5 Intention-setting Ideas to Celebrate National Yoga Awareness Month

Let’s celebrate all things YOGA!

Yoga changed my life, literally and figuratively.  I now measure my life in terms of Before Yoga (BY) and After Yoga (AY), because it is so very different today.  I was showing all of the signs of having Metabolic Syndrome, which was a wake up call to start doing something different or end up on prescription medications for the rest of my life.  I knew enough that all of the signs and symptoms could be reversed by life style changes.  Easier said than done!

Then I discovered yoga, first the physical practice on the mat in group yoga classes, and then all of the other contemplative practices that are encompassed by the practice of yoga.  The most powerful aspect of yoga for me personally was the breath practices.  When I changed the way I breathed, it invited in so many other changes, including but not limited to what and how I ate, changing my reactions into responses, and making space for more compassion both for others and myself.  I’m proud to say that at age 60, I am part of the 15% of the US population NOT on any prescription medications!

Therefore, to celebrate this powerful lifestyle of yoga, below are some ideas for your consideration:

  1. Read about yoga.   If you have very little experience or knowledge of the practice, perhaps consider taking some time to read about the benefits of yoga, and not just the physical practice that includes poses, or asanas.  You might start with Yoga Alliance, which has a dedicated section on their website for research into the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of such practices.
  2. Try a class.  If you might be interested in attending a group yoga class, my recommendation might be to start with a gentle class.  There are MANY different styles of yoga.  Consider finding where classes are offered locally and reading about the class descriptions beforehand.  When taking any class, it is important to know that yoga is a very personal practice.  You are not in competition with the other students and can modify however feels good to you.  There is no perfect shape as every body is so unique.
  3. Post.  This month, while practicing yoga, consider taking and sharing pictures on your social media to spread the word.  Get creative and share ones of you meditating or practicing Ahimsa or Saucha!  Here’s a TikTok video of a woman saving a bumble bee with a broken wing for inspiration!
  4. Journal.  Did you know that self-study is part of the second limb of the eight limbs of yoga, specifically Svadhyaya as one of the Niyamas?  Compared to psychotherapy in its present form which came many centuries later, this ancient practice honored that to attain inner peace, it is critical to make time for introspection.  If you are not a journaler, perhaps consider giving it a try this month.  If you are a regular journaler, consider adding a little extra time to your reflections this month.
  5. Go green.  Another overall aspect of yoga is that it celebrates our connection to the earth.  In fact, many of the yoga poses are named after nature and animals, like cow, cat, mountain, downward-facing dog, crow, tree, lotus and eagle.  To celebrate all things yoga this month, perhaps consider how you might “Go Green”, starting with recycling and adding using reusable bags, water bottles and food storage containers, hang dry your clothes, and walk and bike more.

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!

Benefits of Integrating Yoga Into Postgraduate Mental Health Curriculums

As we find ourselves in a bit of a lull in the Covid-19 outbreak here in southern California, I have found my way back to teaching yoga in-person in a local yoga studio. My heart is full as I have greatly missed the opportunity to bring this healing modality back in-person to a larger audience. Yoga, including all of its contemplative practices, has been the largest tool in my self-care tool kit, even becoming my way of life over the years, and it is truly what kept me grounded in gratitude through the pain and chaos of the past two years. Although I may not have found myself on my yoga mat regularly, especially for those yummy 90-minute classes that include an extra long savasana shape at the end, I know how important these practices are for supporting our mind-body-spirit health. And, as a mental health provider, I know it is mission critical to prioritize our self-care practices in order to be fully present and prevent burnout. With increasing rates of burnout in mental health providers during the pandemic, the question becomes is it possible to integrate yoga into postgraduate curriculums for mental health providers to ensure the long-term wellbeing of such providers?

A recent research study took a look at including yoga into the curriculum for first-year mental health students to test the feasibility of such a proposal. Introducing such tools to all students in this setting ensures all mental health providers would have the first-hand knowledge and experience of the impact on their well-being before actually moving into the space of providing services to clients, where the stress level of the role only increases. Although the results of this research advocates for such a change to the curriculum, it only provided a brief, 15-day offering. It is my belief that offering longer curriculum based yogic interventions would not only provide more sustained self-care tools to the mental health provider but it would also equip the mental health provider with the skills to bring such self-care tools to their clients.

