Mindfulness Practice for Fear

Mindful observation is a skill we can use in our daily lives at any time, not just in a quiet meditation. And fearlessness is not the absence of fear; Fearlessness is mindful observation that results in the awareness and perception of fear. 

When we practice meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is an awakening of self knowledge. Unfortunately, not all that knowledge is pleasurable or expected.  In self study, we may discover that fear is not only present, but controls our lives to some degree. Fear can be misunderstood and mislabeled. We may not realize our decisions are made by feelings of fear disguised as worry, apprehension, dread, or distrust. In some spiritual traditions, fear is the basis of suffering.  An important aspect of a mindfulness practice is to study fear—to understand and accept it enough that we do not live under its influence. Fears are obvious when they prevent us from engaging in normal activity. But sometimes we don’t recognize the ways in which we avoid, ignore, or resist fear. Part of spiritual awakening is identifying fear in its different stages and forms: the fear itself, shame, guilt, embarrassment, excuses, discouragement and anger.

 

Buddhism gifts us the Four Immeasurables:

Metta- Loving Kindness

Karuna – Compassion

Mudita –  Sympathetic Joy

Upekkha – Equanimity

These powerful mindset manipulators are also included in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I.33 “To preserve openness of heart and calmness of mind, nurture these attitudes:

Kindness to those who are happy

Compassion for those who are less fortunate

Honor for those who embody noble qualities

Equanimity to those whose actions oppose your values.” – Nischala Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga

 

You Become What You Practice

The brain does not differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Practicing these four virtues, particularly Metta, changes the way the brain is wired (the neuroplasticity thing mentioned below). Metta is the heartfelt intention for the well-being of oneself and others. We start with loving-kindness because it is all encompassing and makes the other Immeasurables more accessible. In addition to changing the brain, loving kindness develops a calm, protected heart; we increase the heart energy vibration (www.heartmath.org can tell you more about this).  When used together, the Four Immeasurables can replace not only fearful thoughts, but those of jealousy and righteousness among others.

The Metta meditation is simple and can be used as an antidote to fear:

May I be happy.

May I be well.

May I be safe.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

If you have difficulty being mindfully present with fear, start by offering yourself this meditation as a way of finding some calm in the storm. You can substitute any verbiage to suit you. Then offer the same loving-kindness to others in your fear response scenario; this can include both those who you worry about and those who cause the worry. When working with fear, we don’t have to confront the fear directly, especially if it seems overwhelming. Just the intention of loving-kindness changes our course and keeps us afloat above the water. When you feel stronger, split your awareness between loving-kindness and investigating the fear.

 

Breathe

Repeating the words, thought or feeling of loving kindness is a portal through fear. Another course to find calmer waters can be breath observation. The more fully the mind engages with the breath, the less it thinks about the fear, and so the fear loses some of its power.  Feel the temperature and movement of the breath on the face, the edges of the nose, in the throat, around the heart or maybe in the abdomen. There is no need to direct or control the breath or do any fancy pranayama; just observe the natural breath.  Keep it simple and if breath observation sinks you deeper into a fear response, go back to Metta.

Once the breath calms us enough that we are not gripped by the fear, we can openly observe the the fear itself. In mindfulness practice we do not get rid of fear by denying it – that would only strengthen it. Instead we explore it, sense it, and become the captain of our ship of fears. In doing so the troubled waters become more tranquil.

 

The Issues are in the Tissues

Interoception is our ability to feel ourselves on the inside. By being the observer of thoughts and breath, we prepare to be present in bodily sensations. Fear can cause us to disconnect  from the body and disassociate from an experience and the subsequent sensations.  One of the primary ways to investigate fear is through the felt sense where we consciously feel ourselves. When we step outside of the fear and into the felt sense, we are less likely to be sunk by the other forms of mislabeled fear.  There might be sensations of butterflies, heat or cold, changes in heart rate, tightening in the chest, sighing, or clenching in the stomach or face. When the fear is strong, it can be difficult to be with the sensations directly. In that case, return to the Metta meditation and breathe with and through the discomfort, as though the breath is the whole ocean and the fear is only one big wave. The wave will crest and trough. Guided the mind to float in the ocean of the breath.

