense what it feels like in the body-mind connection to have been so present in that moment.  The more you keep this tool sharp, the stronger your presence grows along with a sense of connection to all!