Yoga and Your Heart

When I turned 40, I was overweight and showing signs of being diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol, all considered precursors for the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD). I feel blessed as it was the same year that I discovered yoga! By showing up on my mat for myself on a regular basis, I was able to change behaviors that were not supportive of my mind-body health and longevity. I am now 60 and my blood pressure is actually on the low side and my LDL/HDL ratio is 1.3 (which for women is 1/2 the average risk for developing CVD) all without any medications. Is it possible that yoga can play a significant role in the primary prevention of CVD? Let’s check in with the latest research.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard research design and meta-analysis is a study design that typically is based on RCTs to systematically assess the outcomes of previous research to extract overall results about a particular body of research. In this month’s Current Problems in Cardiology, a meta-analysis that included 64 RCTs (16,797 participants) studying the effects of yoga on modifiable CVD risk factors was published, so this is hot off the press information! In the introduction to this research, it mentions that 80% of CVD is caused by modifiable risk factors, leaving only 20% due to perhaps family history or genetics (nuture versus nature). The most significant modifiable risk factors include hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia and body weight. Yoga, as an ancient Indian practice, traditionally involves breath practices along with physical shapes and meditation, supporting the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathic parts of the autonomic nervous system. Such combination of exercise and relaxation has been studied and reported to reduce CVD risk factors.

It was my personal experience that yoga and all of its contemplative practices assisted me in reducing my overall stress levels and softened my ‘Type A’ personality that developed from a chaotic (AKA traumatic) childhood. As my stress levels came down, my opportunities to choose healthier experiences for myself expanded. I became a more conscious consumer, in what I ate, what TV and movies I watched, what news I read, and which people I engaged with. I started to notice what charged my batteries and what depleted my batteries and moved towards the uplifting experiences and away from the ones that felt dark and heavy in my body and mind. As a result, I lost weight (and friends), lowered my blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and discovered the freedom of setting healthy boundaries for myself, which is a lifelong gift I gave myself. But, if you don’t want to just take my word for it, take a look at this latest research that concluded yoga is effective in controlling those modifiable risk factors and can play a role in the primary prevention of CVD!

5 Intention-setting Ideas to Support Others Navigating This Storm

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month!

Two of my dear friends are currently navigating this more intimate, personal storm of breast cancer as I send this newsletter this month.  I know I am not alone.  With the prevalence of this disease, most likely everyone knows someone that has or is attempting to deal with this constant battle for life.

So to support these strong beyond measure warriors, below I have provided some intention-setting ideas for your consideration.  It is my hope you will consider exploring one or more of these ideas to go beyond awareness into taking action to support those living with this disease and trying to find a cure.

  1. Research.  You might consider educating yourself on the current developments in research (National Cancer Institute and or donating to organizations that focus on metastatic breast cancer such as StandUp2Cancer and Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  .
  2. Speak Up.  Consider spreading the word about free mammograms, especially during the month of October.  Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) runs the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program that offers free or low-costs mammograms.
  3. Listen.  When cancer becomes a part of your life, it takes front and center on the stage.  However, that doesn’t mean it is the only show in town.  People need other people to simply be there to listen.  Some days they might want to talk about the impact of the disease or the treatments, yet more often they may want to talk about all of the other aspects of their lives, like their family, pets, their favorite TV show, their favorite vacation spot or restaurant, or they may ask you to talk about yourself and what is going on with you for the distraction.  Perhaps consider keeping this in mind when you connect with someone in the current throes of the battle.
  4. Donate.  Consider donating blankets, hats or scarves to a local hospital with a cancer wing or chemotherapy center.  If you are a passionate knitter or crochet artist, perhaps you make some hats or scarves from yarn remnants from other projects and donate them.  Simply contact the staff at these facilities to ask if they might accept such items and where to drop them off.
  5. Write.  Perhaps you write a card or letter to those going through one of the most frightening times of their lives and drop it off along with a scarf or hat, letting them know that they are thought of during this difficult time.  This simply act to show you care can be quite meaningful.

As always, if you try any of these intention-setting ideas for holistic health, I would love to hear about the impact they might have had for you.  Please send me an email at to share!

Can talking to animals help heal our hearts?

