I just got back from a very beautiful retreat in Maui. One didn’t have to look very far for inspiration, whether it be listening to the brilliantly inspiring speakers or watching the beautiful sunsets (sunsets are my favorite…sunrises are pretty great too). A favorite take away for me, was from the Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. This particular quote, goes something like this, “we all want to feel connected to one another and in order to connect, we need to see everyone as equal and believe that everyone matters. We cannot connect through hatred and anger. We can only attain this through love…love of oneself and love of others”.
Ahimsa is one of the Yamas in yoga and it means non-harming. To me Ahimsa is about making sure that whatever I am doing, thinking, or saying isn’t harmful to others or myself. It is especially important that over the next 60 days that we are checking in to make sure we are practicing in a manner that serves us and doesn’t hurt us. If on any day we feel like our body needs a rest (and our bodies will need rest), then it makes sense to take a therapeutic or restorative class. That part for me is the most simple. Where it gets tricky is when I am practicing, and maybe I cannot do what I did yesterday or last week (and I may not know why), or I am just tired, then self judging can step in which is harmful, or we look at the person next to us who seems to have the most perfect practice, or we begin to wonder or become annoyed at the teacher because we don’t feel like doing what they are asking. All of this is harmful to ourselves, and potentially others as whatever we are even thinking gets put out energetically to the universe. At the beginning of class, consider creating a mantra or a thought pattern that you quietly say to yourself…something like “I will do my best today without judgment or criticism of others or myself”. Because the root of what Ahimsa means to me is compassion. And you must start with compassion towards yourself, if you hope to be compassionate towards others.
And then, settle in, and enjoy the ride. Know that I am hear to help you in any way that I can.
What happens to our nervous system, brain, and body during stressful times?
Not every challenging event becomes traumatic because we are pretty resilient. We can be confronted with difficulty but maybe we have support, we’re feeling good about ourselves and we may move through something somewhat unaffected.
When it becomes too much (financial or ongoing stressful or traumatic situations) the nervous system deregulates, things shut down, and the brain can’t manage what’s taking place. When the nervous system deregulates the brain’s threat response is stuck on a constant high alert. We are not designed to stay on high alert all the time. We are supposed to, ideally, respond to the “threat” when it happens, do what we need to do about it and then come back into a relaxation response.
From a physiological perspective, the body remembers everything. So tension from these events are absorbed into the body’s tissues. In order for the nervous system and the body to regulate, the stress (which becomes tension when absorbed) needs to be released.
Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and TRE can help to re-regulate the nervous system so that is stays in a normal or “baseline” range allowing to sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to be activated as needed allowing us to make our way back to the relaxation response as it was designed to do. Releasing tension in the body also can reduce pain, and, by discharging tension energetically, create a shift in negative muscle patterns.
I begin every class inviting people to notice their breath. Many teachers do this as well, but because I work with audiences who have stress, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, among other things, the breath is one of the essential components that we always come back to. I also want to give students an opportunity to notice how their body feels when they are completely at ease, which is what I attempt to establish in the beginning of class, so that they can pay attention to sensations that invoke a sense of peacefulness as that is what they want to take with them when they leave class. What’s tricky about this is the fact that the breath can actually be anxiety provoking for certain people depending on their life experience, especially as we begin to move it around the body where we may change the direction of, or limit, breath flow. For example, during a twist, the breath becomes limited as we reduce the amount of space that the breath can flow into. So it’s important to notice with each movement how the body responds. And because many people have extreme difficulty with focusing on the breath all together, noticing these subtle changes are often missed.
What I recommend to students is to commit to noticing the breath as much as possible, not just during yoga class, but also throughout the day. If someone’s mind is extremely busy, then I invite them to lengthen the inhale or exhale which gives the mind something to do and notice. I suggest setting their iPhone alarm, or purchase an application that reminds them to breath. Because if we develop a pattern of noticing the breath, we can become more aware of those subtle changes as we move about our day and this will allow us to shift our breathing to a pattern that serves us and helps the body relax. Then over time, those sensations that invoke a sense of peacefulness begin to become the norm.
How is your body feeling? Are you reacting? Are you stressed? Do you have anxiety at this moment? Notice your breath. Your breath will tell you every time.
What is restorative yoga?
Recently a friend of mine and her friend came to one of my restorative classes. She had hesitated for quite some time because she was unfamiliar with restorative yoga, or any yoga for that matter. I convinced her that she not only would be fine in the class, but also I thought she would really enjoy it.
I have so many people ask me, so what exactly is restorative yoga?
Restorative yoga concentrates on postures that are free from exertion and effort, which minimizes the potential for adding any additional stress to the body. The way the body is positioned (almost entirely on the floor) allows the body to stretch, lengthen and release tension. Props are almost always used (including blankets, bolsters, straps, and blocks) to assist and maintain the postures. The postures are held for a longer periods of time (from about five to fifteen minutes). Restorative yoga allows us to become relaxed and calms the mind and nervous system allowing for a peaceful, restful state.
Restorative yoga is great for just about anyone but in particular is helpful to people who are recovering from illness, have PTSD, suffer from depression or anxiety, are recovering from injury, or just have a high stress lifestyle.
I found early on in my own yoga practice that I always looked forward to the restorative class that I would attend. Although I do enjoy quicker paced and more challenging classes, it was nice to give myself permission to slow down with a restorative class. I also purchased some props so I could practice at home which is great since I can’t always get to a class. It has really changed my life for the better.
After class, my friend was surprised at how relaxed she was and now wants to make restorative part of her own wellness routine.
If you new to restorative yoga, check out this article from Yoga Journal:
“No Words can reflect truth unless they stem from the spirit of non-violence”~unknown (although I think it was Ghandi)
Today, I am focusing on another one of the Yamas which is Satya or “truth/truthfulness. Satya and Ahimsa (non-violence) which we covered last week, can and need to work in harmony with one another. To me it means, yes we need to be truthful, but we need to show discernment when dealing with people’s feelings and always approach truth from a compassionate space which goes in line with the Buddhist teachings of “right thought, right speech, right action”.
This can relate to our practice and our everyday lives in many ways. In order to practice Satya with others, it requires a more mindful approach to how we interact with each other meaning, it offers an opportunity to be more responsive and less reactive. It actually requires us to think before we speak and to live this way requires that we have a filter and, quite honestly and more importantly, it requires us to slow down.
Slowing down in our practice and listening to our bodies (they actually have a lot to say if we pay attention) allows us to make the right decision that is “true” as to what we need at that moment (which may be different than what our body was telling us yesterday). If we remove the filter of the ego (which shows no mercy as it often tells us to go, go, go), then we can access that truthful space.
Speaking our truth is another way to look at Satya. Because I work with many who have been unable to speak their truth, it’s something I like to talk about and it’s something I work on for myself. Honesty and truthfulness can be very healing. Often we don’t speak our truth out of “fear”. That fear can manifest itself in the form of shame, fear of disappointing someone we love, or fear of not being loved etc. Speaking our truth often takes more courage than other forms of Satya.
So let’s practice this week being true to what we really need while being honest about what our bodies are telling us.
Svadhyaya is one of the Niyamas and, traditionally, is an act of self-reflection that is inspired through any spiritual or inspiring text. This particular practice is essential to my own growth because without reflection I could not continue to heal and evolve in the ways that I believe I am meant to do.
Svadhyaya gives us an opportunity to dig past the “veils” of the human experience to go deeper, allowing us a glimpse of who we really are. I say a glimpse because most of the time, that’s where I am. I get glimpses but not always a true reflection of self. Sometimes it’s a matter of trusting my “listening” which can be the struggle as all of our experiences go through the human body with all of it’s distractions. So I continue to practice knowing that some days it will be really clear and on other days it will be a train wreck. Regardless of the experience, I HAVE to show up. Whether or not it’s perfect or a train wreck is irrelevant. It’s all a part of the experience (and, from what I’ve learned, train wrecks, although painful, can often provide the deepest and most enlightening insight). No matter what shows up on any given day, I have to sit with all of it, stay detached from all of it, because that IS the practice.
On a more practical level, any kind of self-reflection is good. This is a practice that has been a lifesaver for me as I use reflection to help me through trying times. In order to do that, I need to get quiet and open my heart so that the negative emotions don’t misguide me, which allows me to stay in the pure place I need to go in order to really get to the root of the matter. Reflecting on an event or conversation, as well as the emotions and feelings around the conversation, is where the lesson lives. That said proceed with great care because it also requires honesty, courage, and immense self-compassion. It is not a practice to take lightly because we can be so critical of our self, that instead of reflecting, we end up beating ourselves up which is not at all helpful. So if this practice is new to you, then go about it gently, like maybe reading something uplifting and inspirational and then sitting for a bit. In doing so, little by little, it’s possible that you’ll experience growth and shifts. The more you practice, the clearer it all becomes.
