Sunday, November 18, 2012

Happy Holidays or Seasonal Stress?

Happy Holidays or Seasonal Stress?  Learn to bring more joy and less stress to your holidays.
The holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy and festivity: a season of family bliss, goodwill, exuberance and wonder. For children, let us hope this is true. But for many adults the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years, feel more like a test in endurance and a competition in survivor skills than an opportunity to "deck the halls" and "join the chorus."
So, is there a natural way to experience the spirit of the season without the stress? The answer is yes and it starts with allowing just 20 minutes a day to be all about you. With awareness, commitment, and practice you can learn to manage your stress by relaxing your body and quieting your mind.
Really? 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. If you are not opposed to possibly surrendering to a mini nap, I suggest lying down. However, if you prefer, sitting comfortably in a supportive chair is also a good choice so opt for the one that works best for you.
If you choose to lie down, it is helpful to place a lightly weighted eye pillow over your eyes. In addition to blocking out light, soft pressure can help relax the muscles in and around the eyes and cheeks. The pressure should be gentle so as not to be distracting. Aromatherapy scents can also enhance the ability to reduce stress. Not all eye pillows are created equal. The right combination for you will enrich your experience throughout this practice as well as during savasana, the final yoga resting pose. You will also find eye pillows useful as a natural aid to help combat insomnia and support a drug free sleep.
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 your mind tells your muscles to relax. Let your 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, each 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 the other.
Consider beginning this holiday season with a gift to yourself. Start your practice now and find some welcome relief from the deep pain that uncontrolled tension inflicts on our bodies and minds.
I hope this simple practice will help you reduce stress and reclaim the spirit of this holiday season.
Consider continuing these techniques and adding yoga and/or meditation to your New Year's Resolutions. Your body and mind will thank you.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Forgive and Forget

What does it really mean to forgive? Can you forgive without forgetting?  How does it feel to forgive or be forgiven?  Is it easier to forgive a physical pain incurred by another's accidental actions than an emotional wound inflicted with intent?  Does "sorry"  from the offender require forgiveness from the offended?   Does the offended require an apology in order to forgive the offender?

I have pondered the concept of forgiveness many times.  I suspect most of us have. We have all been hurt and we have all been the cause of someone else's pain.

While endeavoring to explore what forgiveness means and why it is considered so important to our mental health, I reflected upon some well-known aphorisms.

“To err is human; to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope)  

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“I can forgive, but I cannot forget is only another way of saying, I will not forgive.  Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note-torn in two and burned up so that it never can be shown against one.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

"Without forgiveness there's no future." (Desmond Tutu)

Many religions encourage and even require forgiveness as an act of piety.

There is, in fact, no end to famous maxims encouraging us toward forgiveness.  Is it really so easy? No, of course it isn't, but it is possible and it is within our control.

There is a wide range of affronts, accidents, and human atrocities that have left small, large and inconceivable wounds upon individuals, groups and civilizations. There are monstrous acts of inhumanity that are beyond understanding and should never be forgiven or forgotten.  There are simple oversights that are dismissed without hesitation.  It is the "in betweens" that cause so much consternation. Particularly amongst family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. This is the physical and emotional terrain where most of us live.  It is where we react and over-react.  It is where we experience our most raw feelings and where we can cause the most enduring sorrow.  This is where forgiveness and acceptance become an integral part of our humanity and our mental health.

I do not believe that forgiveness requires forgetting.  I do not believe it is always possible to forget.  I do believe that the test of forgiveness lies within our emotional being.  What does this mean?  It means that if you think back on the incidence that initiated the pain and there is still hurt or anger that bubbles from within, you have not forgiven.  We experience true forgiveness when the event ceases to trigger a negative emotional response.

Forgiving is the part of the equation that is within our control.  We can not force someone to forgive us. We can extend the olive branch, ask for forgiveness, even offer compensation if appropriate. But we can not choose for someone else.  We can, however heal, even without being granted forgiveness from whomever we have injured.  It starts with forgiving ourselves.  It may sound like a cliche, but it's true.  With or without forgiveness from another, we still need to let go of our own guilt.  It is easier to do so if the person we have hurt accepts our apology, but either way we can use self forgiveness to heal and let go. We can incorporate the encounter into our being and allow it to influence our future choices of behavior.

When we hold on to anger or resentment, we unwittingly encourage the body's stress response which can trigger a series of unhealthy physical reactions.  Meditation, yoga, visualization, breathing exercises and prayer are all methods of coping with stress and reprogramming our responses to events we can not control or change.

What else can we do to help ourselves forgive or accept non forgiveness when it is wanted but not granted?  First, don't make assumptions about what someone else is thinking or feeling.  Odds are you will be wrong or, at the very least, not completely right.  Wrong assumptions generally lead to the perpetuation of bad feelings and interfere with the ability to heal.  Second, do not reinforce the negative emotions by continuing to re-live the encounter through stories you tell yourself and others. Third, try treating forgiveness like any other behavior you would like to see extended to you and those around.  Even if forgiving doesn't come naturally, it can be a learned behavior.  If you offer and practice forgiveness, others are more likely to accept and extend the same behavior.  Finally, Decide that giving and accepting forgiveness is more important than who you believe is right or how the conflict was initiated.  Even very old wounds can be healed through practicing genuine forgiveness.  Remember, we are talking about the "in-betweens" here not monstrous acts of abuse that might fall into the category of atrocities.  Forgiving and healing from the deep scarring of physical and emotional trauma is a subject and process that goes way beyond the scope of this article.

 "The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world."  (Marianne Williamson)  And what better goal can there be?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Finding Peace in the Quiet

I first became aware of how much I valued quiet within days of the birth of my twin daughters who arrived 15 months after the birth of my son.  It wasn't actually their synchronized, soul penetrating cries of hunger that made me first crave total silence, but rather the awareness of the calm that befell me the first time all three fell blissfully asleep for the same ten minutes.

It doesn't really matter if its the yowls of babies, the chatter of co-workers or the incessant blare of radios, stereos and televisions.  Overwhelming assaults on our auditory senses can take its toll on our nerves and on our health.  As obvious as this may seem, I am convinced that we don't really appreciate the value of silence until we can't find it.

As a teenager I enjoyed but didn't really appreciate the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle's "Sounds of Silence."  The melody was beautiful but I didn't really ponder if their was any deep meaning to be inferred from the rhythmic lines.  I'm still not sure there was any deep meaning intended by a 21 year old Paul Simon, but as I grew older and found myself craving moments of solitude, I imparted my own  meaning and used the song title as a reminder of what I needed in times of sensory overload.  It became a sort of mantra I called upon to guide me to a physical or internal state of quiet.

There have been many scientific studies that have confirmed that excessive noise and commotion can trigger our sympathetic nervous system releasing the stress hormones and chemicals that are responsible for leaving us in a state of stress and anxiety.  If the perceived threat or noise remains constant, the symptoms of stress can continue to plague us.  If you wish to research some of these studies on your own, her is a link to an article in The Washington Post which provides a good starting place. For purposes of this article, I am more focused on helping you find ways to control and eliminate unwanted noise and recognize the benefits of peace found "In The Sounds Of Silence."

Clearly, there is a great deal of unwelcome and excessive noise  in our daily environment that is beyond our control.  We can't stop the traffic at will, or cease the cries and whines of young children on demand, or silence every loud cell phone screamer in our immediate vicinity.  These are the times when trying to find inner peace is our best option.  Not easy, but not impossible.  The most effective techniques I have found to do this are deep breathing and what I call "withdrawing into inner stillness". This is a simple technique, but does take a little practice.  Start by sitting in a genuinely quiet place if only for a few minutes.  Close your eyes and take a few deep belly breaths.  Then visualize yourself sitting in the middle of a very active location. It can be a town square, a busy restaurant, a noisy outdoor cafe.  Just close your eyes and see yourself sitting quietly, smiling as you observe the noise and turmoil swirling around you but allow yourself to stay emotionally detached.  Notice your pulse and breathing. If you feel calm, just continue with the practice for a few more minutes.  If you sense any anxiety, shallow breathing or quickening pulse, continue with the practice coming back to the deep breathing and then the visualization until you find it easy to stay still in the middle of the imagined noisy chaos.

Then comes the hard part, trying to implement this practice when you are in a real situation and the loud persistent noise swirling around you starts to make you feel anxious or irritable.   If you can only manage a minute, then do a minute.  If you an steal 5 minutes all the better.  To some of you this practice may sound too simple and to others it may sound unrealistic.  But to all of you,  I would say "try it."  You may be pleasantly surprised at the calming effect this simple technique along with deep breathing can have on your nervous system.

Now, have you noticed how frequently you choose to surround yourself with noise?  You may not think of it as noise, but our most common habits result in exactly that.   Flipping on the radio or iPod in the car, and switching on the T.V. or stereo in your home are amongst the most routine and automatic noise makers we willingly activate.  You may not think of this as noise, but it really is even if you are enjoying the music, talk or T.V. show.  The constant bombardment of noise on our senses increases our level of stress whether we realize it or not. "Study after study has found that community noise is interrupting our sleep, interfering with our children's learning, suppressing our immune systems and even increasing--albeit just a little-- our chances of having a heart attack.  Studies have also shown that chronic night noise not only leaves you shrouded in a fog of fatigue, irritability and poor concentration, but also activates the stress response as you sleep.  And while the number of awakenings per night may decrease as you adjust to the din, the increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing changes persist." (Rick Weiss, Washington Post, June 5, 2007.)

I began eliminating just these two noise makers and was rewarded with not only less noise in my ears but less noise in my mind.  In the car, I left the radio off and simply drove focusing on the road and challenging myself to not allow errant or rude drivers to interrupt the sense of calm I was managing to maintain without the pulsing of bass vibrating through my body.

At home, I now find it incredibly peaceful and enjoyable to settle down with or without a glass of wine, close my eyes and breathe through the stillness. Some might view this as a form of mediation, and so it may be.  I have several different types of meditation practices and all serve me well.  What I have found in these moments was not unexpected given my current focus on yoga, meditation and healthy living choices.  What did surprise me was how long it took me to figure it out.  If turning off the radio, stereo and T.V. can reduce blood pressure, slow your breathing, improve your concentration and help you sleep better, why not give it a try?  All you have to lose is stress and irritability and what you may discover is that there is much to be gained by finding peace in the quiet.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wisdom of Healthy Aging

Many of us have raced and competed our way through life.  We idolize youth and fear aging.  Thus, we hail with admiration the ninety year old skier, the eighty year old hiker, the seventy year old century cyclist and the sixty year old marathon runner.

But what about the millions of baby boomers who have discovered the riches and rewards of healthy living post retirement or after a health scare?  Should we not encourage and applaud their efforts and accomplishments with comparable zeal?

The truth is, wisdom is part of healthy aging, too. Initially, I began to practice yoga in hopes of soothing my lower back pain and easing the tightness in my neck. But it was the wisdom of yoga; learning how to effectively integrate mind, body, spirit and breath that taught me how to be more present in my life and in the world.

Healthy aging is a concept we can all enthusiastically embrace but the reality is that none of us will progress through life’s stages unscathed. Some of us will defy the aging process with body and soul. Some of us will accept age spots and wrinkles with humor and grace. Still others will succumb to chronic anxiety and/or depression resulting from the stressors of aging such as illness, disease, pain, and loss.

None of us really knows how we will face the challenges of aging when confronted with the vagaries of life. Predicting the future is generally considered unreliable and worrying about the unknown is certain to create unnecessary physical and emotional damage. But we can live wisely and make healthy choices. We can show up for our own lives and be emotionally present for our family and friends in good times and bad. We can live each day with purpose and awareness and establish challenges and goals that excite and motivate. We can hike mountains, swim oceans, race for the cure, and walk scenic trails. We can pursue our baby boomer bucket lists with excitement and enthusiasm. 

We may indeed be the healthiest aging generation yet. But remember, the destinations become less meaningful if you haven’t enjoyed the journey.  Finding that balance can be a challenge but wisdom is our reward for reaching our Baby Boomer years.  Pay attention and you will enjoy the experiences more fully and in better health.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Don't Bite The Hook

"Don't Bite The Hook" is the title of a book by Pema Chodron.  It is also really good advice.

Here is how Pema summarizes the spirit of this counsel:

"Life has a way of provoking us with traffic jams and computer malfunctions, with emotionally distant partners and crying children-and before we now it, we're upset.  We feel terrible, and then we end up saying and doing things that only make matters worse.  But it doesn't have to be that way, says Pema Chodron.  It is possible to relate constructively to the inevitable shocks, losses, and frustrations of life so that we can find true happiness.  The key, Pema explains, is not biting he "hook" of our habitual responses.

Let's face it.  We all have "issues" that needle us. It could be as simple as the wrong word at the wrong time from your co-worker or an ongoing disagreement with your teen or discovering that there is no toilet paper in the bathroom after you have completed your business and your spouse forgot to replace the empty role.  Our thresholds for being triggered may vary, but we  have all felt that tightening knot deep in our belly right before sensing a hot electric charge of negativity that quickly escalates into anger, resentment, irritability, anxiety, depression, blame or even the desire to seek revenge. Then it goes from bad to worse.  We become addicted to our habitual responses and say or do something which leads to more negativity and pain for ourselves and the poor object of our wrath.

The key, says Pema, is learning how to recognize those triggers and to stop yourself from biting that hook that takes you down a destructive path.

Of course, it is not easy to break habitual patterns that we have perfected over years and decades of practice, but it is not impossible. In her book, Pema offers insight, wisdom and tools to help you in your efforts.  In the meantime, I will offer a few suggestions that might help you get started. 

The first step is to recognize the bait.  This part is actually not so hard.  Take five to ten minutes and just make a list of three to five events that really upset or irritated you during the previous week. Then pick one and decide that this will be your challenge for basic training.  

Step two is not so easy.  It is learning to recognize the bait when you are in the moment and then resist the urge to bite the hook.  Here is the part where Pema can really help.  So does mindful deep breathing.

This is not a quick fix.  As Pema will tell you, it may take years of focus and practice to resist the bait.  But stress and anxiety are debilitating and good health is energizing.  So take a deep breath, listen to Pema and start to tune in to what hooks you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fascia, Connective Tissue That Matters

Do you know where your fascia is?  Probably not.  And, in all likelihood, you are thinking if you've reached adulthood with never having heard of it, it probably isn't important.  Which, of course, isn't true or I wouldn't be bothering to write about it.  However, understanding the biological and chemical properties of fascia  is complicated and not the objective of this article.  I am much more interested in helping readers understand how fascia facilitates or inhibits healthy movement and how yoga can help maintain healthy fascia or help nourish and heal tight fascia that can restrict movement.

Fascia is a form of connective tissue.  Connective tissue refers to any tissue that connects one part of the body to another.  Ligaments, tendons, bone, cartilage, and even blood are other forms of connective tissue.  While ligaments connect bone to bone and tendons connect muscle to bone, fascia is pervasive throughout the body.  It helps to provide form and structure to the body, balancing strength with appropriate flexibility.

There are three layers to fascia, superficial, deep and visceral, (the layer which lies between the deep fascia and the organs).   Fascia connects, envelops, surrounds and supports every structure in the body including body tissue, muscles, organs, bones, nerves and blood vessels.

Superficial fascia is a thin layer of tissue just below the skin and surrounds the body from head to foot in a single covering.  It is composed mostly of collagen and elastin  (protein fibers) and contains various degrees of fat, nerve fibers, and blood vessels. You are probably familiar with what this layer looks like though you may not realize it.  When you pull the skin away from an uncooked chicken, you have probably noticed a very thin, almost translucent layer of what you may have thought was part of the skin or fat.  However, this is fascia and it lies between the skin of the chicken and the meat itself.

In its normal, healthy state, fascia is stable enough to provide integrity to our bones and alignment yet elastic enough to facilitate flexibility, movement and range of motion to muscles and joints.

However, when subjected to trauma, (physical or emotional), habitualy bad posture or repetitive and sustained muscle tension, fascia will actually de-form and remold itself to conform to misaligned, tight or over stretched muscles and tissues.  When this happens, the fascia can tighten and bind muscles, press on nerves and blood vessels and constrict range of motion, all of which lead to pain.  To keep the fascia healthy, it needs nourishment, movement, relaxation and awareness.

This, of course, leads us to how and why yoga can help.  As we already know, the mind and body are integrally connected.  Our emotions can affect our movement and our posture, and movement can affect our mind and emotions.  Yoga teaches us to move our bodies with mindfulness and awareness.  It helps us focus on our breath as a means of releasing tension and deepening release.  Under sustained and low intensity pressure, fascia can regain it plasticity and remold itself back to health.

The flow of a Yang practice can help keep muscles moving while the slow, sustained pressure of a Yin practice can help release the deeper tissues such as fascia.  Both are important.  Fascia will adapt and mold itself to muscles so we need our joints to be in alignment with proper muscle engagement and support.  We can then bring integrity back to our alignment and movement and our fascia will be there to support us.

However, the mindfulness component of your practice is just as important.  Deep breathing helps release tension, which can help soften tight and harmful holding patterns of the fascia.  Body awareness can help us bring healthy alignment to our posture and restore healthy moving patterns.  Negative emotions can affect our posture and movement so we need to learn and use the skills of yoga, meditation, breathing and other disciplines to help manage negative thoughts, emotions and depression.

Our cells need nutrition and fluids to function at their optimal level.  Nutrition for cells comes from food, oxygen, blood and lymph fluids and water.  That translates into making healthy eating choices, moving your body and drinking lots of water.

In addition to yoga, other body work modalities can be excellent options for helping with fascia release, relaxing tight muscles and increasing oxygen and nutrient flow into body tissues.  Massage, Rolfing, Feldenkrais, foam rolling, and physical therapy are just a few examples of the current and emerging techniques available to help restore our minds and bodies to homeostatic health.

Dr. Tom Meyers is the Author of "Anatomy Trains" and is a leader in the field of researching, understanding and working with fascia.  Here is a brief clip from one of his DVD's.  Warning, dissections and cadavers are demonstrated in this clip.

Update: Excellent discussion on the interconnectedness of the body through fascia and how yoga can help.  From Seed to Plant: Yoga and New Anatomy of interconnectedness.