 

Feel To Heal

Breathing into bodily sensations can allow us to move through the fear without drowning in it. It is helpful to discover what sensations are associated with the fear.  When we are ready to anchor the attention on the sensations that signal fear, the fear loses its wind. We recognize when we begin to tell ourselves or others stories that manifest as fear and shift back to the present moment. Mindfulness teamed with loving-kindness and the breath allow the bodily sensations to compassionately move through us.  Eventually we begin to notice the samskaras or mind loops we unconsciously course through and learn what triggers them.

 

Trust Yourself

From the time we are children, we are told what we need and when: when to be hungry (“it’s time for dinner”), if we are hot or cold (“put your jacket on”) how to feel (“stop crying” or “don’t  pout or your face will stay like that” ), when we are tired (“go to bed”) and even when to urinate (“go to the bathroom before we get in the car”).  We turn away from ourselves and our instinctual, intuitive voice. To everyone else, you are a bio-mechanical model – only you have the ability to get to know yourself as a soma – a being of internal sensation. It is from this unique space that we slowly learn not to destroy, disassociate from or control our feelings. We discover them and can be present with them in order to discharge them. We begin to see how they work when we enter into them and give them room to express and release.

 

Shit and Shift Happen

Remember the slogan “shit happens”?  Shift happens too, and at the same place in the brain.

“The very mechanisms in the brain that allow adversity to get under the skin are the same mechanisms that enable awakening.  We can harness this power of neuroplasticity for the good by cultivating certain types of virtuous qualities.”  – Dr. Richard Davidson, Neuroscientist

The time it takes to recover from “shit” is termed resilience. Mindfulness can strengthen our resilience and disempower fear. Exploring fear begins by being aware of how it manifests in our lives using witness consciousness. We don’t analyze it, but rather take the role of the observer: make no comparisons, make no judgements and delete the need to understand in the words of W. Brugh Joy. Have a relationship with the fear without living in the power of it’s stories. When working with fear or any other emotion, mindfulness is initially a disciplined practice. As the brain rewires, mindfulness becomes more automatic and we wake up sooner to the fear and change our perceptions around the fear.

Peace,

Megan

As another option to mindfully work through fear, you can access my free guided meditation “Navigating the Waters of Your Mind” below.

 

Yoga for Behavioral Therapy

This blog is in response to the hopeful article “How Yoga and Breathing Help the Brain Unwind” that is in high circulation in the yoga therapy community. To summarize the Psychology Today article, a study was recently shared showing that the neurotransmitter GABA, which suppresses the stress response, increases with yoga and breathing techniques. The study included individuals with depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance abuse.  In the very least, this is one more evidence based study that yoga and breathing techniques should be integrated into treatment plans. The real power of the study remains to be seen, however, as it is suggested that yoga and breathing techniques could potentially be used as a stand alone therapy for behavioral diagnoses that involve imbalance in the autonomic nervous system.

So that is the gist of the landmark news… but…the article is shared with a cautious reminder of the importance of choosing  yoga and breathing practices that are appropriate for the individual. Sadly, what prompted me to write this is that in the same week I read the study (not just the article in Psychology Today, but the actual study because I’m geeky about good news), I heard another disheartening story about someone who was ‘prescribed’ yoga for pain care, and reported that the yoga increased the pain and caused emotional distress.  If yoga or any of it’s facets, such as meditation or pranayama, have been recommended to you by a doctor or mental health expert to help treat PTSD, substance abuse, depression, anxiety or MDD (a combination of the two), or chronic pain, seek out a yoga therapist or teacher with the appropriate training. Unfortunately, medical professionals often put yoga under one big umbrella. Unwittingly, their advice can send someone to a class that is physically exhausting or overwhelming (sympathetic arousal). All yoga heals, but yoga to heal requires the proper guidance and a willingness to do the work.

Yoga is an accessible practice. There is no reason to participate in what I think of as the American version of super-sized, fast-paced upside-down asana if it does not relieve suffering.  There are many different traditions, styles and teachers; the postures are not a requirement for healing. A translation of Yoga Sutra 1.3 summarizes the use of yoga for behavioral health: “In a state of yoga (or wholeness as I call it), the different preconceptions and products of the imagination that can prevent or distort understanding are controlled, reduced or eliminated.” Yoga recognizes that relieving suffering is different than finding joy. Relief is a cold fist finding a warm hand to hold it.  It is small steps up a mountain, sometimes with blisters, but we don’t need to climb alone.

My initial purpose in taking up yoga was to manage anxiety and panic attacks. Some questions I learned to ask myself when seeking out new teachers or classes:
Does the teacher empower me?
Am I practicing loving-kindness yoga or trauma yoga?
Do I feel safe?
Can I just be myself?
Does this practice help to change my perspective?
Am I challenged and can I successfully meet some of the challenges?
Can I let go of self-judgement?
Am I appreciated?
What knowledge am I gaining?

If we choose asana (physical postures) we hold poses to leave the mind and enter the body. In this way, yoga helps us to cultivate our somatic or felt sense where we notice bodily sensations and stay present in them.  We shift from thinking (except and reject) to awareness (observation); or from the head to the heart.  This can be an entirely new experience in itself.  When we understand that our behavior is a blend of instinct, emotion and knowledge, witness consciousness wrapped in love enables us to feel pain and still go forward, staying focused. Eventually, as our bodies remember what relaxation is (parasympathetic system- that GABA creator,) it gets easier to stay in alignment. Our intuitive bodies remember their natural state.  We get the green light even when the difficult stuff comes. It takes time to fix ourselves, but in addition to having confidence in our care givers, we have the tools built into our bodies to help.

Yogi’s like to use the term enlightenment to describe a feeling of wholeness.  My favorite explanation of enlightenment comes from Judith Lasater: “One way to view enlightenment is a radical shift in perspective. Nothing outside you has changed…you have changed, and rather paradoxically, you have not changed, but have become what you already are.”

Namaste, Megan

PS – This is a photo of a parhelion or sun dog as it is commonly called. Parhelion means “beside the sun” in Greek and forms as a result of the sun refracting through hexagonal ice crystals . When I saw this the other morning, it reminded me that just as the sun can bend the light, my mind is like a prism that can bend my own Light to make it a bit brighter.

Embody the Nervous System with Yoga

Perhaps it is the climate of our nation, but I am overdue for a geek blog. If the words “gray matter” intrigue or excite you, or if you just wonder why savasana feels so good, please enjoy.

Gray matter is brain tissue located in the cerebral cortex of the brain.  Studies have shown (you are going to have to look them up on your own) that there is a decrease in grey matter in individuals with chronic pain. It is a downward spiral: decrease in grey matter can lead to memory loss, decreased motor response and emotional problems like anxiety and depression. But guess what? Yoga can increase grey matter! The process requires that we get out of our head and give our brain “feel feedback” from the rest of the body.

To understand the importance of how yoga helps to mentally connect us to our physical body, you need to have a basic nerd understanding of the Nervous System.  The brain thrives on stimulation; it is what allows the continual growth and repurposing of neurons, the specialized cells of the Central Nervous System (CNS).  As babies, we have to  learn to move the arms and legs with sensory motor awareness from the brain and spine – the CNS. More specifically, the motor cortex of the brain sends impulses from the neurons to the muscles.  The motor cortex is a chunk of the cerebral cortex (yep, back to gray matter), that is involved in control and dishing out orders to the muscles to create movement. Most of us don’t remember having to think to learn to crawl, but it was difficult stuff. With repetition, movements like walking become effortless.

Like a baby first learning to crawl, trauma, chronic pain and disease can make us work to make what were once conditioned reflex movements happen. Sometimes we are able to make those movements, but don’t realize that muscles that once turned on automatically are in a permanent state of savasana and other muscles are pulling 70 hour work weeks. Depending on previous physical and/or emotional trauma, we can experience diverse loss of sensory motor awareness (coined Sensory Motor Amnesia by Thomas Hanna).  This is no longer a response to the actual damage. It is a learned habitual behavior by the brain. These habits can only be permanently changed by relearning sense of movement through movement- the big word – neuroplasticity – and it takes the disciplined, captivated mind of a yogi!

If the nervous system never experienced physical or emotional trauma, the benefits of yoga would rest solely on who wears the best pants. In a healthy adult, the brain and spinal chord respond to conscious thought by sending nerve impulses from the senses and the Central Nervous System to the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS – the nerve fibers that branch out from the spinal chord to all parts of the body that receive and send messages to the brain). The CNS also sends hormones and chemicals through the organs and the rest of the body.  Think of the CNS as driving on the nerve expressway and the PNS as getting off to take a local, more distant route; it is two way traffic. In individuals who have disconnected from their bodies for numerous reasons, nervous system response time can be slow, like driving the Kennedy into Chicago at 5pm on a Friday.

The Peripheral Nervous System is divided into the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS – stuff just happens, ignore it and you don’t need to do a darn thing) and the Somatic Nervous System (voluntary “I got this” system). The ANS is mainly responsible for involuntary responses such as heart rate, digestion and breathing. This system is no buttercup and will do its job without coddling, but yoga recognized the ability to positively influence the ANS through asana, pranayama, meditation and thought patterns. The ANS is famous for hosting our good twin and evil twin, Parasympathetic and Sympathetic; except nether of them are actually evil, unless they are getting all the attention all the time. The sympathetic throws tantrums on a diet of STRESS and the parasympathetic thrives on RELAXATION. When the sympathetic is acting out, it hangs out with troubled kids like Amygdala, who feeds fear to our brain. In this overstimulated, noisy, multitasking, ever present electronic-devices world, our ANS often needs a timeout – a safe space to overindulge the peaceful parasympathetic. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are structured to deepen our sensory withdrawal from all the external rubbish (pratyhara – the 5th limb) and nurture the parasympathetic or Relaxation Response (as termed by Dr. Herbert Benson in his 1975 book).  Encouraging the sense to go internal can be as simple as watching the breath breathe (pranayama – the 4th limb of yoga), or it can be more systematic.  In a yoga practice that includes postures (asana – the 3rd limb of yoga), we bring awareness to the muscles, bones and breath.

The Maya Kosha model of yoga teaches that we are multi-layered beings. Our first layer  is the Annamaya Kosha; our outermost physical body.  We may dress it up and look at it in the mirror but this layer where our muscles and bones live needs to feel like part of something bigger inside of us. When we do formal techniques in yoga like progressive muscle relaxation, the mind and body both benefit. The overlying goal in squeezing specific muscles then releasing them is to see where tension is held in the Annamaya Kosha.  The body/brain relationship goes on a date to Cognitive Connection where they dine on skeletal muscles and sensory organs…the Somatic System gets a romantic interlude!  Additionally, when we do yoga postures, the Somatic System provides voluntary control of the body movements and tells the brain the position of the body in space through specific nerves called proprioceptors.  Normally, the voluntary activities of the Somatic System happen effortlessly below the level of conscious awareness. Unfortunately, somatic signals don’t come to us in the form of words. When we are able to experience them, they are felt as bodily sensations. Yoga strengthens this conscious feeling based interfacing from the brain to the periphery of the body. Incoming (sensory) and outgoing (motor) messages change lanes freely between the CNS and the organs, muscles and glands.  The expressway and local routes are wide open!

If you read this far, here is your bone: There is no need to re-read this or study the nervous system.  Embody means “to embrace, to give a concrete form to, to provide with a body”.  Yes, simply provide your brain and nervous system with your body! It also doesn’t matter why you come to yoga, what style of yoga you choose, or if you can stand on your head.  When you are on your mat and feeling yourself, your grey matter is having a party in your brain!!!  As long as you stick with your practice, the party can get bigger and will never run out of cake.

Next Up:

When we are stuck on the jam packed CNS expressway with the radio playing a cascade of adrenaline and cortisol; the psychological and emotional healing that takes place in yoga.

Namaste, Megan

This is Your Heart on Yoga

I have a twisted ability to view the timely collision of unrelated events as a signal from the Universe. Recently, a secret message was delivered in the form of:

  • a conversation regarding the leading cause of death
  • February’s status as heart month
  • a gift my daughter made me of a heart protected in a box

This was most certainly the Universe’s reminder to care for the heart. Thanks to yoga, nurturing the heart is natural. The heart is an organ that functions on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level; places united in yoga through the breath as life force energy (prana). Places that diet and exercise often overlook and pills cannot heal.

February comes with an all-access media pass to cardiac facts; Statistics such as one in every three deaths of both men and women in the US is from heart disease and stroke. Diagnostically there is no disagreement. But my Pitta/Aries fire fueled by yogic philosophy argues that stress is the leading cause of death. Five thousand year old yoga teachings do not dispute medical research, but view “dis-ease” from a whole body perspective, with stress being the common denominator. Genetics are important, but according to yoga and Ayurveda, “dis-ease” begins in the mind and spreads to the body. Despite a genetic disposition for heart disease, a yogic path allows me to go to bed at night knowing I do what I can to release stress. There is no immunity from stress, but an outcome of the practice is the ability to recognize the associated sensations; when rage tightens the face, sadness fills the stomach to the point of no appetite and anxiety takes the mind for a ride into worry land. This not a quest for perfection or denial of emotion. It’s observation. Awareness is where the ride in the sympathetic system stops and the breath leads to Herbert Benson’s Relaxation Response super highway.

In addition to stress, factors in heart disease that cannot be ignored are diet and weight. Yoga is not a weight loss program. But a yogic lifestyle is attentive to what the body is filled with on both the physical and emotional level. Mindful moderation is a byproduct of self-reflective practices. In terms of treating the physical body as the temple, yoga teaches Ahimsa, the first ethical standard that translates to “non-harming”. The do-no-harm principle starts with self-respect; the idea that you have to love and care for yourself first. Additionally, Ahimsa extends to all living creatures. It is certainly not required, but yoga suggests a vegetarian diet. Eating vegetarian makes some hearts happy in a fuzzy-respect-animals way. But less subjective is the fact that plaque build up in the walls of the blood vessels leads to heart problems. Eating less or no meat, which contains high amounts of fat and cholesterol, has been proven to prevent and even reverse plaque buildup (Dr. Dean Ornish Heart Reversal Study). If you don’t want to pass up a juicy cheeseburger, in the very least Ahimsa leads to healthier food choices.

Emotionally, yoga protects the heart by teaching that the heart trumps the mind. In certain paths of yoga, such as Bhakti, emotion is channeled through the heart as love. The ego mind can’t give without first asking why and what’s in it for me. The heart is compassion. The mind craves attention and wants to be liked. The heart is unconditional love and doesn’t care what others think as long as you don’t lie to it – which you can’t. The heart also knows when someone or something leads you away from your true Self and gives you permission to protect it – to put it in a box enclosed with forgiveness.

As Xavier Rudd sings “Emphasis placed on the body and mind. The heart is often somewhere behind. Strange.”

Maybe not so strange this February.

Namaste, Megan

The Bah Humbug Blog

Give Yourself the Gift of Better Holidays

“When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.” – The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

It is not a coincidence that this line appeared on the same day I got the first glimpse of the Holiday season 2013 at Menards. Seeing red and green, the tinsel and a life size Santa put the annual string of lights around my throat.   The flashing “Peace and Joy” burned my brain, my heart raced and I inadvertently turned away in disgust. What is it about the days (now extended to months thanks to retail geniuses) leading up to the holiday season that cause anxiety? If I had the capacity to skip ahead to the actual events, sans the stress related sicknesses or inevitable sciatic pain, everything would be better. It is typically an uphill road getting there though. So I found myself asking, what does it take to see that flashing sign of peace and joy and actually feel it? The ability to do more? Or possibly the desire to allow myself to do less.

So I am going to give myself a few early Christmas gifts this year. Starting with the gift of Kindness; extending mercy to myself. Committing only to what is possible is wrapped in this box along with eliminating, postponing, and asking for help. This gift will be secured with a graceful ribbon reading “there is time”.

The other gift is wrapped in mindfulness; giving myself fully to each moment.  Multi-tasking – you are on notice! I will slow down with the cold and dark of the season and let daylight savings time put me to bed earlier; hop off the conveyor belt of overstuffed turkeys, cookies by the dozens, bigger, brighter decorations, overactive credit cards and the idea that more = better.  At the expense of being labeled the Grinch, I will take my daily  ‘S vitamins’ – silence, stillness and solitude.

In yoga, the word ‘sukha’  is the concept that in life we have to allow ourselves to feel  ease, bliss, pleasure and happiness. The literal Sanskrit translation for Sukha is ‘sweetness’.  In the same way I can mindfully taste the sweetness of a Christmas cookie (or maybe cookies :), I will stop to feel to my breath. But first, I will listen to the roasting pumpkin seeds pop and smell the apple crisp without a thought of Christmas carols.

Shoppers start your engines! But remember to let them idol from time to time. Better yet, refuel however and whenever you can. Striving to become better this holiday season is giving ourselves permission to do only what we can and do it fully. Then everything around us will become better, too.

Put your kindness and mindfulness to practice at BFYH HOLIDAY OPEN HOUSE! Friday December 6. Get the details!!!

Why Kids Need Yoga

There are plenty of reasons why I practice yoga.  My choice to teach, however, came from the desire to share the healing aspects and the belief that the earlier in life we learn the mind/body connection, the better. I spent my late teenage years with a paper bag close at hand.  Breathing into a paper bag to stop anxiety attacks is not cool when you are in college.  Fortunately, I went to school in “granola head” Boulder where meditation and pranayama (breath regulation) were all the rage.  So I slipped into yoga though the backdoor. I did not even qualify it as yoga at the time. Asana (physical poses) were not mentioned, nor did I need them since I found plenty of pleasurable ways to get my heart rate up outside in the mountains.  Yoga was all about calming, centering and allowing myself to slow down.

As babies, we all come out breathing fully in and out of the belly.  By the age of twenty, when I was instructed to inhale and fill my belly, it felt completely awkward. At some point in childhood, my natural breath stopped flowing below the lungs. And worse, but also common, was that  I was a reverse breather which means the abdomen went in on inhalation; one of the side effects of stress.  Thankfully, I had a holistic doctor and just enough hippy in me to enroll in a class called SMART (Stress Management and Relaxation Technique) for actual college credits.  As humiliating as breathing into a paper bag was, imagine my distrust and pessimism when I was told plugging one nostril and breathing out the other would calm the anxiety.  The idea that my breath was was not just oxygen and carbon dioxide but a powerful universal energy source was difficult to fathom. I had reached the age of skepticism. Dorothea Hover-Kramer explains the difference between skeptics and cynics: “ Skeptics are persons who ask a lot of questions and evaluate results for themselves, so healthy skepticism is a good stance toward any new or unusual approach…  Cynics, on the other hand, are people who deny the existence of anything they do not understand.”   Skip ahead twenty five years.   After successfully controlling panic disorder with meditation and pranayama, even through two hormonal pregnancies including twins, there is no skepticism surrounding the healing power of yoga. Like most people, I could make all the excuses in the world not to practice, but know the alternative is returning to prescription anxiety medications.  The Alternate Nostril breath that was once ridiculously uncomfortable is as natural as brushing my teeth now – and I can tell if I forget to do either.

The body’s ability and desire to resort to a healing state at any age is amazing. The trick  is to reach inward and find the method that works.  Even old dogs can learn the tricks of intentional breathing and meditation if we are open and willing. But kids intuitively get it. They still know who they are. They can watch the attached Avatar video explaining the Chakra energy centers with open-minded amazement instead of cynicism.  The research side of me wants to know if there is an average age when we begin to doubt the universal connection. The mother in me knows it is my job to help my kids remember who they are.  As a yoga teacher, the motivational “what if” that perpetually goes though my mind is:  If someone had taught me before I was twenty that learning to control the breath controls the mind, would I have had full blown “I think I’m having a heart attack” panic episodes? And if we can share this tool with our children, shouldn’t we?