Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mindfully Minding The Muscles

Can you really relax your body and affect the tension in your muscles simply by bringing your awareness there?

ABSOLUTELY! Relaxing the muscles is actually quite simple. Being mindfully aware of the need to relax the muscles is actually quite challenging.

Where to start? Like all skills, consistent practice when the mind and body are relatively tranquil will facilitate the ability to implement muscle relaxing techniques when stressed and in pain.

When teaching yoga or meditation, I methodically guide students through the process of mindfully relaxing the muscles in their face, neck and shoulders. As we journey through the class, I periodically remind everyone to take notice of the physical sensation in these muscles and to consciously release and relax any tightness that has crept back into these sensitive areas. I have found that whatever we feel in and around our face and neck is usually a pretty good reflection of what is going on in our minds and bodies. Releasing and relaxing these muscles can initiate a chain reaction easing some of the physical soreness that so frequently plagues us.

The first time you try to mentally scan your face, neck and shoulders, it is important to be in a completely comfortable and relaxed position and not constrained by time. Sitting in a supportive chair or lying down are both good choices so opt for the one that works best for you.

If you choose to lie down, you might find it helpful to place a light eye pillow or some other covering over your eyes. This light pressure can help relax the muscles in and around the eyes. The pressure should be gentle. Many of the eye pillows sold commercially come overly stuffed and the weight can be more of an annoyance and distraction than a complement to your efforts. (Hand made and custom filled eye pillows are available for purchase at

Once you are comfortable, with or without your eye pillow, start to bring your awareness to the eyes. If you find it hard to evaluate if these muscles are tight or not, try to squeeze your eyes tightly shut, silently count to three and then release. Feel the upper lids resting softly on the lower lids and notice the muscles behind and around the eyes encouraging them to relax. Now, allow the tongue to rest softly between the teeth and then mindfully turn all of your senses inward, feeling, seeing and experiencing the releasing of any straining around the cheeks, chin and especially the jaw. Once again, if you're not sure if you are releasing these muscles, clench your jaw and count to three, noticing the effect on the eyes, temples, cheeks, teeth, jaw, neck, shoulders, and surrounding tissues. What does it feel like? Do words like rigid, stiff, taut, or strained jump to mind?

Continue to shift your awareness from one part of the face and neck to another, pausing for several or more breaths as you your mind tells your muscles to relax. Let the breath remain calm and even as you scan and observe the gradual releasing of any tensing that returns. Notice if the softening in your face, especially around the eyes and jaw, prompts the noise in your mind to quiet.

The next challenge is to discipline yourself to employ these skills periodically throughout your day especially when you recognize you are feeling stressed, worried or anxious.

Remember, our bodies and minds are inextricably connected. When left on their own, one will insist on taking the other on a mindless, chaotic excursion to all sorts of dark, scary places, inflicting a diabolical array of physical and emotional torment on each other.

Check back soon for a video guide to scanning and relaxing the face and neck muscles. In the meantime, I hope you begin your own practice and find some welcome relief from the deep pain that uncontrolled tension inflicts on our bodies and minds.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Help! Why Can't I Mind My Meditation?

So what do we do when we feel ourselves spiraling down into that dark place of crippling fear, anxiety, or panic. We can see our demons taunting us, hear our critical voice scorning us, and feel our blood pounding through our veins. The logical part of our brain tells us this would be a really good time to reach into our tool box and pull out one of those meditation techniques that we've been working on , but the emotional brain is overpowering and our awareness is more on that incessant and relentless theme of negativity tugging on our thoughts, poisoning our minds and mocking every effort to find some peace. Bringing mindful awareness to this intolerable feeling of restlessness is someone's idea of a poor joke. Minding the breath, or conjuring up calming visualizations or watching the belly rise and fall seems like an irritating, overwhelming effort intended for those strange creatures hatched out of some yogi's nervous system, but not intended for a normal, fearful, neurotic wretch like me.