Yoga for helping health professionals during a pandemic

As a helping health professional (HHP), I rely on my yoga practices to maintain mind-body health, work-life balance, and healthy boundaries with my clients.  When colleagues share that they are challenged to maintain these things and ask me what I might do, my first response is all things YOGA.  The responses I get range from a smile to a rolling of the eyes.  Which got me thinking . . . since HHPs are among the highest risk occupational groups for mental and physical health challenges, is my self-care go-to  (yoga) experience unique to me or might these tools really have a more across-the-board impact on such a group of professionals?

When I first started to practice yoga movement, I noticed how it relieved my low back pain that came from a herniated disc.  It was due to practicing yoga movement on a regular basis that I did not require any physical therapy or back surgery then or now (although I did integrate regular chiropractor adjustments into my self-care practices since).  As my back pain went away and I continued to add additional yoga practices to my activities of daily living, I discovered how much calmer and centered I felt mentally and emotionally.  It was these cumulative positive experiences that motivated me to pursue becoming a yoga teacher and then a yoga teacher trainer!

One of the most powerful yoga practices that has served me well is Svadhyaya.  It is one of the five Niyamas, or sacred habits for healthy living, of yoga.  It is often translated simply as self-study within a larger connotation of introspection.  Most of my yoga practices now occur off the mat, but finding the mat for the movement practice certainly reduced the symptoms of anxiety enough to open the door to the practices that actually become a way of life.  That is why I am so passionate about recommending all things yoga to everyone!

So what does the research say about yoga as a tool to support those in the helping health profession overall, beyond me?  Well, recent research took a look at that exact question.  A systematic review that included 25 research articles around the effectiveness of yoga interventions among HHPs and students found that implementing yoga interventions in this population brings mental and physical benefits across a variety of settings and backgrounds, including a reduction in stress, anxiety, depression and musculoskeletal pain.

If you are interested in reading more, click the link below.  If you are a helping health professional or student, consider sharing this link with those that might be in a position to support the implementation of such practices in the workplace or school.

Might Yoga Help Prevent Teacher Burnout?

The pandemic caught most of us off guard and added significant stress to our lives, asking us at times to think out of the box to come up with creative ways to do what we did in the past differently.  In a flash, life went virtual!  Teachers, in particular, who, as a profession rank high amongst those helping professions that are predisposed to mental health challenges due to stress on the job, were asked to convert in-person curriculums to remote learning overnight.  Teachers were already at risk of burnout before the pandemic, with a significant percentage of teachers leaving the profession within the first 5 years.  The pandemic has simply added salt to an already open wound.

Past research has looked at the benefits of bringing yoga into the schools for the students.  This research has shown the positive effects on the developing minds of children, including but not limited to reducing stress and anxiety, improving memory and attention span, enhancing coping skills, and increasing self-confidence and self-esteem.  By building yoga into the students’ curriculum, it was accessible to everyone and was not designated as an optional, after-school activity.  By supporting students in this way, it certainly indirectly helps the teachers.  However, with such a high burnout rate in this profession, it is just as important to look at what might prevent such teacher burnout more directly.

More recent research is now looking at bringing yoga to the teachers at school.  One such recent quasi-experimental study looked at the connection between improving the mental and emotional well-being of teachers through a twice-a-week yoga class, including gentle meditation exercises, and a reduction in burnout.  Yoga, and is contemplative practices, was considered for this research because it is a discipline that has been shown to enhance body awareness and encourages equanimity in the mind.  The design of this research included concern for the need to adapt to the working environment, so that no particular setting would be required, making it easy to replicate.

The research was able to identify a significant, positive effect of yoga on the psycho-physical well-being and resilience response on the job of the teachers.  The program was short, only 8 weeks, and did not identify any risks.  The conclusion suggests that schools would benefit by offering yoga to the teachers to reduce burnout.

If you are interested in reading the full article, click the link below.  If you are a teacher or know a teacher, consider sharing this article with those that might benefit, including the principal of your school.