People often arrive in mental health facilities during the holidays for a number of reasons. They are either hurting themselves, others, taking too many intoxicants to numb their pain, their families can’t handle their disruptive behavior during the holidays etc., etc. I often see people over and over (meaning they had been discharged, only to return at a later date). Some of their stories as to why they return are heart breaking. I always tell them, “it’s good to see you” and I mean it. Because if they weren’t back in the hospital, they’d either be in jail or dead…..not to be a downer, but this much I know is true.
Today was one of those crazy days. I had one man scream at me because I thought he was telling me his name was Jerry and it was Gary. After me trying to get clarity on his name a second time, he stormed out of the room. Another guy (who told me his name was batman) kept ignoring the boundaries we set in there, to see if I would react. I kept gently reminding him…asking him, “would you please not do that, it’s really difficult to teach when you are walking around the room, touching my things and walking in front of others”. I handle it in this way because I know one wrong word will trigger them. He apologized. He really just wanted to be in that energy in the room and I get that. But it can be a balancing act.
So that left me with one young man, who was really engaged and kept asking me questions. I’d seen him before and thought we really connected so I asked him (at this point, all bets were off)….”do you wanna really play a bit?”. He said sure, and we then went info a beautiful flow…Warrior 1, Warrior 3, Warrior 2, triangle, HALF MOON (mind you this guy is totally medicated), several variations of tree and more. He was awesome and so happy that he could do all of it. If only I could show you his face….priceless. People began looking through the windows outside of the room, and starting practicing in the corridor. It was beautiful!
If I’ve learned one thing teaching here (and it’s what we already know), is that what people really want is connection, they want to feel heard, they want to be seen, they want to feel that others care. And what was really cool about this encounter, is when others saw us connecting in the room, they wanted some of that too. It’s human nature and we can’t help it (like batman wanting to be in that energy). And, a bit of compassion/kindness/love can change someones day.
As I was leaving, “Gary”, said “thanks for coming”. I said “you’re welcome sir” and he screamed, “I’m not sir, I’m Gary”. And I said, “yes..you’re welcome Gary and I hope you have a wonderful day”. That’s all he wanted…to be seen, heard, and to know someone cared (even if it was just saying his name).
I have the best job in the world. May all beings be happy and free.
Last September I was leading a retreat near Tahoe and after the last session I taught there, a group of us went on a hike. During the hike, we came across a man who was wearing a Vietnam veterans hat. I thanked him for his service and we chatted quite a bit. He told me how great it feels when people thank him for his service because it wasn’t that way when he returned from Vietnam in the 70s, when people who were against that war took their frustrations out on returning veterans.
I told him I was co-leading a retreat to Vietnam next spring and he said he is ready to go back and see that country in a different light. We discussed my work with veterans and I suggested he try yoga which, surprisingly, he seemed open to the idea. He said he was grateful to the VA for all they did to help him with his PTSD. His wife was with him and I told her he was lucky to have her to support him through his healing. He and I had a connection and we probably could have talked much longer.
Two weeks ago, I went to an art show for veterans. The art these vets created is part of their treatment. I was surprised at how talented they are. And , of course, I was humbled by their brutal, raw honesty reflecting their process. Grateful for our veterans and their sacrifices, grateful for chance encounters, grateful to the VA and all they do to help our vets, and grateful that I get to have a tiny part in all of it. #breathefirst #breathelosgatos#thankyouthankyouthankyou #veteransyoga #veteran #yogalife #yoga
I’m grateful for these people at the Center for Survivors of Torture. I’ve been volunteering for the last two years here and I look forward to this class every Monday. These three are from Bosnia, Syria, and Iraq. Some of the people who come to class take two buses and it can take up to an hour and a half each way to get to and from class. We have fun and laugh a lot, especially when the instruction gets lost in translation. They are surprisingly fit, as their cultures generally move more than Americans and they’ll try anything I throw their way. I adore these people and am grateful that I get to serve them once a week. #thankyouthankyouthankyou #breathefirst #livinthedream #gratitude #weareallthesame