5 Intention-setting Ideas to Build Resilience

“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind.  The goal is to find it.” ― Buddha

We all experience challenges in our life that cause us pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual. Adversity is a fact of life and part of the common human condition.  So accepting this fact might be the first step towards improving our health and well-being and reducing the suffering that accompanies the inevitable painful experiences of this life.

Research on resilience has shown that increasing our levels of resiliency correlates with improved overall health. Resilience can be defined as the ability to adapt well to change or bounce back after adversity.  Life can be hard at times, but I won’t buy into the mantra that life is hard.  If we can learn to go with the flow of life more quickly and stop banging our heads on the same wall thinking we will get a different result, we might just realize that life is full of beauty in any given moment or circumstance.

The human spirit  is quite adaptive and resilient naturally and the road to such resiliency is loaded with potholes.  It is the ongoing process of learning how to navigate the potholes of life that actually builds resiliency.    That’s the good news – we all can continue to learn new ways to build our resiliency, and thus our health, and I offer 5 practices below for your reflection and consideration:
  1. Seek the Silver Lining!.  Yoga, commonly understood to mean union, provides an alternative view of life than our culture, where independence – or being separate from others – is the goal if you want to be happy.  When you view life through the lens of being separate, it guides you to pick a side, such as I am either happy or sad. However, when you view life through a yogic lens, or take a non-dual approach, then you realize you can’t experience happiness without sadness.  And this applies to all emotions, thoughts, circumstances and experiences.  So, the next time you hit a pothole in life, let it stop you for a moment of reflection and search for the goodness – the benefit – of the situation.  If you search long and hard enough, you will always find the silver lining – and it might just be more valuable than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!!
  2. Move Toward the Pain.  You will never be able to escape the pain, no matter how fast you run or how many things you add to your “To Do” list to distract yourself.  The only way to get to the other side of pain, is through it. If you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.  So, once again, when you realize that you have hit a pothole in life, take a moment to get curious about the pain.  Ask yourself, what is this pain telling me or what can I learn from this pain?  Pain, and the accompanying mixed emotions, have great wisdom to offer and will revisit us often if we don’t learn to appreciate our natural emotional intelligence!
  3. Give Your Heart a Workout.  The art of giving to, and receiving from, others has been shown to build empathy, compassion and gratitude, which have been shown to reduce harmful chemicals in our bodies while increasing positive hormones and neurotransmitters, such as oxytocin and serotonin.  Giving to others does not need to be something tangible, like money or food.  You might simply set an intention to give each person you interact with during one day a silent blessing, such as “may you too find happiness” or “may you live life with joy and ease”. Then reflect at the end of the day on how your heart feels.  What may be harder for many of us is to gracefully accept the help of others when offered – receiving support is counter to our culture of independence.  But just remember how you felt after your day of offering silent blessings to everyone you met and remind yourself that you make others feel good about themselves when you accept their generosity, whether it is their time or compassionate ear.
  4. Vibe with Your Tribe.  Connect with friends and family that you know will understand what you are going through. Good relationships have been shown to increase resiliency during times of change.  If you have a tendency to isolate yourself when you experience a painful situation, know that just being in the presence of other caring and compassionate people will be the balm to soothe the soul.  If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s ok. Instead you might join a community event or find yourself in a yoga class with your favorite teacher!
  5. Perform Daily Acts of Self-care.  Being kind to yourself does not mean you are selfish or lazy.  It means you are committed to your health!  And when you are healthy, you are in a better position to bring your gifts to the world. One of the most effective daily self-care practices is to take regular mental breaks throughout the day, even if it is only a minute or two each hour.  Stopping what you are doing, closing your eyes, and taking 10 slow deep breaths allows the body and mind to process and integrate information taken in through our five senses.  If you have more time, find yourself out in nature, maybe for a short walk or a longer hike, paying attention to your surroundings and what your five senses are experiencing in the moment.  Laughter has also been shown to reduce tension, so watching a funny video or show might just be what the doctor orders!  Just set an intention to do at least one activity a day that you enjoy or that you find relaxing for one week and then reflect on how you experienced your week overall.  Let me know what you discover!

Transgenerational trauma transmission – What does our childhood experiences tell us about our future health, both body and mind?

The month of May was proclaimed National Mental Health Awareness Month back in 2013 and, as I indicated in my last Talk Therapy reflection in March, I want to share more about the research around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the resulting developmental trauma, and the long-term impact on body-mind health.  The intention behind this reflection is to bring more awareness to the underlying causes of dis-ease and, through such awareness, expand our collective capacity for compassion for those suffering from the effects of early childhood trauma.  It is only through more education and awareness that our society will move in the direction of prevention by aligning resources with ways to stop the causes and turn away from just focusing on the treatment of the symptoms.

I also want to mention right up front that it is not my intention to place blame as that would be an attempt to simplify a very complex human condition.  As one of my dear colleagues once said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.  However, when we know better, we do better.”  Therefore, as you read this reflection and maybe read more about the research on this topic, I hope you will come to see, as I did, that our traumatic experiences are not isolated and, in fact, most likely emanate from past generations living through similar experiences without the resources that are available today.

The first ACE study that began in 1995 was conducted in collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization in southern California.  The participants, over 17,000 patients with health insurance were asked to complete a confidential questionnaire that asked about childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction to identify any relationships between specific ACE and known risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol/drug abuse, for chronic disease.  Since this first study, many studies have been done to validate the original results, using larger and more diverse population samples to assess if the exposure to ACE increases the risk of adult disease and disability. If you are interested in reading more, the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/journal.html) contains a listing of journal articles by topic area.

The original study included seven categories of ACE, including abuse (physical, psychological, sexual), domestic violence (violence against mother), and household dysfunction due to any members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.  Future studies expanded the ACE categories to include family dysfunction due to divorce and to track alcohol and other drug abuse separately.

What all of these studies have come to show is that ACEs are more common than any of us would want to know.  These studies have also shown that a majority of ACEs are not experienced in isolation, meaning that if children experienced one ACE they probably experienced more than one ACE, guiding future research to investigate the cumulative impact of multiple childhood traumas on the development of disease.  In addition, the higher the cumulative ACE score, the greater association with many mental, physical, emotional, and social problems, including substance use and abuse.

Expanding our awareness of what constitutes an ACE and the fact that ACEs impact the neurodevelopment of children, disrupting the healthy development of the human nervous system, begins to open our minds and hearts.  Deepening our understanding further that a damaged nervous system may guide children toward unhealthy coping strategies to survive the complex traumas they have lived through, opens the door to compassion, instead of judgment and punishment, by helping us all to realize that these unhealthy behaviors were not a choice these children made, but were normal, natural adaptive responses to inhumane conditions that they found themselves in by no choice of their own.

If you are interested in learning more about how ACEs are being assessed or to determine your own ACE score, click on the ACE SCORE CALCULATOR button below.

If you would like to read a summary of the ACEs study data presented by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including prevention efforts based upon this growing awareness and understanding of developmental trauma, click on the SAMHSA button below.

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Celebrate Earth Day

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. — William Shakespeare

The scientific research on climate change indicates that humans need to step up and start making changes to support Mother Earth.  We might think to ourselves “But what can I do, I’m only one person?”  Remember even small steps, taken by many, add up and the choices we make can have a significant impact on slowing climate change when viewed from a broader, more global lens. And when we take time to honor Mother Earth’s abundance, we too reap the rewards knowing we are connected to such abundance and beauty!

Earth Day has been honored each year on April 22nd since 1970 in the US.  In 1990, Earth Day went global.   According to Earth Day Network (www.earthday.org), “More than 1 billion people now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world.”  So know that you are not alone even if you decide to honor this special day in your own way, on your own!