My family and friends laugh when I have a conversation with my two dogs.  They tell me that they think it’s funny that I speak for them, putting words in their mouths, in response to what I ask them or tell them.  Yes, it may seem funny to others, but I have always known that talking to my animals makes me feel better.  And now we are learning that it not only helps us but also makes them happy too!

When I look into the eyes of my dogs, I feel my heart open and I can quickly forget what I was doing, where I was going, or what time it is!  I find spending time with my animals, talking to them and petting them makes me happy, even calming and soothing no matter what might be going on in that moment.  I know I am not alone in my experience, as I have heard many stories from other people who describe similar responses.  So it is no wonder that so many of us own pets, whether dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, snakes, pigs, horses, goats, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, hamsters, rats, lizards, ferrets, or other species.

However, the health benefits of pet ownership have only more recently been scientifically researched and the results have its critics.  The good news is that our laws are not waiting for the research to provide the definitive answer and allow for the designation of ‘emotional support animal’ to be viewed as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.  But you can’t simply say your pet is an emotional support animal and bring it with you everywhere.  And, now that animals can be designated as emotional support, I have found that many people are confused between the different names given to animals that provide support or service to us.  So what is an emotional support animal, maybe say compared to a service or therapy animal, and what does the current research suggest as to the underlying mechanism to why animals just plain make us humans feel better?

The American Disability Act (ADA) defines what a service animal is and these animals are limited to dogs that are trained to perform specific tasks for someone with either a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.  Some examples of animals that would fall under this definition include a Guide Dog, Psychiatric Service Dog, and Seizure Response Dog as these dogs have been rigorously trained to perform work directly related to an individual’s disability.

Therapy animals also receive extensive training and are usually found in a clinical setting and are integrated into the plan for treatment to improve a person’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and/or social functioning.  Therapy dogs are trained to socialize in various settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, and interact with a variety of people, so it is important that their temperament is stable and friendly in these unpredictable environments.

On the other hand, emotional support animals do not fall under the ADA, are not considered service animals, and are not limited to dogs.  Some other names you might hear used to describe emotional support animals include comfort animals or companion animals and these animals do not have any special training.  I believe it is from the comfort, unconditional affection, and connection that are experienced during the human-animal interaction that has led to the recognition of this designation of animals.  In fact, as a therapist, I have had emotional support animals join me in session with clients and I have seen how such a relationship can benefit treatment.

When I think about the role that animals have played in my own life since I was a child, I remember having different pets throughout my life, including dogs, cats, turtles, and fish, and I can think of many fond times that I had with them.  And I also can recall times when my animals felt like the only connection I had.  When I was stressed out because my parents were fighting again or afraid because I was left alone at night, if I could pet my dog or snuggle with my cat, I was able to tolerate my anxiety and fear better.  Just having them close to me brought me comfort, reminding me I wasn’t alone or unloved.

I have also witnessed firsthand the change that can occur in the present moment when my family and friends encounter animals, literally releasing any anger, frustration, and/or sadness they may be experiencing when asked to hold or pet an animal.  It seems like the animal is an emotional magnet, drawing the powerful emotions out of the human and allowing them to dissolve into thin air.  I even had a friend tell me once that the bonding experience between a human and a pet is the same as the bonding experience between humans and their newborn babies, which got me wondering, could this be true?

I finally looked into the research to see what it might have to say about what exactly it is that draws humans into human-animal encounters and if such a connection has the same potential to help heal broken hearts as the human connection.  What I found out is simple yet fascinating, offering much hope to the current fragmented, disconnected state of the world today and it seems my friend might be right!

It seems that human-animal interactions activate the production of oxytocin, which is the human hormone associated with bonding and the increased felt sense of trust, empathy, and loyalty, not only in the human but the animal.  So as we connect with our animals, we get a shot of oxytocin, which then supports our ability to navigate and endure social stressors.  It has been shown previously that oxytocin is released in humans when we make eye contact with each other and now the research is supporting that the same holds true with our animals.  Current research has also shown that petting or any other pleasant tactile interaction with animals causes oxytocin to be released.  And, apparently, we get a shot of oxytocin even if we only interact with an animal one time; however, longer-term relationships seem to produce more potent and long-lasting effects.

So, with this new found external validation of my own internal experience, I now make sure I look deeply into my dogs’ eyes when I talk to or pet them, knowing I am bringing more happiness into all of our lives.  And I have been telling everyone that will listen to me animals do bring emotional support to our lives, so stop and talk with them to get your daily dose of oxytocin in order to bring a smile to your face and in your heart!

So if you too want to encourage others to talk to animals, click on the link below to read what the research on human-animal interaction has to say!

Yoga helps improve mental health at any age!

For my 40th birthday, I ventured to a spa in the Catskills of NY with a dear friend of mine for a long weekend to relax and celebrate this milestone in my life. Little did I know at the time how much this trip would change my life!

I decided to keep an open mind and try every class they offered along with the ‘vegetarian’ food being served while restricting my intake of salt, sugar, and caffeine. There were no TVs or radios in the rooms and it was before ‘smart phones’ so we were pretty cut off from the rest of the world, yet surrounded by so much of Mother Nature calling us to connect with her beauty.

Now as I reflect back, I find myself smiling because it felt so disorienting yet so comforting at the same time. I was at a point in my life where I spent a great deal of time at work, with very little time for me. I was most familiar with putting everyone else’s needs in front of mine, and believed that I could only ‘be done’ when everyone else was taken care of, which reinforced an unconscious belief that my value or worth came from taking care of others. I was exhausted emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and didn’t even realize it! Little did my brain know how much my body craved to slow down and nurture it, instead of feeding it a constant diet of stress caused by a deep need to please others.

My mind-body connection was turned off until that weekend in NY. After trying the step-aerobics class (and creating a moat around my step from my own sweat), I found my way to my first ever yoga class. Immediately upon settling onto my mat, something shifted inside of me. I don’t necessarily remember the teacher or the poses, but I do remember FEELING and thinking that what I was experiencing seemed vaguely familiar yet foreign at the same time. When I left that class, I felt a sense of peace and somehow a bit lighter than when I walked into it, although it was NOT a power yoga class and I didn’t even break a sweat.

On the drive home from that weekend away, I was determined to find a local yoga class where I could test out if I could replicate the results of that one yoga class. I found a small one-room yoga studio one town over and when I walked in, I was amazed that it felt like ‘home’ and not any house I had ever lived in. The sense of peace and calm was palpable and irresistible. I found myself called back day after day for over two years. My felt experience in that yoga class in NY was not a one-time event!

Although initially I continued to work long hours, my addiction slowly shifted towards spending more time on my mat in those group yoga classes, where no one knew my name and no one expected anything from me. I could simply be in my own inner world while surrounded by others doing the same thing. The first specific learning I remember is that I was breathing incorrectly. I would hold my stomach in on my inhale and let my belly out on my exhale. No wonder my mind and body were in a constant battle! As I learned to synchronize my breath with the movement of my body, I was able to start to notice sensations in my body, be guided by them to avoid any physical pain, and begin to trust the emotional intelligence of my body.

And that was where I came face-to-face with my anxiety. It was in that safe, sacred space in those group yoga classes where I realized how my mind worked very hard to distract me from the wisdom – and pain – that my body held, encouraging me to keep moving in order to avoid the stillness, because it was in the stillness that the underlying fears would rear their ugly heads. And yet, what I discovered was that by inviting those fears to join me on my mat, sitting with them while I breathed deeply, and asking them how they came to be, I was able to gain a new appreciation for how my fears had been serving me. As my awareness and gratitude grew, my fears began to fade. Don’t get me wrong, my fears still exist, along side of a full palette of other powerful emotions, yet they no longer control me or constrict my world. When my fear greets me now, I remember that they are trying to communicate something to me, so I create time and space for them, honoring their protective nature.

That trip to NY was many years ago, before much of the clinical research to demonstrate the benefits of yoga was conducted, but my personal experience hooked me from that very first class. Now it seems new research is being published every month from around the world supporting the claims that yoga is not only a viable treatment for physical and mental health challenges but also a way to prevent illness by integrating it into a self-care program to promote overall well-being. So, if you don’t want to take my word for it – click on the link below to check out some recent research from Japan published in the International Journal of Yoga that suggests that yoga reduces anxiety, improving mental health, at any age!