Fear not, even in your worst moments there is hope. It's not easy, but there are techniques to help us find immediate relief. It does take some will power, but it is not beyond us. We can do it. Most importantly, stay very present and move, step by step, toward initiating the simplest and most readily available coping skill. For most of us, that will be conscious breathing.

First, find a comfortable position and settle in. If you have been steadily practicing mindful breathing or meditation for a while you may already have a favorite coping technique. If not, simplify the process as much as possible. Start to focus on your breathing. Place your hands on your belly. Turn your senses completely inward, visualize the diaphragm gently moving up and down and feel the belly as it rises and falls. At the same time, try to activate your inner voice as it cues you to count to three on the inhale and three on the exhale, or merely guide yourself to silently say "breathe in, breath out."

If you find your thoughts wandering or feel the urge to get up and give up, try to stay calm and return to minding the breath. If you just can't get there on your own, admit it and find or call someone to help you breathe. Sometimes the soothing sound of someone else's voice set to the rhythm of your breath can help relax you into the deep breathing cycle long enough to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system that calms us down) soothing the thumping in the chest. The hardest time to ask for help is when we most need it and this of course is not the time to remind ourselves that reaching out is a healthy part of the growth process. Just try to tell yourself this is not the time for shenpa (see post on Pema Chodron) and force yourself to call someone you trust to guide you through those first few moments of mindfulness. That may be all you need to break the cycle of uncontrolled anxiety. If you can't think of someone you feel comfortable calling, check back soon as I will be posting an audio to help you.

Another strategy that frequently works is to simply settle into a comfortable position and listen to one of your favorite meditation or spiritual leaders. There are many excellent audio books available in your library, bookstore or online and several are recommended on this site. It doesn't necessarily need to be an actual guided meditation or visualization. Sometimes just listening to the inspirational insights of an experienced teacher can have a profound positive impact on your thoughts. Just listening can be a form of meditation.

In conclusion, committing to a mindful practice; meditation, prayer, visualization, chanting, breathing, eating, walking, or whatever needs your dedicated attention, is easiest when you are not in a critical emotional crisis. The more you incorporate a practice into your daily routine, the easier it will be to call on those skills when you are in physical or emotional distress.

Please come back for my next post which will address why we feel acute physical symptoms when we are experiencing stress, anxiety, fear, or panic.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bringing Mindfulness to Yoga

"Yoga, a Sanskrit (language of the Hindu religion) word meaning "to yoke" or "to unite" is an ancient practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. Ancient Yogis believed that in order to live in harmony the body, mind and spirit had to be "united" and balanced. They developed a way to achieve and maintain this balance through exercise, breathing and meditation.

Yoga is actually composed of eight limbs, all of which are given equal importance and value in the traditional yoga path to fulfillment and enlightenment. (Click here for more on the eight limbs of yoga.)

In the west, however, we are most familiar with the physical practice of Hatha Yoga. By aligning the spine and stacking the vertebrae we can safely begin to move the body in a variety of flowing movements called asanas. (Sanskrit word for "seat" since originally, the asanas were intended to help practitioners stabilize the body in a seated position for prolonged periods of meditation. ). Most Practitioners of Hatha Yoga understand that yoga helps improve mobility in the joints as well as increase flexibility and strength in the muscles and connective tissues. Less understood, however is that yoga can have a profound effect on our internal systems by massaging organs and eliminating toxins from our digestive, lymphatic, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems. A well-rounded practice will include twists, foreword bends, back bands and inversions, and this can help bring the nervous and endocrine systems into balance. By increasing blood flow, oxygenated nourishment is delivered to every cell in the body.

What distinguishes yoga from other activities or practices is the mindful awareness on the breath and integration of the movement of the body with the breath. The Yogis developed breathing techniques based on the concept that breath is the life force or pranayama that flows within the body and it is the pranayama that helps us achieve balance between mind, body and spirit. For more on breathing click here.

At the end of a practice, most people say they feel more mobile, less achy, calmer, more peaceful, and less stressed. Why?

