At first glance, this posture doesn’t look like it’s doing much, but there’s a lot more happening than simply opening the hips. Gomukhasana, or cow-face pose, benefits digestion, and when you add the forward fold, it can release the upper back, lengthening and offering release to the lumbar spine. We typically feel the sensation in the hips, so if we’re not careful, we can put stress on the back that we don’t necessarily feel. If one finds themselves rounding in the back, then simply allow the back to rest in a rounding position and place some support (such as a blanket) under the hips. If the back and hips are more open, and one can hinge at the hips, the forward fold becomes more active and leading with the heart may be appropriate. If uncertain, be gentle with yourself!
About twenty years ago, after the birth of our third child, a daughter, I remember thinking to myself…”is this it?” I was thrilled to be a mom, had a great husband, a house, and really cool job but still I felt a deep sense of loneliness, and a sense that this was too good to be true and, like most things I had experienced, it would be short lived.
I had been a keeper of lists. And as I added things to the list, I was convinced that as I achieved that next item on the list, I would finally be happy. After the birth of my daughter, there really wasn’t anything left to add. And if I’m being honest, I felt guilty that I had this beautiful life but still, deep down, I was not happy not to mention not thriving. I wondered many times what was wrong with me even though most people wouldn’t notice because I was, and still am, as some would say, high functioning.
Shortly after my daughter’s birth, I had what I would call an interruption. A triggering event occurred and it sent me reeling into a downward spiral. I had experienced other triggering incidents before and had been able to get over them, or actually suppress them, and move on. This was different. It could have been that my body had simply had enough of the suppression and that the stressors and traumas in my body had reached capacity. Or it could have been that with three young children under the age of 5, that I was simply exhausted and did have the energy to fight it. Whatever the reason for this breakdown, it was a gift.
I went into therapy for the first time and was diagnosed with PTSD from childhood trauma and anxiety disorder. The diagnosis came as a relief. But the solutions and eventual healing seemed inaccessible, if not overwhelming. The therapy offered to me, was seen as an intervention by my insurance company, meaning I could go for six visits and then after the six visits (so really six hours), in their minds I would be healed. What?? I had a choice after my six visits, which was to go on meds or look to other forms of healing and that is when I found meditation and it was the beginning of my exploration with holistic and alternative modalities. What I discovered isn’t anything profound. And what I found was that the more I connected to my body through stillness (and eventually movement), the better I felt and the more aware I was of my reactions (which there still so were many of) but also I noticed my moments of peace.
My first meditation course was at my local gym, an upscale establishment in an upscale town. I had no idea where to search for such classes so when this one caught my attention, I immediately signed up. “Watch the thoughts like you are watching a movie”, the man presenting the workshop suggested. I had a really hard time with that idea. Then the man suggested using a mantra, which is a word or saying one repeats over and over silently to themselves and can be offered as a prayer or intention, and offered the suggestion, “I am peace”. This idea I could get my head around. I kept silently repeating it using the breath….. “I am” on the inhale, and “peace” on the exhale.
And I knew right then, that this was the beginning of something beautiful.
“The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” – Douglas MacArthur
A couple of weeks ago while teaching at the VA, I ran into a vet who had attended my yoga classes at the in-patient building. From time to time, I run into men and women who attended my classes on the “outside” but it usually takes me a second to recognize them, as they usually appear very different to me, because when I see them in the hospital, they are in crisis mode so they don’t look like themselves. I initially didn’t recognize him because the last time I saw him, he had just made his third attempt at suicide. So I was delighted to see such a big smile on his face. He looked so grounded, happy, excited, as well as proud (a funny word to used here but that is the word that comes to mind). He said, “do you remember me? I went to your yoga class!”. And I said, “of course I do, it’s so good to see you. How are you?”. And he told me that after some very dark times, he was doing much, much better. And it showed. I couldn’t help but notice that he was wearing a VA hospital employee badge so I asked him if he was working at the VA. He told me that he was indeed working at the VA now, and that he was hoping to do peer counseling at some point. I couldn’t help but smile at him as it was so humbling to witness how far he had come. I told him how incredibly courageous he was to be able to face his wounds, trauma, and fears and now be able to come out on the other side so that he can help his fellow vets. He agreed. I ended with, “I’m so glad you are here, by the grace of God”. And he nodded and said, “yes, me too”.
I want to mention how fortunate I am to work at the VA hospital where they do an amazing job trying to provide support for our vets when they return. I have to give a special shout out the to WRIISC program who embrace alternative modalities like yoga and meditation and put a great amount of effort into providing these (even though is often really isn’t a part of their job). But they believe in this movement (not sure what else to call it).
Happy Veterans Day to all of our courageous vets, who work on the front lines and then come home and try to put their lives back together. Thank you for your service and sacrifices. Sending you thoughts of love, peace, and healing today and every day.
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:
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