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5 Intention-setting Ideas for Navigating This Eclipse and Retrograde Season

On Tuesday, August 7th, with the planet Uranus going retrograde, we will now be under the influence of six planets in retrograde for the next two weeks, until the 19th when Mercury returns direct and Mars returns direct on the 27th.  In addition, we have the last eclipse of the year, a solar eclipse occurring on the 11th.  What is the Universe trying to say to us with all of this heavenly activity this month?  It is encouraging us to stop pushing forward right now and take some time to reflect on our past.  There is much opportunity this month for healing our hearts and souls and elevating the collective consciousness of our planet if we do so!

Below are some ideas to consider that will help you navigate this month, until the energy starts flowing again next month:

  1. Take a vacation.  Vacations do not have to be a week long event that requires a great deal of planning and money.  Consider planning a day retreat or a weekend away.  Simply finding yourself in a different place for a short period of time can shift your perspective. Have you always wanted to visit a particular local city to immerse yourself in a different culture? Or has a certain spiritual center or temple been calling your soul? Or have you been planning to try a new hiking trail that someone recommended to you?  Now’s the time to just do it!
  2. Spend time in nature.  With the heat of the summer, we might be finding ourselves spending more time inside in the air-conditioning.  While, in the short term, being inside where it might be cooler can be beneficial, especially at the peak of the heat during the day, avoiding the outdoors for any length of time can wreak havoc on our body, mind and spiritual health. Try to plan a early morning or late evening walk near a body of water, like a lake or the ocean, or taking a hike where there are canopies of trees.  Create an opportunity to sit down at some point and set an intention to notice the smallest form of life, maybe through your eyes, ears or skin.  Watch that life move for a short time and sense your connection to it.  Reflect on how you might impact that life and how that life might impact you.
  3. Review and renew commitments.  With Mercury retrograde at this time, we are reminded that now is not a good time to start anything new, especially when a legal contract is required. So, instead, we can take this time to review previously made commitments and determine if any adjustments might need to be made.  We might reflect on those that seem effortless and those that require more effort.  And for those that require more effort, we might ask ourselves is the amount of effort we are expending outweighing the return in soul nourishment?  From our reflections, it might become very clear where we need to focus our energy and renew our commitment to it.  And, in doing so, other commitments might need to be transferred or released from our lives.
  4. Practice gratitude.  When our lives might begin to feel a little stagnant or stuck, having ‘an attitude of gratitude’ has been shown to be the wind beneath our wings that can lift us out of a rut. So, as the universal energy is supporting this time in reflection, keep the handy tool of gratitude with you at all times.  Schedule a gratitude break each day.  Express your gratitude to another, whether it is simply to share something you are grateful for with them or to share your gratitude for them.  Dig out your gratitude journal or start a new one.  Merely reading a past gratitude journal can remind our hearts and souls of the abundance that already exists in our lives without having to push forward and grasp for more!
  5. Read.  Speaking of reading, now is a great time to pick up that book you have been meaning to read. When we allow our minds to be engrossed by a good book, it is like a vacation from our thoughts!  When we spend time in reflection of our past, gaining awareness of how our experiences in life impacted our beliefs, thoughts and emotions, we open ourselves up for a deeper understanding of how connected we really are in the human form.  And often, in this space, when we read, we discover new things about ourselves that might have been hidden (or forbidden) from revealing themselves before.

How much yoga would I recommend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can yoga help transform your relationship with food?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!