Below are just a few ideas that you might consider trying:

  1. Community Cleanup.  This idea can be as simple as grabbing a large garbage bag, going to your favorite outdoor spot, and picking up as much garbage as you can carry or it can be as elaborate as organizing a community cleanup of a local park or beach.  Or maybe it is something in between, like inviting a few a your neighbors to join you to clean up an area that has been neglected and then celebrate together afterwards with a pot luck lunch or dinner.  Or you could join a community cleanup that has already been organized for your favorite park or beach.  Remember, no effort is too small when it comes to expressing our gratitude for Mother Earth’s support and nurturing!
  2. Grow Food.  Again, this idea might be to simply start with your favorite herb or it might be to plant an entire garden of your favorite vegetables.  Or if you have always wanted to have a fruit tree in your yard, consider adding one this year!  If you don’t have a yard where you can start a garden or plant a tree, no worries, start with your favorite herb and put it on a windowsill.  Growing just one thing that can be enjoyed by your entire family is a great way to connect with and honor Mother Earth.
  3. Unplug.  You can interpret this intention in one of two ways and both are wonderful!  One way is to consciously unplug appliances when not in use. Your efforts will not only reduce your electric bill but also reduce overall electricity consumption.  Another way to unplug is to leave your smart phone, computer, or any other electronic device at home while spending time outside listening to the music nature makes for our listening pleasure. Try this for a whole day and check in at the end of the day to sense what might have shifted inside.  You might discover that the body asks you to unplug more!
  4. Go Paperless.  Have you thought about switching from receiving your bills in the mail to e-bills?  Well, Earth Day is a great day to set the intention to do so and help save our trees.  Remember we breathe in the oxygen trees produce, so by saving trees, we are saving ourselves!
  5. Replace Light Bulbs.  If you haven’t already, maybe consider replacing any traditional incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient ones to save yourself time and money, while once again relieving some of the pressure on Mother Earth.  According to Energy.gov, replacing the five most used light bulbs in your home with ENERGY STAR versions can save you $75 a year.  After changing over my light bulbs several years ago, I actually can’t remember the last time I changed a bulb.  Energy.gov’s comparison of a 60W traditional bulb’s life of 1000 hours to an equivalent 12W LED bulb’s life of 25,000 hours allows me to stop worrying about having to stock up on light bulbs!

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:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Embrace the Shakti Energy Within

“Forget conventionalisms; forget what the world thinks of you stepping out of your place; think your best thoughts, speak your best words, work your best works, looking to your own conscience for approval.” – Susan B. Anthony

Since 1995, March has been designated as Women’s History Month in the United States and International Women’s Day has been celebrated around the world on March 8th since 1914.  I can’t think of a better time to embrace and celebrate the Shakti within regardless of your gender identify!

The word Shakti in Sanskrit might be translated in several ways yet it is most frequently applied to the divine feminine. The word “Shakti” comes from the root “shak” meaning “to be able to” or “the potential to produce”.  Sometimes Shakti is spelled “Shakthi” which means “power” or “empowerment”, so the term has been utilized to represent the power, force, and feminine energy within all.  In Hinduism, Shakti represents the underlying creative force of all divinity, providing the energy to everything without which the world would not exist.

When we try to deny or ignore some aspect or part of ourselves, we begin to feel disconnected from our authentic self and our other tribe members. So, if you are looking to feel more comfortable in your own skin and embrace life more fully, it is important to acknowledge all parts, accept them, and welcome them to the table to celebrate your wholeness and well-being.  When some aspect of ourselves feels stifled, ignored, oppressed, or dismissed, it tends to get loud and protest.  Sound familiar?  Just what the women in the world continue to protest against to this day.  So, if you want them to quiet down, you MUST create equal time for their expression, treat them with honor and respect, and demonstrate their value!

So, how can we all honor and embrace that Shakti part of ourselves?  Below are 5 suggestions for your consideration. And, if you should be so bold to support change in the world, I would love to hear about your experience!