Most of us experience stress because we obsess about something that has already happened or we worry about something that might happen. By bringing mindfulness to our practice, we learn to focus on the present moment. We learn to use the breath to help us find the balance between pushing and yielding into a pose. We learn to listen and respond to the subtle and not so subtle messages of our bodies by tuning in to the feelings, sounds, sensations, and, yes, aches and pains that guide us through our practice.

When there is conflict between the mind and the body (the body is in one place, but the mind in another), the body and the mind will experience this as an obstruction or constriction in the natural flow of energy that should flow freely through the body. There is no limit to the creatively unhealthy ways our bodies will find to express these obstructions, including areas of tightness, backaches, neck and shoulder pain, headaches or migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, or just an overall feeling of stiffness and discomfort. When our minds suffer from this restricted flow of healthy energy we experience the pain on an emotional and psychological level as stress, depression, anxiety, panic,or an overall sense of emotional discomfort.

The process of yoga is intended to help us open these areas of obstruction, allowing for the energy to flow freely and restore our bodies and minds to a natural state of equilibrium. In order to help us find this place of equilibrium, we must turn inward as we practice our yoga, leave our egos, expectations, judgments and comparisons off the mat, and move our bodies from within, letting the breath guide and connect us to our mind, body and spirit.

I am absolutely convinced that yoga will improve your physical and mental well-being and that nearly every body of any age can benefit from yoga. (If you have special medical conditions you should always consult your physician before starting any practice). There is a common misperception that you need to be flexible to practice yoga. This is not true and how flexible or how strong you are is not important. What is important is bringing mindfulness to your practice and recognizing that yoga is just another part of your journey of exploration and finding healthier ways of moving, breathing and being. Everyone just starts wherever there bodies are on a particular day. Each practice is unique as is your body at any given moment in any given day. It is frequently said that the most advanced yogis are not those who can twist their legs into a pretzel while standing on their heads, but rather those who come to their mats with a beginner’s mind. It is important to allow yourself to tune into what your body is experiencing at any given moment of your practice and bring your breath and awareness to each and every movement. If you start from a place of an open awareness of your body, breath, mind and spirit, and stay with a consistent practice, you cannot help but be rewarded with a healthier body and healthier mind.

This then, is the journey of yoga. We learn to stay mindful of our bodies and minds while on the mat. We then learn to take our practice into the world to help find harmony off the mat so we can live our yoga and our lives breath-to-breath, moment-to-moment and day-by-day. We learn to optimize our physical and emotional health by reconciling the conflicts between mind, body and spirit.

The trick is to make the commitment and start. It is always a good idea to start with a class and a trained instructor, but if that is not practical for some reason, there are lots of resources available on the web, or at your local library or bookstore. Try to practice at least 3 times a week. It doesn’t have to be a long practice and you can alternate between yang yoga and yin yoga (more about this in an upcoming post.) Just like mediation, or mindful breathing, it’s important to practice when you are feeling strong not just when stress and anxiety are hijacking your every thought and heart beat. If you can teach yourself to find physical and emotional relief when the going is good, it will help guide you through a successful practice when the going gets tough.

Look for yoga videos in upcoming posts.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Blame it on your nervous system!

Why does emotional distress leave me in such physical pain? Well, blame it on your nervous system.

The nervous system in the human body is comprised of two main branches, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Together, they control all movements, thoughts, activities, senses and emotions in our bodies. The central nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord and is the central communicator throughout the body.

The peripheral nervous system is sub-divided into the somatic (voluntary movement) and autonomic (involuntary movement) systems and the autonomic system is then sub-divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems, which ideally, are intended to work in harmony to create equilibrium in the body.

However, as we well know, the ideal rarely happens in the mind and body of the average human who remains perpetually perched in that highly agitated state of feeling over stressed, over scheduled, over worked, over stimulated, over tired and of course, under appreciated.

When confronted with danger, our minds have to instantly evaluate whether we should flee or confront the threat before us. In order to prepare for action, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system prompting the release of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, also known as the stress hormones. These hormones serves us well in short bursts as they trigger essential survival systems while suppressing non-essential functions. Just like a race car driver at the start line, we are revved for action; our pupils dilate allowing us to see better, excess sugar is released into the blood stream for increased energy, our hearts speed up increasing circulation and the flow of oxygen to the brain, lungs and larger muscles. We need to be smarter and move faster than whoever or whatever is threatening our survival.

Meanwhile, our bodies are smart enough to know that while we are instinctively fighting for survival, we won't be interested in non-essential functions such as eating, digesting and eliminating.

Ideally, once the threat is no longer present, the body will automatically activate the parasympathetic nervous system, frequently referred to as the "relax and renew" system. Basically, this system helps restore the body to a state of homeostasis as soon as the threat is over.

However, the problem we create for ourselves is that our minds don't differentiate between a real threat and a perceived one. These perceived threats are manufactured in the deep caverns of our overly creative imaginations and are limitless in scope and intensity. This creates really big problems for us because unlike genuine threats that are acute and short lived, mind induced threats are frequently exaggerated and can last indefinitely allowing our bodies and minds to become a sewer of physical and psychological toxins.

As long as the mind believes the body is in a state of threat, the sympathetic nervous system will remain in active mode and while we remain in this heightened state of arousal, symptoms of stress and anxiety will continue to plague us. Common symptoms include; feeling a tightening or pounding in the chest, difficulty breathing, tight, achy muscles, clammy skin, difficulty swallowing, poor digestion, irritability. Left unchecked for months and years, more serious conditions can occur such as high blood pressure, migraines, chronic anxiety, irritable bowel, insomnia, panic attacks and more.

If our bodies can't return to a state of equilibrium on their own, we can help nudge them along by initiating mindful practices, such as slow, deep breathing, that will trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindful awareness when we practice yoga, meditation or breathing can help us override the lockdown mode our bodies get stuck in providing the relief we crave and the restoration we need for recovery.

We do not voluntary invite stress into our lives, but we do not need to resign ourselves to being its victim, either. We can go on the offensive and opt to make healthy choices that can help us combat these unwelcome and debilitating physical and emotional sensations. When we are in the grip of our fears and anxieties, it can feel hopeless. That is why committing to a routine practice of meditation, yoga, and mindful breathing is so essential. We must first learn to become comfortable with our practices when we are in a place of relative calm and equilibrium if we hope to use these skills when in physical or emotional crisis.

Watch a visual representation of what happens to the body when in stress.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mindfully Based Stress Reduction

If you are seeking guidance with beginning or deepening your meditation practice, I would like to introduce you to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned scientist, educator, author, speaker and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at The University of Massachusetts Medical School.

I first became familiar with his work back in the late 1990's when I came across a book called, "Wherever you Go, There you Are." I really didn't know what the book was about, but I was absolutely convinced that the author must have met me in another life and wrote this book with me in mind. Well, maybe me and a few million others. The title was irresistible because I had been going through one of those life moments when I really wanted to go on a vacation but leave my mind at home. Sound familiar anyone?

After reading his book, I began investigating more about Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his work. In the late 1970's he developed and began teaching an eight-week program at his Stress Reduction Clinic called "Mindfully Based Stress Reduction" (MBSR) to help patients recover and cope with stress, anxiety, pain, depression, and chronic illness. Since then he has trained health care professionals to teach this program at various locations throughout the country. Most importantly, he has developed self guided audio programs and books to help average, stress plagued, anxiety prone, needy souls like us learn how to adopt and practice many of these techniques in the sanctuary of our homes with his easy to follow guidance.

Shortly thereafter, I bought his first Mindfulness Meditation CD, which encompasses the core training of his 8 week MBSR class. I listened, re-listened and listened again. Then I practiced, re-practiced and practiced again. I had been one of those cynics who thought meditation was for Woodstock groupies, San Francisco hippies and The Beatles. Then I began to realize, I had a lot to learn. It was the beginning of an unending journey that would teach me that mindfulness comes in many shapes, colors, sizes, and styles, and it is up to each of us to choose from the endless options which choices are best suited for us at any given moment on any given day.

I have not read all of his books, but I continue to work my way through them and have never been disappointed. He is as gifted a writer and communicator as he is a scientist.

Visit his website to learn more about him, his work, and his countless contributions to holistic health, both within the world of health care and communities around the world.

You can order any of his books and many of his audio programs from this site. Just go to the Amazon window, type in Jon Kabat-Zinn and hit go.

I wish you peaceful meditations.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Why I love Pema

Ani Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron by Room With A View

If you are not familiar with Pema Chodron and her work, you are depriving yourself of benefiting from the teachings of one of the most charming and gifted living spiritual teachers of the last 3 decades.

Born in New York City in 1936 as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, today Ani Pema Chodron is an ordained Buddhist Nun and a highly regarded and beloved teacher, speaker and author. She is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, the first Tibetan Monastery for Westerners, in Nova Scotia, Canada. In the mid 1970's, Pema started down a personal path of discovery which led her to pursue the passion she has embraced and shared with millions of followers around the world, including me. Although her teachings are relevant to anyone seeking personal growth, I find that her age and experiences make her particularly sensitive and instructive to those of us in the baby boom generation as we encounter the fears and anxieties that deepen as we age.

Although Pema's practices and teachings are based on the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, I find her wisdom and insight make her communications highly accessible to anyone who is in need of a travel guide as they explore their own path of mindful awareness into their hearts and souls.

Her warmth, compassion, and humor compliment her intimate understanding of the complicated human psyche. She takes ancient principles and practices and with unparalleled skill uses down to earth illustrations to make her teachings easily accessible to everyone, including those of us in the West, who, until the last few decades, have found eastern teachings difficult to absorb.

Pema helps teach us how to confront and embrace our fears, anxieties, and insecurities through a variety of practices including mindfulness, meditation, compassion, joyfulness and happiness.

She emphasizes that this work is not easy, but with commitment and fortitude we can learn coping skills and find peace.

One of my favorite teaching's by Pema is on Shenpa, a Tibetan word for attachment, although Pema is quick to point out that this translation does not do justice to communicating the true meaning of shenpa. In her book "Getting Unstuck" Pema describes shenpa as the feeling of getting hooked. She uses the vivid analogy of having scabies and the resulting constant urge to scratch even when we know it's not good for us. I have incorporated this concept to help me realize when I am allowing my mind to spiral down a painful and debilitating path of fear, anxiety and panic and realizing that I am doing everything I can to surround myself with unhealthy behaviors to reinforce these unrealized fears. Her teachings, particularly on mindfulness and how to stay in the moment with this uncomfortable itch, have helped teach me and millions of others how to stop the scratching and move on to a better place in our minds and in our lives.

If you are already familiar with Pema, you don't need me to say anything more. If you are not yet acquainted with this warm, compassionate woman and her brilliant and inspiring work, I urge you to explore her website and give yourself the gift of introducing yourself to who she is and how her unique understanding, interpretation and communication of the invaluable teachings of ancient practices can take you on an inspiring journey of your own.

"This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it's with us wherever we go."

(From her book "When Things Fall Apart")

You can order her books or audio downloads from this website by linking to the Amazon website through the search window or clicking on a specific item in the "It's All About Pema" window.

Please join me on this journey. You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Mussar refers to a Jewish ethical practice that can trace its roots back to the 10th Century.

However, it was in the 19th century, amongst Lithuanian Jews, that Mussar became an organized movement encouraging the deepening of spiritual and ethical growth through social, cultural, and educational study along with a prescribed set of tools and exercises for guiding Jews (and non-Jews) in how to live a moral and ethical life.

Mussar is Hebrew for "instruction" or "discipline" but is more commonly recognized as a synonym for the modern Hebrew word for ethics.

In its simplest form, Mussar teaches that each of us is a soul (distinct from having a soul) and the soul is inherently pure and good. However, as we grow up and journey through life, we develop passions, desires, habits and conflicting emotions that obscure our inner essence that remains pure and holy.

The practices of Mussar are intended to guide us through the path of pealing away the layers that have come to obscure the soul so we can once again function from a place of inner goodness, healing ourselves and the world.

I discovered Mussar accidentally one day when perusing the internet looking for evidence that my Jewish beliefs and practices could be consistent with the meditative exercises and Buddhist philosophies I had been exposed to while studying and teaching yoga. I found a great deal of peace and comfort in the Buddhist teachings, but found myself continually struggling to bring unity to these practices along with those of Judaism.

That's when I discovered Alan Morinis, educator, founder and director of The Mussar Institute. I read his first book "Climbing Jacob's Ladder, a personal biography of how he came to rediscover the ancient practices of Mussar. His story struck a chord and inspired me to purchase his second book, "Everyday Holiness." I love this book! It is a clearly written hand book on how to identify the soul traits that challenge us and obscure the pureness of our inner essence. He guides us through developing a soul curriculum that allows us to map out a spiritual life path and then clearly and methodically provides us the tools, techniques and practices we can employ to steer ourselves on a course of action.

When I first began to study and practice Mussar I thought I was exploring a Jewish ethical practice. But when I started keeping my soul trait journal and delved deeper into the philosophy and practices of Mussar, I discovered that it is not just for Jews or Jews seeking to balance Jewish and Buddhist beliefs. Mussar offers an opportunity for anyone seeking a way to express their spiritual and ethical beliefs through their daily actions to do so by mindfully implementing practical exercises and behaviors.

Should you choose to investigate Mussar, I would encourage you to go the extra step and do more than read about it. Following the clear instructions provided by Alan Morinis in his book "Everyday Holiness" will help you develop your own personal soul curriculum by identifying your soul traits. Maintaining a daily diary helps keep us mindful of our goals and challenges us to live our lives in harmony with an ethical belief system that urges us to be a good and decent human being whose daily actions will contribute to "Tikun Olam" the repairing and perfecting of the world.

I hope you will choose to explore Mussar with me. It is the kind of practice that invites and encourages group participation and discussion. I would look forward to the opportunity to initiate a Mussar discussion thread on this site.

You can order books on Mussar directly from this site. Just click on one of the recommended books or type Mussar in the Amazon search window.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More About Me

Becoming a Mindful Baby Boomer didn't happen over night. I have spent 50 something years becoming who I am and 30 something years exploring who I was, who I was becoming and who I wanted to be. My explorations have taken me on a variety of journeys, physically and spiritually and have led me to the path I walk today.

I have been happily married for 20 years and am a mom to three teens and three dogs. My husband and I home-schooled our children for 6 years and enjoyed the opportunity to learn, travel and explore the world with them. They returned to school for their high school years and as of this coming fall, all will be in college. I am a step-mom, mother-in-law and grandmother. I have two sisters and am grateful that both my parents are alive and live just a few doors away.

Prior to this phase of life, I was a Human Resource Professional for 12 years with several different multi billion dollar companies in Silicon Valley. I specialized in counseling and employee relations. I graduated from Smith College with a degree in Clinical Psychology.

In addition to teaching yoga and meditation I enjoy contributing to my community and staying involved in local issues. I am the Coordinator of our community neighborhood watch and emergency evacuation program, and am involved in local citizen action committees. I stay very active and enjoy hiking, cycling, golf, skiing, and, of course, yoga and meditation.

Mindful Music Choices

You don't need to spend hundreds of hours listening to thousands of songs in order to choose the perfect accompaniment for your meditation or yoga practice. I have done it for you. If it's listed under recommendations, it means I have personally listened to the song or song selections on an album and am recommending them based on my personal experience and feedback from students, friends, and family.