Can yoga influence the gene expression of your DNA?

I believe so as I personally dove into all of the mind-body interventions yoga had to offer to prevent one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of mortality. Both of my parents were diagnosed with hypertension, with my mother getting the diagnosis in her 30s, and both went on to develop cardiovascular disease that is managed by multiple prescription medications.  When I turned 40, my physician informed me that I was pre-hypertensive, which sent me on a journey that not only reversed this diagnosis, but changed my life in so many other ways!  Different life experiences can influence your genes and cause subconscious behavioral patterns that are passed on over generations, including trauma.  And now we might be discovering how yoga and all of its contemplative practices can change and perhaps undo the damage of such life experiences.

There is a newer focus of research that is digging deeper into how the contemplative, mind-body practices of yoga impact our genes, especially in relation to the stress response and inflammation.  This body of research is looking at the autonomic nervous system’s response to stressful events, specifically the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern.  The human body’s autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.  When presented with signals and sensations, the autonomic nervous system responds and takes one of three pathways through these two main branches to keep us safe.  The oldest route from an evolutionary development perspective leads to immobilization (think freeze/faint) through the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nerve branch.  The next pathway to develop led to the mobilization response (think fight/flight) through the sympathetic nervous system branch.  The final one to evolve led to social engagement (think safe and social) through the parasympathetic ventral vagal nerve branch, which is unique to mammals.

When danger is sensed, the human body’s autonomic nervous system travels backwards through the sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response and then perhaps, if we feel trapped, to the parasympathetic dorsal vagal nervous system’s freeze/faint response.  When the body arrives in the space of immobilization for survival, it can be a long and painful journey back to the space of feeling safe and social.  So anything that might make this journey shorter and less painful is welcome!  That is where understanding how yoga can support such intentions is vital.

Without going too deep into the science (click on the button below to read more if interested in a deeper dive), when the human body encounters stress and triggers the sympathetic nervous system, it increases production of chemicals that regulate how genes are expressed, activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation.  When these higher levels of cytokines persist over time, the human body is put at a higher risk of a whole range of diseases, including cancer and psychiatric disorders.  This newer research is finding that people who practice mind-body interventions such as mindfulness meditations, yoga or Tai Chi, actually reflect the opposite effect, namely a decrease in the production of cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern.  One of the more recent studies considered one of these mind-body interventions, specifically meditation, an emotional and attentional regulatory activity that supports a state of inner quiet.  From this inner quiet grows increased self-awareness which has the power to reduce stress-related symptoms.

To read more about the growing evidence that stress can cause changes in gene expression and how intentionally engaging in mind-body practices can transform the genetic effects of stress, click below:

Can yoga change your brain?

What if we could see inside of our brains when we are practicing our deep breathing, sun salutations, and savasana?  Would you want to see/know what parts of your brain are being turned on and off or growing and shrinking?  Well, this might not quite be reality yet, however, with neuroimaging technology what it is today, it is pretty close!  When I started my yoga practice almost 20 years ago, I didn’t know what the practice did to my brain if anything, I just felt relief each time I left class.  Now, all these years later, it excites me to know that it supported my brain’s own natural ability to heal.

Before discovering yoga, I was a workaholic that was in a constant state of flight or fight with the world around me.  I figured I had inherited my mother’s anxiety and there was nothing I could really do about it.  Boy was I wrong!  My first yoga class spoke to me in a way that I had never experienced before, calling me back to the mat that first year 5 to 6 times a week.  I thought it had become my new addiction, yet it changed me so profoundly that I was finally able to find the long sought after balance I craved in my life.

I believed yoga was a huge contributor to my healing journey, although at the time I might not have fully understood how it worked.  Today, with the integration of neuroimaging and neurophysiological techniques into the study of yoga, research has begun to reveal consistent structural and functional changes in the brain.  With the benefit of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) and/or single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scanning, the benefits of yoga are lighting up our brains!

Although the various research studies have looked at different aspects of yoga, such as movement versus meditation as well as styles of yoga, these studies reflect relatively consistent cerebral structural and functional changes.  What this tells me is that you can’t do it wrong!  It doesn’t matter if you practice Iyengar, Yin, Hatha and/or Kundalini yoga, it will help your brain.  It doesn’t matter if you practice movement, breathing techniques, meditation or chant, it will help your brain.  And with all of the different approaches, including Kids and Chair yoga, yoga is available to help our brains throughout the entire life cycle.

Fast forward with the increasing popularity of yoga worldwide, research is still scarce in yogis yet it is expanding with the assistance of neuroimaging.  And this research is showing that yoga effects the brain both structurally and functionally, specifically in areas involving interoception, posture, motivation, and higher executive functions.  Moving forward, more research is needed to reflect the changes in the brain through neuroimaging when the brain is suffering from the effects of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other stress-induced mental health challenges.  I would have loved to see what my brain looked like before discovering yoga and after integrating my practice into my everyday life.  I think the results would have been very validating!

Virtual Reiki-infused Sound Healing and Meditation Class!

This online group gathering will be conducted using Zoom’s video conferencing, which provides an option to turn off the your audio/video at any time, supporting privacy and facilitating a reduction in distractions.  For first-time attendees, signed release of liability/waiver forms will be needed.  Once these forms have been received, along with payment via PayPal, an email will be sent to you with the link and meeting ID to join the class.  We look forward to being of service to you!

Virtual Community Gathering Practice Tips

We understand that this is not the ideal way to come together to practice and how sometimes just the thought of more technology might bring shivers down our spines.  Accepting that it’s OK to feel intimidated is the first step. We are doing our best to make the connection simple and easy.  Harnessing the warrior energy within will help you to face any tech fears you might have and join us!

Once you let us know that you are interested in attending, we will send you an email that will include details around what is needed from you, including:

  • Signed Releases/Waivers of Liability forms (one time, for new students only)
  • PayPal information to facilitate payment
  • Checking your email for the Zoom link to join the class
  • A few minutes before the class, simply clicking the link within the email to be sent straight to our meeting room

To facilitate the benefits of such a virtual community practice at home, below we have provided some helpful hints:

  • Set up your mats at least 3 giant steps from your device.
  • Elevate your device 21-24″ from the floor and have it tilted forward slightly.
  • Have your props nearby.
  • Although not required, having a headset or ear buds to listen when the singing bowls are playing may enhance your listening pleasure.
  • Please know you will not need to have your audio/video camera on during the practice.  If you would prefer to reduce the number of distractions or increase the sense of privacy, we invite you to turn off your audio and video once the class starts.

Restorative Yoga Tips and Props

On the day of the class, here are some additional recommendations to create a more sacred space in advance for your practice:

  • Make sure you’ll be in a space where there won’t be any background noises, distractions or interruptions.
  • Adjusting the lighting in the room to your liking, perhaps turning off any overhead lighting and minimizing outdoor light and instead turning on a room lamp or lighting your favorite candle(s).
  • Wear warm, comfortable clothing including socks.
  • If available, bringing your favorite deck of intention cards and essential oil to your mat.
  • Placing your props (see below) to the side of your mat so they are within an easy reach during the class.

 In home prop ideas:

  • Bolster:  couch cushions or a tightly rolled comforter, towel, or blanket (can be secured with 2 ties, scarfs or belts)
  • Pillows:  couch, chair or bed pillows will do
  • Blankets:  your favorite blanket to cover yourself and either 2 additional blankets or bath or beach towels (no sheets)
  • Yoga blocks: books, either paper back or hard cover, stacked
  • Eye pillow:  hand towel, tie or scarf

Can yoga – and all of its contemplative practices – contribute to a healthier cognitive aging process?

My husband and I try to remember to laugh when we walk into a room and then have to stand there for a few minutes because we realize we forgot why we were heading there in the first place.  And I think a sense of humor is critical in many circumstances, so applying it to myself as I age is putting a value into action!  However, instead of accepting the gradual decline in the neural circuitry of the brain as we age, what if you were to learn that there was a simple way to preserve the connectivity in our brains that contributes to overall health?  Would you be willing to try it?

Well, with the assistance of brain imaging, research studies can see the impact of contemplative – or attentional – practices on very specific areas of the brain, which opens the door to more rigorous studies that shed light on how such practices can support a healthier cognitive aging process.  These brain imaging techniques have shown that there are changes in the functional connectivity of our neural networks as we age.  Now the idea of ‘before and after’ imaging can be applied more broadly in research, beyond the studies that focus on prescription medications.

My experience when I am able to give something my full attention is one in which the memory of the moment is so much richer and stronger, whether it is a conversation with someone or simply sitting outside in nature.  I find that I can more easily recall the details of the experience when reflecting on it, almost as though I am experiencing it again in all of its colors and textures.  So if there is something I can do to help support the health of my ability to maintain my attention, I say ‘sign me up!’

Recent data from studies looking specifically at yoga and other contemplative practices such as meditation suggest that such practices may revert, at least in some part, the effects of aging on the functional connectivity in the brain.  The intention of the research is to look at how using the body and breath as the focus of contemplation helps to preserve cognition and the neural connectivity of those brain areas that typically decline with age.  When we hold the body in one of the shapes of a yoga practice, and bring the mind’s awareness to focus on the experience of the breath in that shape, it supports the parts of the brain that support cognition and brain connectivity.  Sounds pretty good to me for simply moving the body and breathing with intention and attention!

If you are so inclined to read more about the details of a recent research study looking how yoga and other contemplative practices impact specific parts of the brain involved in maintaining a healthier cognitive aging process, click the link below:

What is it about mindfulness that reduces stress – ACCEPTANCE!

In my own personal journey of healing, as well as being a compassionate witness to the healing of others, I have come to realize that suffering comes from rejecting parts of ourselves that we either think or believe are unacceptable to others.  When I first found myself in psychotherapy, I discovered that I was rejecting my emotional parts, because expressing emotions in my family of origin was either not acceptable or was overwhelming.  However, the effort it took to try to reject these emotions from my life was exhausting, created a great deal of anxiety and was completely unsuccessful.  In fact, the more I rejected them, the more my emotions would come out when I least expected!

It wasn’t until my therapist had me befriend my emotions that I was able to regulate them, honoring that they were a core source of my intelligence and would not want to reject them.  Wow, what a concept, ACCEPT my emotions as part of this experience of being human.  When I learned, which was a process, to allow those parts of me to express themselves, they no longer raged (read overwhelmed me).  It was as if giving them air actually dissipated the energy, versus the thought that ignoring or avoiding them, not giving them air (AKA suffocating or stuffing them) would extinguish the flame/energy.  And one of the main emotions I was trying to avoid feeling was fear.  My family did not acknowledge fear and instead taught us to wear many different masks to not reveal such vulnerability.  So the perfectionist and people-pleasing parts of me became overactive, to compensate for the scared little girl part that simply wanted to feel safe and accepted.

Along the way, I gathered some tools to deploy during the process of accepting all parts of myself, such as but not limited to deep breathing, yoga, journaling and guided meditation, as these tools helped me to welcome those parts of myself that I had been trying to avoid.  These tools might be referred to as contemplative science, cognitive practices, or simply mindfulness.  Now, I didn’t really know what it was about these practices that made them so effective for me, yet what I did know was after practicing them consistently for a period of time my anxiety went away.  What I came to realize was that the power of rejection creates long-lasting wounds to the hearts of many and that acceptance is healing.  Acceptance is a basic human need, as we are wired for connection and want to belong.  When we believe parts of ourselves are unacceptable and try to reject or mask those parts, we create our own chronic stress and suffering that manifests in symptoms such as anxiety.

Now the research is helping us to understand the power of acceptance and how contemplative science practices support us in monitoring our present-moment experiences through the lens of acceptance, reducing biological stress in the body through emotion regulation and evidenced by a reduction in cortisol levels and systolic blood pressure reactivity.  In addition, research is showing how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is becoming an empirically-supported treatment option for anxious youth.  I think this is critical information to share at this time, as no one knows the lasting effects of the fear coming from the uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic is creating.  What we do know is that social isolation is not a healthy state of being for humans (think solitary confinement in prison) and we will all need tools to heal the traumas of this time.

If you would like to read more of the research on the healing effects of acceptance, click the boxes below: