Emotions and Yoga

If you’ve taken Yoga for awhile, perhaps you already know it is not uncommon to have emotions emerge during class, particularly if you’re in a class that encourages mindful introspection. As my classes are breath-based mindful movements, practitioners have the optimal environment to access their interior. For this reason, occasionally a student will confide that an unexpected emotion arose during class. Sometimes the emotion is accompanied by a memory, but not always. And it can be unsettling for some as it is unexpected.

Based on the wisdom of Vipassana, I encourage practitioners to allow the sensations of emotions to arise and observe them with a sense of equanimity – neither grasping nor avoiding them, whether those sensations are pleasant or uncomfortable. Without attaching a story or judging them. This allows what may be stored emotions to arise and release. (*when emotions/sensations feel strong/raw, please consult a therapist for an individualized session)

This practice can teach us valuable skills to better deal with life’s ups and downs. Much of our suffering is caused not so much by events themselves, but by our reactions to them. Perhaps if we can practice being with what arises in our bodies with a sense of equanimity, we can utilize these skills to better respond to life’s events and their associated bodily sensations with more balance.

When I started this journey, I remember well the first time I decided to use my Vipassana training in the moment with a strong emotion I was experiencing. It was early in my marriage and one afternoon I was building up steam to blast my husband for something he’d said/done. (I frankly don’t know what it was now which perhaps signals it’s lack of real importance). Anyways, at the time it seemed urgent – ha! I remember being in the bedroom about to barge in the living room angrily and vent, but instead had the conscious awareness to instead feel the emotion in my body that I was about to unleash at him. I laid down on the bed and turned my awareness inward and all of a sudden a flash of heat exploded in my body. It was scary and intense, but I stayed with it, witnessed it, and then it left as suddenly as it arose. With it’s exit went my fury. I could talk to him in a calm manner if I had wanted to. But absence the intense emotion, I no longer had the desire.

This does not mean I think confrontation is useless. However, disagreements expressed with a cooler head can keep the other from feeling defensive and often brings about a more fruitful outcome. Had I just ‘stuffed it’ instead of expressing it or feeling it, it would have likely manifested as pain in my body.

Here’s the thing. Every emotion plays out through the body as sensation, no matter how subtle. If the body is not allowed to experience and release strong emotions, they can be stored as a pain in the neck, knots between the shoulder blades, or an upset stomach.

A mindful Yoga practice and meditation are not the only techniques that help release stored emotions. Other effective techniques that help to release stored emotions including free-association journaling (see Back in Control), or Trauma Release Exercises (TRE).

Many of us do whatever we can not to feel our bodies/emotions. Even a Yoga class can be done in a manner that distracts the practitioner from feeling. For those on the path of greater self-understanding, establishing a practice of mindful presence and awareness can yield greater opportunities for self-knowledge and compassion. This healthy relationship to our body/mind is not only beneficial for our own well-being, but can also dramatically improve our relationships with the world around us.

Namaste,

Jessica

Posted in abhyasa (practice), asana, compassion, loving-kindness, mindfulness, pain, presence, silence | 1 Comment

A work in progress

I cannot agree on the most important aspect of a Yoga Therapy class. I’ve gone through stages when it was about the poses, then the breath, then meditation, relaxation, and posture. As it turns out, they’re all equally important when looking at the holistic view of Yoga Therapy.

In contrast, our modern, reductionist, Western view of medicine (is it changing? I hope so) wants to emphasize one technique (or pill or surgery) to cure an ill. But this, I would argue, is neither effective nor accurate as a means of healing, because it negates the complexity of our humanbeing-ness. For instance, from a Yoga Therapy perspective that pain in your neck may be due to a muscular imbalance, posture, lack of rest, stressful thinking, and an over-excited/fatigued nervous system.  Therefore the Yoga Therapy prescription would entail appropriate poses, breathwork, meditation, relaxation, and postural recommendations.

A bit more on Posture

When I delve into new areas of movement therapy, I frequently discover information that contradicts commonly held beliefs. This is an all-too-common occurrence and happens in so many other areas of study, too.  Take for instance food science. How many times in the past year have we found out that we had it all wrong when it comes to eating healthy?!

To learn more about posture and movement, I attended a Gokhale Method workshop which is based on the extensive study of indigenous people, our ancestors, and young children. I learned that all three groups had common postural and movement practices.

The Gokhale Method, otherwise known as Ancestral or Primal posture and movement, informs us to place our weight in our heels and slightly towards the outsides of the feet when standing. This practice, as opposed to carrying our weight in the front of the feet as many in our culture do (perhaps due to the prevalence of heels even in the most ‘flat’ of shoes), is better for our backs, knees and feet. Bringing our weight in our heels helps us to prevent locking our knees (never good), over-arching the low back (which causes lumbar disc compression), and bunions (likely caused by excessive weight in the fronts of our feet and narrow toe boxes in shoes). The J Spine of Primal posture, as opposed to the S Spine (which I had always learned), creates more space around our lumbar discs, a chronic area of spinal disc degeneration in our culture. Anteriorly tilting the pelvis, as opposed to ‘tucking’ (as so many of us have been taught), may also prevent a whole host of issues associated with a chronically contracted pelvis/pelvic floor. (And yes, you can overdo the Kegels).

However, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend postural changes to another if they are not experiencing pain or discomfort. Bodies are complex, so general guidelines are just that and need to be explored individually before adopting.

If you want to find out more about Primal/Ancestral posture and movement, learn about the Gokhale Method. And come to a Yoga Therapy class where you’ll learn about posture, movement, and so much more!

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When you’re not feelin’ it

yaki

It’s beautiful weather here in N.C. this Christmas. Global warming concerns aside, for the moment, many of us are enjoying these balmy winter temps. The recent memory of bone chillingly cold weather has made me especially grateful to feel the sun’s heat on my bare feet.

It is not uncommon for us humans to appreciate something more after having experienced it’s less desirable opposite.

Take illness and wellness, for example. How often have you, right after being sick, felt especially grateful for just getting around? Challenging times can be a great motivator to live differently. I see this often in committed Yoga students who I know have suffered major medical issues. Their being able to get up and down on the floor and move their bodies in different ways feels extraordinarily good and is their driving impulse to show up, having a recent memory of disability etched upon their psyches.

But what happens when an injury/illness is no longer on the forefront of the pre-frontal cortex, and/or motivation otherwise wanes?

Periodically I begin Yoga class asking students to come up with an intention for class. A reminder for why they are here. As a matter of living more consciously (and healthily), reminding ourselves of why we’re taking good care of ourselves is helpful – why we’ve come to the studio, why we’re eating healthier, why we’ve started walking, meditating, or why we’ve adopted any healthy habit.

This is especially important when we’re not feelin’ it.

On days when I’m feeling run down and still have two Yoga classes to go, I often start by asking myself why I teach and my intention for the next class. Frequently what comes to me is to be of service, to help alleviate suffering, and to listen and respond to students’ needs. Reminding myself of why I teach Yoga and setting an intention gives me the inspiration needed to be fully present and listen when I’m worn out.

Someone asked me recently for advice about how to live a healthy life. After thinking about it awhile, I came back to the importance of once again first asking and reminding ourselves of why we want to live healthier. Maybe it’s to feel better, to have more energy, to better care for others, to make better decisions, and/or to be happier.

Once we remind ourselves of why we’ve chosen to live healthier, then we can cultivate a sense of curiosity and begin our journey from there. Intention and curiosity is the fuel to keep ourselves on track. Without it, adopting a healthy lifestyle can become, for some, a chore.

And so I ask you as you’re reading this blog … why have you chosen to live a healthier life?

Make this question a regular mantra and with a sense of curiosity it will serve you, and those with whom you share your life, well.

To your health,

Jessica

Posted in discipline, gratitude, intention | Leave a comment

Jon Kabat-Zinn @ Duke, Dec. 2

jkz

I recently heard Jon Kabat-Zinn speak at Duke University on December 2. The subject was the intersection of mindfulness with science and medicine. Here are my brief notes from his talk.

Meditative traditions come from the East. Mindfulness is essentially wakefulness. Can we be present for ourselves in the only moment we have? Drop all agendas. Bring your awareness to your intention of why you’re here.

Mindfulness is the deep interconnectedness of body and mind. We are continually losing touch with where we are. It’s so hard to be mindful. Mindfulness is not about getting to the next moment. It’s about getting to know yourself. You are Walden Pond. You are your own gift to yourself.

Essentially, we don’t know who we are. All the stories we tell about ourselves are not big enough to encompass the totality of our being.

On the nature of suffering. We have given the planet a fever. Mindfulness is about seeing beauty in humanity. Mindfulness is a way of waking up. Not about Buddhism. It’s a way of being. It links us to the great mystery. It’s about coming to terms with things as they are and living life with a certain amount of integrity.

Where does suffering come from? Grasping. Attachments. The 8-Fold Noble Path transforms suffering. Learn to differentiate pain from suffering.

With mindfulness, life is the teacher, the practice, the curriculum. You can’t possibly know where you’re going. Learn how to live inside.

The mind is not smart enough to know how interesting the breath is. The mind cannot even be trusted to continually regulate the breath.

Listen to who you are. This is what the world needs now.

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The seductive wave of Speed vs Now

What does it mean to slow down? Why do we undermine this expansive state with repetitive thinking, fast moving, erratic breathing?

To remember the freshness of this moment,

and this moment,

we bring the mind to where the body rests. Step into the now. Slow down reverberations of busyness and calm the breath, still the body.

A seductive wave of speed reappears in hasty movements and thoughts, anticipating the next.

What pulled you away from this miracle of now?

To slow down and become present is a radical act of loving kindness. We attend to ourselves much the way we would attend to a young child, a pet, with a recognition of our own innocence.

We deserve (dare I say need?) this same friendly attention directed inwards, each day.

And why not?

Posted in compassion, mindfulness | 1 Comment

will power, 1874, from will (n.) + power (n.)

freefeetmountainAfter class, a student informed me that she’d recently been experiencing foot pain and had made an appointment with a Podiatrist. We Yoga Therapists are careful not to diagnose, but I suggested that if it was a bunion, there is a possible correlation to how we stand, walk, and the shoes that we wear. That people who tend to carry their weight on the inside balls of the feet may be contributing to this condition. That switching to flat shoes, and changing how we walk and stand might offer relief and stop the progression of the bone growing on the inside base of the big toe. (see Ancestral Movement and the Gokhale Method) Though there is no consensus about what causes bunions, the body is amazingly resilient and builds support where needed – hence the hypothesis that the bone growth on the inside ball of the foot may be caused by distributing weight excessively in that area.

As I have been working on changing how I walk/stand based on Ancestral Movement patterns (Gokhale), I briefly felt the fatigue that constant awareness of my form can entail. Every time I walk to the bathroom, to the fridge, out to the car, while making meals, picking up the cat, and standing in line at the grocery.

Changing bad and ingrained old habits is work. Whether you’re trying to eat better or exercise more, altering your way of thinking and moving requires a special kind of motivation to befriend yourself in order to feel better.

As a teacher, I’m curious about people who are committed to taking care of their bodies. What motivates them? What keeps them from throwing in the towel and slouching on the couch eating bon-bons instead of sitting upright, eating a salad, or coming to class?

Researcher Kelly McGonigal reveals in her book The Willpower Instinct that to stay motivated it’s important to keep our eyes on the prize. When we suffer from doubt or lethargy, remind ourselves of why we’ve chosen a healthier path and how we feel when we take care of our body/mind. Shaming or blaming ourselves is useless, but staying aware of why we’ve chosen to live healthier and imagining the good that will come creates the incentive.

With ‘carrot’ in hand, I re-lengthen a little though the back of my neck. When walking, I shift my hips back and move my weight a bit more on the outsides of my feet. When standing, I shift my weight towards the heels and evenly between my two feet. I am reminded that befriending this loving body of mine feels good from my fingers to my toes.

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The Life of Bees

I’ve recently become a beekeeper. I had no idea of all that this would entail and how intrigued I would become about the mysterious lives of bees.

Every morning I get up and check what’s going on around the hive. Then I revisit numerous times a day. The hive is in our front yard pretty close to the street (because that’s the best location for ample sun). I wonder as neighbors drive by if they think I’m insane for spending so much time looking at my bees….

Recently there’s been a new problem that I’ve had to tackle. Beehive robbing. This involves a group of bees from another hive entering your hive and stealing all the honey, maybe even killing the queen. You can tell this is happening because you literally see bees fighting outside the hive and numerous dead bee bodies. There are a number of techniques that can be used to help the bees defend their hive, which I quickly learned and instituted immediately. This thankfully stopped the robbing.

One of the things I read concerning beehive robbing (and the reason I’m writing about this in my Yoga blog), is that robbing occurs when a hive is weak.

For bees, weakness within a hive can be caused by a number of circumstances including – new environment, lack of necessary nutrition, and a lack of fortitude (low numbers and age of queen).

Like bees, we can also be robbed of our vitality when we are weak. This is usually why people get sick – because their immune systems are compromised.

Thankfully Yoga has good common sense wisdom for thriving. Sivananda condenses the essence of yoga teachings into 5 principles for optimal physical and mental health as well as spiritual growth. They are:

*Proper exercise – strengthen weak areas, stretch tight spaces, create balance

*Proper breathing – deep, slow, rhythmical

*Proper relaxation – thoroughly rejuvenate the nervous system

*Proper diet – more veggies/fruits, preferably grown using organic methods

*Positive thinking and meditation – we are what we think

These simple and profound teachings of Yoga are the recipe for cultivating the optimal environment to thrive. If you feel that your health has been robbed, take a look at these areas and decide which ones need attention. Start small with daily, routine gifts of nourishment to yourself. Overtime you will build the fortitude of your hive, so to speak, protecting the most important gift you have – your health and well-being.

Let’s get Beee-zy🙂

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