  1. Reflect.  In our multi-tasking culture, we rarely find time to take a moment and reflect. Yet, it is through reflection that we become more aware of what it is we need – body, mind, spirit – to grow and transform.  When we create time and space to reflect, we go deeper within ourselves and begin to commune with our true essence, our Source, our inner truth and strength, realizing the authority of our lives does not come from the outside. Exploring our inner landscape through reflection opens the door to the deep inner stillness and peace within.  From this deep inner point, we touch the power and wisdom of the feminine that originates from simply “being” and not “doing”.  Don’t be afraid – dive deep into the reflective pool of Shakti energy and emerge refreshed from connecting to your soul’s yearnings.
  2. Listen to Your Gut.  More and more research is revealing how intelligent our guts are, even beginning to refer to our bellies as our second brain. It is no surprise when you understand that both the brain and the gut develop from the same embryonic tissue. So if you are interested in expanding your ability to make wise decisions for yourself, begin to pay more attention to your belly.  As you set an intention to listen more deeply to your gut, not only will you notice it guiding your food choices (based upon how your body processes different foods), but you may also notice it guiding your activity choices, helping you to say “No” when asked to do something that doesn’t make your heart and soul sing.
  3. Go into Nature.  As we approach the Vernal Equinox, where Mother Earth experiences equal amounts of light and dark, and begin to see the natural world coming out of hibernation, it is a great reminder of the natural flow, and cycles of life. When we are able to observe and connect with the rhythms of nature, feel the flow of the tides, and understand the interconnectivity of it all, we plug into an eternal energy source that fuels our own natural tendency towards creativity and joy. Go outside, tune into the sounds of the birds singing or the waves of the ocean and give yourself permission to lose yourself for a few moments while you join the river of life flowing through you!
  4. Create Connections. In addition to reconnecting to Mother Nature, maybe consider expanding your connections with others, yet taking a page from Mother Nature’s book in your approach.  Our current culture directly and indirectly encourages and supports competition, which creates winners and losers, which emanates more from the masculine energy.  Therefore, to ensure balance, approach your relationships with an attitude of collaboration instead of competition.  I was once asked, would you prefer being right and risk being alone or would you prefer being connected and risk being happy?  When we release our need to be right and perfect, our energy becomes available to work together to elevate the collective consciousness of the world, transforming ourselves and others!
  5. Smile More.  Smiling is contagious! A genuine smile can diffuse a tense situation and infuse some light into dark, heavy energy.  So when you smile, your energy can bring about positive change, facilitate movement, and open a door for dialogue which may not have been possible otherwise. So remember to smile and remind yourself through your smile you are inviting joy into your own life while also naturally bringing joy into the world!

What will it really take to reduce drug abuse in the world?

No, not more law enforcement efforts to reduce the production and transportation of illegal drugs.  This question has a basic economic component – as long as the demand is greater than the supply, the war on drugs will be lost.  So, how do we reduce the demand for drugs?  We must learn why people turn to drugs in the first place and we must stop buying into the belief that drug addiction is a disease and one that affects only the weak!

I have always felt that more compassion and understanding were needed for people who found themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, not punishment, and yet, I wasn’t aware of the research that might support my feelings.  Then I read Dr. Gabor Maté’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, and I felt so validated in my view of this deeply concerning human experience.  This book opened my eyes and my heart to the underlying reasons that someone might turn to substances to soothe a painful internal landscape.  What Dr. Maté highlights is that addiction is a normal, natural response to emotional loss which is traumatizing to the human spirit. In other words, addiction soothes the pain of trauma.  So, drugs work – even if only to temporarily separate, or dissociate from the internal emotional pain of our traumatizing experiences.  And sometimes drugs may be the only reliable source of comfort that is available.  Sad, but true and I know many people find this fact hard to believe, especially when they have not walked in the shoes of the people they judge.  Then, when it happens in our own families, it becomes even harder to accept because we must take some accountability and responsibility for the depth of the pain that our loved ones feel.

Now, not all individuals that experience early childhood trauma will turn to drugs, so further research is needed to better understand the relationship between adverse childhood events and dissociation through addiction to manage overwhelming, painful emotions.  What some more recent research has shown is that there is another factor to consider in the equation, alexithymia.  A normal part of our development as children is learning how to understand and express emotions in order to regulate our emotional environment and we learn this by observing and exchanging emotions with our caregivers.  However, when children experience developmental trauma this lesson is impossible to learn, impairing our ability to deal with our emotional experiences and alexithymia develops, which is simply the difficulty to identify, describe, and feel our emotional states.

Early research suggested that men may experience alexithymia more than women, possibly due to the underlying beliefs found in a patriarchal societal culture that values logic and reason over intuition and emotion.  However, with the emerging research that is looking at the association between trauma, alexithymia and dissociation in the role of addiction, it appears that trauma disrupts the ability to process emotions in both genders equally.  Patriarchy only adds another layer of complexity, as this culture informs men – and thus women trying to succeed in a man’s world – that emotions are not valued and reflect some weakness in character.

These research findings bring much awareness to how the human spirit needs emotional connection with others who can nurture both our rational and intuitive intelligence, both our ability to feel and to understand our emotions, and ultimately express our emotions so that our actions can be guided, and not driven by them.  I found this research quite calming to my own spirit, not only because it validated my personal experience but because it validates a new approach to healing addiction, one that comes from a place of compassion and great appreciation for the resiliency of the human spirit instead of through further traumatization supported by the current, failing war on drugs.  This new approach is growing from a broader and deeper understanding of what is considered developmental trauma, which I will write more about in my next Talk Therapy reflection, and the need to help people put words to their powerful, sometimes overwhelming, emotional experiences of the past in order to face the pain and fear head on, because if you can’t feel it, you can’t heal it.

We all can make a difference in reducing the demand for drugs and decrease the incidence of addiction.  My recommendation in doing so is to look into the research that supports that addiction is a symptom, not a disease.  From this deeper understanding, embrace the idea that we are all born with emotions and emotions are a significant part of our intelligence.  Once there, commit to being a better role model to the people in your life by openly expressing your emotions and not just the “positive” ones – all of them, including disappointment, rage, guilt, shame – as all emotions are vital parts of our wholeness and well-being.

If you want to take the first step on the path of deeper understanding of addiction, click on the link below to read a recent study that explores the relationship between developmental trauma, dissociation, and alexithymia:

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Improve Your Heart’s Health

“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.” ― Rumi

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing the same old suggestions of eat healthier, exercise more, and stop smoking if I want to keep my heart strong.  Not that these suggestions are bad ones, it’s just that when they stand alone without a broader view of what impacts our hearts, they can be almost impossible to do.  Easier said than done, I say!

Living in a culture that values independence, extroversion, and multi-tasking, we can find ourselves alone, seeking the company of others for inspiration and energy while trying to do more with less.  What I have found is that this can be a recipe that feeds an underlying monster gnawing at our self-worth, supporting a compulsion to compare ourselves to others in an attempt to measure our value, and fueling behaviors that reflect our efforts to try to be “super” human or risk being perceived as “less than” when we fail to accomplish the unrealistic or impossible.  If we don’t recognize all of the factors that create chronic stress in our lives and work to reduce that stress, we will continue to crave “comfort foods” and be less likely to seek out, none-the-less implement other heart health-supporting activities or behaviors.

I was directly and indirectly taught as I grew up that it was “selfish” if I focused on myself in any way.  What I have since learned through much trial and error, anxiety, and exhaustion, is that i MUST focus on myself or risk becoming someone no one wants to be around.  If we don’t practice some sort of “self-care” each day where we honor our own needs, we create an internal environment of increasing, chronic pressure that builds to a boiling point, jeopardizing our own well-being and the well-being of the lives we touch.

Therefore, below (and in my blog this month) I am honoring American Hearth Health month by offering 5 intention-setting ideas supported by new research that can reduce cortisol, our stress hormone and improve your heart health by creating opportunities to slow down and giving ourselves permission to focus on one task at a time in order to honor our humanness and our universal value by simply BEING:

  1. Shorten Your Daily “To Do” List.  A belief that has crept into many of our hearts and minds is that we must do more than others in order to be valued in this world.  The fear that underlies this belief is that if we don’t outperform others and be recognized for our “super” human feats, we will be pushed aside, left out of our tribe leading to the loss of our basic human survival need of connection. This unhealthy belief may have some roots in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, yet this theory simply suggests that we adapt to our environment not expect humans to have super hero qualities. Therefore, I challenge you to try limiting your “to do” list to just 3 important tasks per day, with at least one of them being a self-care item, for one week. After a couple of days, reflect on what it is like to set and maintain more realistic expectations of yourself.  And don’t forget to reflect on the responses you get from others.  To support yourself in this challenge, a mantra that I repeat often is “less is more” so maybe write this mantra down first before crafting your new shorter daily “to do” list.  I look forward to hearing about the results!
  2. Remember to Breathe.  The human body is amazing in so many ways and one of the most magnificent is the fact that our breath has both an involuntary and voluntary component to it!  We all recognize that we don’t have to consciously think about moving the body systems that support our ability to breathe in order to breathe.  If it was required then the only thing we would need on our daily “to do” list is a reminder to constantly focus on our breath! However, if we don’t take time to sit with our breath more consciously, it will become short and constricted, depriving our bodies of what it needs most to live fully, exacerbating the stress our bodies are already under.  On the other hand, stopping several times throughout our day to engage more actively with our breath has been shown to reduce stress hormones in the body and mind. When you focus on your breath, you more deeply appreciate the fact that it is the only part of your autonomic nervous system that you can control.  And it doesn’t take too long for the breath to reduce the increased levels of cortisol created from stress.  Simply inviting a longer, deeper inhale and exhale into your day for 3 to 5 breaths maybe 3 times a day for a week is a great place to start. With this practice you may begin to notice that it only takes about 90 seconds to feel a difference!
  3. Aromatherapy.  Engaging our sense of smell with essential oils has also been shown to affect the levels of stress hormones in the mind and body. Specifically, bergamot has been shown to increase the hormone responsible for calming the adrenal glands so they are less likely to secrete cortisol and lavender has been shown to reduce cortisol levels.  One simple way to incorporate the heart-healthy benefits of aromatherapy is to use a diffuser.  Another option is to put about 5 drops of oil on a wet wash cloth and place the cloth on the shower floor as you shower each morning.  If you prefer taking a bath, no problem just add the oil right into the bath water and maybe consider adding some Epsom salts for a two-pronged approach to reducing inflammation in the body and mind.
  4. Listen to Music.  Research is starting to show that listening to a specific genre of classical music can reduce blood pressure.  The classical music compositions that had the greatest impact were ones that matched the rhythm of the body, ones that had a slower, repeating 10-second rhythm.  Not a big fan of classical music, maybe try finding a mix that includes the sounds of nature, such as rain, thunder, ocean waves, waterfalls, or even crickets.  Double the relaxation by having the music playing while you bathe!   .
  5. Strive for Satya.  Satya is one of yoga’s guiding principles and is the Sanskrit term for truthfulness.  However, it has a broader meaning than simply speaking the truth.  It challenges us to consider the intentions behind our actions and our actions themselves. So not only do we consider the truthfulness of our words, we consider if our words, intentions and actions are in harmony and integrity with the greater truths with which we value and by which we live.  When we stray from our truths and thus venture into deceit, we betray ourselves and others, bringing unnecessary stress and pain into our bodies and minds. And one of the most common experience of straying from our truths is buying into the story that self-care is selfish!  In fact, spending time with ourselves, by ourselves, in self-reflection for self-discovery is another one of yoga’s guiding principle, but that is a topic for another day.  Suffice it to say here and now that by taking the time to identify and own your personal values and being guided by those values in your daily interactions will go a long way towards reducing stress in your life and the lives of others.

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:

 

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Expand Our Human Capacity for Empathy

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” ― Henry David Thoreau

There is a growing body of research evidence to support the benefits of empathy, including a reduction in bullying in schools, better health outcomes and fewer medical errors in health care, and improved quality of intimate, family, and work relationships.  So exactly what is empathy and how might we go about expanding this critical core component of emotional intelligence if it can change the world in such profound ways?

Empathy is our ability to sense the emotional experience of another person, our wish to understand another person’s perspective, which may be difficult when it is different from our own, and be open to allowing the understanding to guide our actions.  Thanks to the discovery of mirror neurons in our brains, neuroscientists have opened the door to viewing the human capacity for empathy as an attribute that can be exercised and strengthened just like our muscles in our body.

And with much of the efforts in the world focused on creating revolutionary change at this time, it’s not surprising that the experience may be felt as polarizing, asking each of us to deeply sense and feel our own emotions, possibly beyond our own emotionally intelligent skill set.  So setting an intention to try one of the five ideas (listed below) to expand our individual capacity for empathy for our fellow human beings around the globe may just be the spark that lights the flame that draws others to the light, where we can see more clearly that we all simply desire to be accepted as we are, appreciated for our unique gifts, and loved unconditionally as we grow:

  1. Make (and maintain) eye contact and smile.  We are social beings, yet in this ‘social media’ era, we find ourselves more connected to an electronic device than to other living, breathing beings.  It feels good to be seen and greeted with a warm smile.  Simply smiling can calm fear and anxiety not only in you, but within the people you share your smile with.  Might I suggest a simply practice that takes less than a minute and let me know what the experience is like:  Close your eyes.  Inhale deeply.  As you exhale, drop your chin to your chest.  Curl the corners of your lips into a smile, inhale your head back up and then exhale.  Before opening your eyes, check in with yourself.  Do you feel a bit lighter?
  2. Listen deeply to another without interrupting.  Everyone has a story. As I read a long time ago in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covery, “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” Challenge yourself the next time you are having a conversation with someone to notice how many times you are formulating a response before the person has finished speaking, which means you are not really listening at all.  Then, consider trying to briefly summarize what you think you heard the person say before offering your response. Recently, I asked a friend if she would be willing to answer a question that might be politically charged if I promised to not respond with my opinion at all – I just wanted to hear and understand her perspective.  She agreed and I learned a lot!
  3. Identify and challenge your own prejudices. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all harbor prejudices, even if they are not our own.  We most likely inherited them from our family or the larger societal culture we grew up in. But until we can own them and then begin to reflect on the roots of such assumptions, we block our own growth and the potential growth of the collective consciousness.  Once we own them, we can begin to challenge them by looking for what all humans have in common instead of focusing on what makes us different.
  4. Be curious. When judgment comes up, take a breath and invite in curiosity.  The more curious we are, the more we open the door to our own happiness (as research is starting to show).  Curiosity about others, particularly people we don’t know well or maybe not at all, creates a tremendous learning opportunity, one in which we might just learn something new that makes our own lives easier.  Curiosity also expands understanding and understanding expands our empathy and connection to others.
  5. Practice Ahimsa. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit term that is typically translated to ‘non-violence’.  During my journey to becoming a yoga teacher, I was challenged to step back and observe my self-talk and notice how violent it could get.  If we were to record our thoughts about ourselves and play it out loud, you would probably be a bit shocked at how harsh we can be towards ourselves – and certainly would think we would never speak to another person that way.  So practicing Ahimsa starts with each one of us individually, checking our own unkind self-talk and actively showing ourselves more loving kindness and understanding that we too are simply a human being doing what we can to survive.  When we can demonstrate to ourselves that we are worth such kindness, hostility disappears, both within ourselves and towards others!

Can talking about your emotions improve your heart health?

A significant part of my family culture viewed emotional expression as unacceptable or, at least, unnecessary and would disengage or withdraw from anyone that openly displayed emotions.  Also, any public display of affection (PDA) was discouraged, so, as a young child, I learned to ignore my emotions to be accepted by my family.  It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I began to realize I struggled to ‘control’ my emotions and, when I couldn’t, my self-talk became very judgmental, making me think there was something wrong with me because I had these emotions that would leak out at the most inappropriate times.

I had a lot of practice at separating my physical sensations as precursors to full blown emotions from the thoughts my mind would form in response, telling myself often that you must be logical and rational and not move forward from an emotional or “irrational” experience.  I got skilled at ignoring even some basic biological needs, such as hunger as these experiences were not emanating from the mind’s rational control.  Now, learning to compartmentalize in this way is not necessarily detrimental in the moment.  In fact, it can be quite helpful in times of chaos or crisis.  However, after years of trying to follow the family rules of minimal emotional expression, I began to experience a degradation of my physical health, including an increase in my weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and “bad” cholesterol levels.  And, as I mentioned, my emotions began exposing themselves more frequently, many times when I least expected them to do so.

It was at that point that I began searching for ways to get healthier, such as changing my diet and increasing exercise in my daily routine.  I also began traditional psychotherapy.  What I came to discover was that the level of stress I was experiencing was magnified by disowning my emotional self and trying to bring my emotions under rational control.  What I didn’t know at that time was that my amygdala, an area of the brain linked to stress, was in a heightened state of alert to danger, working overtime and causing a chain reaction of inflammation in my body.  When I began to learn how to befriend my feelings and not view them as the enemy that needs to be conquered, I started to sense an experience of relief.  As I got curious about my emotions and the messages behind them, I was able to begin to embrace the wisdom of my body and allow my emotions to have a voice in my decision-making and relationships.

Now, this wasn’t a quick and easy process.  I had to challenge not only my transgenerational, long-held family belief that emotions are BAD and I had to do so within a larger, societal culture that values the logical over the emotional.  Yet, with courage and support, the more I did, the better I felt.  Initially, I felt like an outsider or worse a traitor within my family.  It was also difficult at first to even identify the powerful emotions that I was experiencing as most of the time they were masked by anger.  As I learned to be more patient and accepting of myself, I was able to notice where I felt the emotions in my body and with the help of my psychotherapist, I was able to find a name for what I was feeling and explore why such emotions were arising.  Many times the sensations I would experience in my body would be pain in my head (i.e., tension headaches) or heaviness in my chest, around my heart, making it difficult to breathe.

As I got better at observing my body responses and understanding the messages behind my emotions, I was able to honor the wisdom and guidance being offered, instead of resisting, denying, or stuffing down my emotions.  I learned to listen more deeply to my body and respond to situations by integrating both the intelligence of the logical and the emotional parts of my mind.  As I did, my body rewarded me with an overall improvement in my physical health, including a lowering of my blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol levels.  I also found that I didn’t need to spend so much energy trying to control my emotions, as my emotions became more naturally balanced and felt less overwhelming.  My personal experience convinced me that when we fear rejection or abandonment from our tribe and/or behave in ways to feel accepted by the people around us although those behaviors are uncomfortable and distressing our bodies try to absorb the chronic psychological stress of trying to “fit in and be someone we are not to avoid the emotional pain that might come from being different (and unacceptable).

So when a new research study was published in The Lancet, due to my own personal experience, it didn’t come as a surprise to me that the results reflect a link between how the brain manages stress and an increase in the risk of heart disease.  I always felt that there was a connection between the emotional pain of heart break (in other words, rejection and lack of acceptance) and the leading cause of death, heart dis-ease!

To read more about this new research, click the link below: