From Mat to Mind

Bear Foot Yoga and Bodhi the yoga dog featured in the 2018 summer issue of  Lake & Country magazine! Read the full article here: From Mat to Mind

Megan MacCarthy, owner of Bear Foot Yoga in Burlington, aims to make yoga welcoming and accessible to all, through a focus on yoga therapy. At her studio you can find a delicate balance and assortment of classes from yoga as a physical exercise, to restorative classes. Bear Foot Yoga offers one vinyasa flow per week, as well as cancer and cardio rehab classes where mindfulness is the core of the practice. Megan cherishes the community and relationships she’s built. “Twenty years ago, health clubs and yoga studios in this area were few and far between. Now, they are becoming more prevalent and for me, it’s really great to be able to know all my students by name and see familiar faces in my classes,” she told us.

From Mat to Mind

 

Helping Clients Overcome Challenges

Helping Clients Overcome Practice Challenges through Somatic Space

This article was originally published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Yoga Therapy Today, Winter 2018, Yoga Therapy in Practice, www.iayt.org 

Increased interoceptive awareness—the deep knowledge of what’s occurring in the physical body, the soma—can be a negative experience for some. Notwithstanding the long-term benefits clients gain through heightened self-awareness, we yoga therapists may find ourselves needing to help clients navigate uncomfortable sensations and emotions that arise from yogic inquiry. Yoga, perhaps initially perceived as a purely physical activity, can move students through the three psychic layers of the gunas (qualities). I use somatic yoga and the pancha kosha (five-sheaths) model to guide people toward sattva (balance); here I offer practical ideas to help others to do the same.

When muscles fail to perform, it is not necessarily because they are strong or weak. Muscle inhibition occurs in athletes and armchair quarterbacks alike. The ability to control muscles comes partly from nervous system communication. Somatic Yoga was developed to increase communication among the nervous system, brain, and pranic body. My eyes opened to the benefits of a regular Somatic Yoga practice as a result of experiencing chronic pain in the sacroiliac joint (nervous system), post-concussion syndrome (brain), and energy-body consciousness (pranic body).

I liken the journey through the somatic space to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey; separation, initiation, and return. In yogic terms, The Hero’s Journey translates as the gunas, or subtle basic components of life. Tamas (often translated as “darkness”) is the road of separation—appearing wide and easy, it represents ignorance and inertia. Innumerable people are breathing a lackluster survival breath and walking the black road of tamas without even knowing it. Perhaps they cannot or chose not to be present in the body. Often in the depths of physical or mental despair, they receive the call to action. Rajas (passion) is the winding, uphill road of action/initiation.

Yoga practices, particularly Somatic Yoga, in my experience, can delicately guide clients through rajas when they feel agitated (or, for some, when they feel anything at all) and when they face off with the things they fear the most—the kleshas (obstacles). Students who view this awareness as a negative may be scared, sad, angry, or in denial. They may discontinue the practice and go back to tamas because it is safe and familiar. Initially, rajas requires surrender. With guidance and regular practice, rajas is where we start to see we have control of our lives. Tamas is the victim mentality. The discomfort of rajas is where you learn to love yourSelf, dragons and all, to get to the purity of the sattvic state. Yogic philosophy doesn’t see the journey as acquiring a new strength, as Campbell does; rather, in Somatic Yoga the superpower is something that was always there. Remembering and returning to awareness of the Self is the steady state of sattva.

 

Demystify the Somatic Space

A starting point for somatic inquiry may be to take the mystery out of movement with a brief overview of the nervous system. The somatic system, or voluntary nervous system, includes both sensory and motor neurons, allowing communication to flow freely to and from the muscles, sensory organs, and skin. What we call muscle memory is really one of the jobs of the nervous system. Habitual movement, aging, and trauma (conditioned reflexes) can cause the nervous system to “forget” how to move with fluidity and freedom. We should explain to our students that both physical and emotional trauma can result in the inability to feel ourselves. Psychological trauma is held in the brain, but we also hold trauma in the body in the form of unconscious contractions. Despite being voluntary, much of our somatic movement takes place below the level of conscious awareness; the fact that this does not always have to be so is a tremendous asset that we can use to empower our students.

How do you guide those who encounter difficulty doing what on the surface appears to be a simple practice? Let the goal be to stay present. Teach them that they have the tools within themselves to heal; they need only to listen to their bodies. When physical or mental challenges arise, normalize movement and emotional response. Give such clients veto power. “Veto” means “I forbid” in Latin and can be absolute or limited.

Working with a sensation scale rather than a pain scale teaches clients that it is safe to be present in their bodies, even in discomfort. The body communicates through sensation. Discuss pain as a complex communicator that is about structure and emotional response, much of which is attached to previous experience and fear. Don’t make the scale all about difficulty. Encourage them to remember the sensation of pleasure: massage, eating something delicious, petting a furry friend, sexual satisfaction, or a simple hug. The traditional ayurvedic techniques of garshana (gentle dry-brushing of the skin) or abhyanga (warm oil massage) can be intimate gateways to reintroduce the nervous system to the sensation of pleasure through the skin.

What happens when a student discovers structural imbalance or an inability to feel a muscle? For instance, when working with the quadratus lumborum, a client may feel an immediate muscle response on one side of the back and think the muscle doesn’t exist on the other. Similarly, Somatic Yoga is a recommended postpartum practice to reconnect to the pelvic floor and transversus abdominis, but these muscles may be difficult to locate kinetically. Guide the students to bringing their awareness into the area with the intention to visualize it; visual aids such as a photograph of a particular muscle and thoughtfully placed props can accentuate cognitive connection. In the case of movement disorders where there is an inability to move or movement cannot be controlled, guide clients to imagine the experience of the movement.

Give people ample time to “mind their Ps”: pause, present, precious perception. Allow them to experience how much sensation can exist in stillness. When doing asymmetrical movements, take a full minute of inactivity between the two sides. The mind loves to entertain contrast in the body. The first side can communicate the experience to the brain to prepare the second side for the movement. Learn from the experience but don’t anticipate how the second side will respond. When both sides of the body are done, pause again, noticing the similarities and differences.

Ask clients to describe recurring and unfamiliar sensations as fantastically as they can and to label perceptions as something other than “good,” “bad,” or “okay.” Remind them occasionally that you are the DJ choosing the song, but they control the volume knob of bodily sensation.

Work within the Kosha Model

What door would enable a client to enter the body: spanda, shakti or grace?

Spanda: Annamaya Kosha

Spanda is play and spontaneous expression of aliveness! Let the practice be “sloppy yoga.” This often works with those who are more physically oriented, like to overdo movements, and have difficulty stepping away from the bigger, stronger, faster philosophy. Sitting too much, rigidity, and habitual movement patterns are what get us into trouble in the first place, so play! One approach is to ask students to invoke their inner child and do the practice as if just learning to move. Suggest they give themselves permission to approach the movements like their favorite animal would. Ask them to continually notice when bodily sensations move, increase, dull, or subside.

Even when the practice is familiar, invoke the beginner’s mind; don’t just go through the motions. The practice may at times appear uneventful, but fascinating things are happening at the subtle-
body level. Enthusiastically encourage curiosity and amazement. Freedom of expression in the body inspires creative thinking. If it adds to the creative pulse, somatic yoga can be a breath-centered practice. The inhalation deepens the student’s experience of expansion and elongation; the exhalation allows release. As Carl Jung said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity.”

Shakti: Pranamaya Kosha

The vital force of prana shakti makes itself tangible though the breath. This approach is for those who are more devotional, spiritual, or who enjoy meditation. A healthy dose of skepticism works, and yoga nidra can be used to develop conscious awareness of the pranic body. A goal of yoga therapy is to create energy and distribute it to all parts of the body. It can be valuable to offer your client a simplified explanation of the subtle body that may include nadis (energetic channels), chakras, vayus (“winds,” or functions of prana), and/or marma points. When the students can sense where their breath originates or can connect to their spiritual heart, they are ready to explore the power of creating energy through awareness and intention. Explain that pain can be thought of as congested energy. Ask them to breathe into the body, noticing where they feel tension or discomfort. Then on the next inhale, breathe into the tension; exhale the energy out. If a specific point in the body needs healing or release, the student can use all their senses to create an active image in their mind and fill the particular part of their body with the image.

As prana is experienced on the subtle level as touch, placement of hands can result in clearer communication. This is different from manual manipulation, which may fall outside the scope of your practice and can be interpreted by the students as “doing it wrong,” “not doing enough,” or that you are fixing them. Use your hands to teach them to use their own hands as feelers for the nervous system, transmitting their own life force from their heart (the seat of prana) through their hands. When finished, have them ask the subtle body if it has any messages.

Grace: Manomaya Kosha

One aspect of grace is the ability to surrender all limiting beliefs and previous experiences. Make the practice about self-acceptance over self-improvement. This is best received by those who feel more emotional, those who present with low self-esteem, or those for whom healing needs to triumph over curing. Two influential words are “allow” and “trust.” You may also want them to start by creating an affirmation or sankalpa (heartfelt intention) and to keep repeating it. Teach them to let go of self-judgment. In a society that rewards “perfection,” teach that it is okay to make mistakes! Stay away from language that leads to what the movement should look or feel like. Offer the understanding that the senses are intended to bring joy. Explain imagery as the language of the mind: it listens to what is outside us through our senses, then speaks in images that can turn into words. We decide to attach a positive or negative association to the words, and therein lies the difference between pain and suffering.

Hold Space: Vijnanamaya Kosha

Always hold space for your clients. We hold sacred space for them by asking for their highest good and offering unconditional love. The greatest gift we give our students is to teach them to cultivate that same sacred space for themselves outside the safety of our guidance and to continually stay present and objective when experiencing signals within the body. Witnessing consciousness of self and experiencing this awakening through yoga gives the client a glimpse of the illumination of pure consciousness.

Sukha: Anandamaya Kosha

Yoga teaches that we need to have sweetness (sukha) in our lives to bring us closer to our Source—bliss. Recognize and praise the joy of small successes with your students. A benefit of a traditional asana practice is that we purposely challenge ourselves, stress the physical body, and consciously watch the mind’s response. In Somatic Yoga, we undo by underdoing; there is personal accountability in recognizing and doing only what makes us feel good. The more we experience joy, the more it becomes our natural state of being.

Somatic Yoga is highly adaptable and achievable, but needs to be structured for the individual. Yoga therapy clients have often tried several modalities before they find you. They are familiar with the failure of checking out mentally and the unfulfilled expectation that someone else would “fix” them. Start with a thorough and thoughtful intake, which may hint at the client’s current level of self-awareness. The intake should include a discussion of any history of physical or emotional trauma, even when the trauma does not have any obvious correlation to the issue the client is presenting with. Ascertain the mental and spiritual state of your client using the qualities of the three gunas. Let the client do the talking with words and body language. To the best of your ability, give the client a voice in creating their yoga therapy plan. Continually adjust the plan based on feedback. Using the kosha model, ask them what door they are most comfortable with: the body, the breath, or the mind. As the client gradually increases her or his awareness of internal body sensations in your presence and in the rest of life, the practice is no longer about overcoming pain or dis-ease, and joy can be developed in the purity of the sattvic state.

Peace and Light,

Megan

Access a printable PDF copy of the article here: YTT_Winter 2018_MacCarthy

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

Falling, Flying and Wakeful Napping: Healing My Concussion

(This first person perspective was written in July 2010 while 6-20 days post-concussion. The timing of the concussion was incredibly serendipitous; six days later I was scheduled to attend an 11 day Yoga of the Heart training with Nischala Joy Devi at Kripalu Yoga Center. The program is designed for cardiac and cancer therapy, but it was a remarkable recovery option for concussion. This piece was never shared publicly until recently when it was typed up for a 15 page research report on Yoga for Concussion as part of a 300 hour certification with Inner Peace Yoga Therapy.  Thought it was not an official part of the research, it was included as a personal insight into a messed up brain and my continued motivation to study yoga therapy. I still believe the main component of recovery from concussion is patience, but I am hopeful that the standard of care will go beyond rest, limitations and restrictions. As multidisciplinary treatments are more readily understood and used in all areas of medicine, treatment plans that follow the yoga therapy model will continue to be developed for concussion.)

Falling, Flying and Wakeful Napping: Healing My Concussion

Being on a plane on a clear day is so amazing. It is a form of humility to feel so small as a city as big as Chicago shrinks down to something resembling an H scale train set. In years of flying, why haven’t I noticed this before? Comfortably connected, but without boundaries or motives; differences and judgement disappear from this height and my reality is tested.

This connection comes after going through the airport with a mixed sense of awe and fright at the number of people all scurrying along their own path. Winding my way through O’Hare is baby steps. I’m cautiously hesitant and extremely overstimulated. Living in the moment and being fully aware of my immediate surroundings is the only shield of protection, (that and a pair of dark sunglasses to hide my deep black eyes from inquisition). The words “please don’t touch me” repeatedly roll through my brain like an unchosen mantra. Resourceful with my energy, or lack there of, I allow myself to see everything without being there; unable and unwilling to join the party or react.

Oddly enough, an airport has never felt so peaceful. At the same time, I recognize that my brain is trying to chew through its leash and do what it wants. My movements are awkwardly unpredictable, like a blind drunkard. When I attempt to order a smoothie, my mind plays a game of Mad Libs with the sentences. Thank you understanding smoothie maker dude for your patience. I think you know the secret of my shattered brain.

Writing this now from the plane feels therapeutic because I have time to think and correct. This is perfect. My brain needs a challenge, but on my terms. Getting the thoughts from my head to the pencil to the paper takes time. And lots of erasing. When I go back to read the scribble, it is as if someone else wrote it.

It is likely that my desire to move in slow motion and watch the rat race in O’Hare as opposed to joining it is an innate, medical necessity. Six days ago, I was knocked unconscious when a pole of flying metal three inches in diameter hit me in the right temple, sending me to the ER with a concussion. With little memory of what happened, I know the best thing I can do is be present and forgiving of myself. My brain needs a healing, nurturing environment with limited stimulation. What could be more healing than yoga in the Berkshire mountains?

So I am on my way to Kripalu to do an 11 day “Yoga of the Heart” training to learn to teach yoga to heart and cancer patients. The irony is that I am now the one that needs serious recharging. After doctor recommendations, discussions with others who had concussions and reading all the gore the internet has to offer (in between much-needed naps), I have come to accept that it may be awhile before I no longer feel like a sea-sick sailor. At least I know my humor portion of the brain is still there as I seemingly inappropriately laugh out loud in my plane seat like a crazy person after writing the words “sick sailor”; the reality is that I was taken out by a sailboat boom.

Understanding this is a time to listen to and honor my body, I’m optimistic the word salad will settle as my brain finds balance. Mentally, I have made a list of the things I probably should not do: sailing (don’t really want to,) water skiing, any fast movement or contact, anything that raises my blood pressure or makes me sweat, and definitely no yoga inversions. That is a hard bit of reality when you love yoga, have 3 fun kids, live on a lake, the month of August is approaching and your nickname is the Energizer Bunny.

I keep coming back to one thought though: I believe in the healing power of yoga.

When I signed up for this training months ago, the ultimate goal was to empower others who also believe in their own healing power. The other day, frustrated and scared, I found myself doubting that same holistic approach to healing. Then I looked back at what brought me to yoga over 20 years ago – a desire and BELIEF that I could manage my panic attacks through breathing and meditation. After a double vision re-reading of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s “90 Second Rule”, I promise to give myself 90 seconds of circuitry freedom to flush the brain no matter what flies out of my mouth. With courage and searching for the appropriate-emotion-meter in my brain, I am considering an additional purpose for this training. My hit to the head was taking one for the team – only I got hit with the bat instead of the ball. I will approach this as a research participant trying to study the benefits of yoga therapy for Post Concussion Syndrome. More to come…

11 days have come and gone and the Puja graduation took place tonight; amazement and joy. I’m beginning to remember what it is like to be a whole person in mind and body. Appreciating that there is no control group – I would have been hard pressed on this sacred ground to find someone else who wanted to get hit in the head and NOT practice yoga – I have to believe there is no better way to heal from a concussion than a yoga retreat; specifically the peaceful protection of Kripalu under the leadership of Nishala Joy Devi: veggie diet, no TV, radio, cell phones or overstimulation…not even my computer, which I purposely chose to turn off the past 10 days, (mainly because of the instantaneous high power headaches it caused); surrounded by calm, attentive people taken to a surrealistic level – the Cleaver family in yoga pants smelling like a garden variety of essential oils. Everyone smiling, but the kind of smile your feel in your heart. The environmental factor is huge: it is easier to be peaceful and centered when you are surrounded by it. And unlike in the airport, where I suspected people looking at my black eyes thinking “poor lady, someone beat the shit out of her”, there is no judgment or labeling. We are all here to heal from something, and some of the deepest scars are not visible. This setting is a true Avalon for those in need of quiet personal space and unconditional love.

As for the practical instruction I was blessed to received in the name of learning to teach Deep Relaxation Through the Koshas, I cannot say enough about the healing benefits of this mystical state between wakefulness and sleep. Guided Deep Relaxation through the Koshas, specifically when in the hands of someone as masterful and compassionate as Bhaskar Deva, is a blissful holistic opiate. I looked forward to my daily afternoon “naps” (don’t fall asleep or you will miss the good stuff!) like a kindergartener rolling out their mat after milk and cookies. Only in this case, the “nap” kicked ass on the cookies. The commercial “this is your brain and this is your brain on drugs” where they show the egg frying in the pan met its antithesis. With each Deep Relaxation, my brain took a relaxing trip to the island of tranquility. I imaged my brain as a little superwoman being fed the anti-kryptonite/concussion serum during each relaxation session. It was as if I could feel the neurotransmitters throwing a party inside me as the swelling subsided.

On the down side, listening to, processing and writing notes was a gigantic struggle. As I look back now, it’s as if someone else occupied my body and thoughtfully took notes for me. But this, too, was part of the healing. The exhausting part admittedly. Getting the two hemispheres of my brain to team up again and send the appropriate messages to my hand resulted in lots of cross outs, chicken scratch and frustration. (I would love to blame the poor spelling as well, but that is a genetic flaw.) Too exhausted to do anything but sleep in the evening, I would reread my notes in the quiet morning hours in my dorm room proud and amazed at my ability to focus that long. The first few days, it was as if I was reading all new material. What fairy delivered this information while I was sleeping? Gradually, my brain began to recognize bits and pieces of the material from the day before. The language and thought process made friends with my writing hand too. Since this was an intense 100 hour training, taking notes was necessary. And to some degree, the processing of seemingly endless hours of intellectual information may have aided my recovery. If I were to go on-line today, however, and search out yoga for concussion treatment, I would look for a program with less intensity and more nap time – think retreat not training. But the daily dose of deep relaxation is a must!

As far as the yoga asana goes, my practice was stripped down to about 1/4 of its usual strength and vigor. Delightful! One of the things I thought I would miss the most – the challenge of flow, big backbends and inversions – was replaced with grace; an acceptance of what I could not do and embracing what I could. In the yoga philosophy, this translates as being able to recognize my strengths through self-study (svadhyaya) and surrendering limitations to a higher purpose (ishvara pranidhana). Fortunately, Kripalu style yoga lends itself well to a gentle practice. In the big picture, the physical poses were like being offered desert when I was already satisfied from the meal; not necessary, but a pleasant accompaniment. I also learned to “under-do” – to fill my awareness on less, which is a feeling I will carry with me in my practice.

From a practical standpoint, I don’t hold much hope that football players or wrestlers will retreat to Kripalu after a concussion. But trust me when I tell you, it is their loss.

On to the real world. That’s a whole other story. Can you say relapse?

Peace,

Megan

Yogic Wisdom From The Hen House

We may see ourselves as the superior species but animals often teach us about our behavior – even chickens.  Consider the animal definition of the word brood: To sit upon eggs to be hatched. Brooding can create new life, or cause us to stay where we are to the point of endangering our health.

It is in a chicken’s biology (some breeds more than others) to sit on eggs with a goal of incubation. A broody hen occasionally decides to remove herself from the flock to a dark, secluded nest. She stops laying and only comes off the nest once or twice a day to eat and drink; the bare minimum for survival.  Her body can handle this abnormal routine for 21 days. But if the broodiness goes beyond the 21 days it takes to hatch an egg, the hen looses considerable weight, has bug problems from missing dust baths, the feathers get dull and fall out, and the comb loses its bright red color indicating serious health problems. And as far as their mood goes, even the friendliest hens get darn ornery! The problem is that a chicken may sit on eggs endlessly if they have not been fertilized.  And even when the eggs are removed from their nest, the longer she is left to brood, the less likely she will snap out of it.  My term for this is “hen hormone hell”. Rehabilitation requires that I forcefully remove Ms. Broody for her own well-being and put her in “broody jail” for approximately the same number of days she sat until the hormones are regulated and she can lay again.

Perhaps you have an interest in chickens to read this far.  But what does all this have to do with yoga? A consistent yoga practice develops mindfulness. When using the term brood in a people context it means to dwell on a subject or meditate with morbid persistence or to think deeply about something that makes one unhappy.  Unlike chickens who stop their daily routine to brood, we can unfortunately be going through the motions without even realizing we are continuing to agonize over something. The fifth of the Yamas (restraints) in the Yoga Sutras teaches us to recognize when there is a need to let go. The term for this is Aparigraha and is often translated as non-possessiveness or non-greed.  Nischala Devi takes a more practical understanding of the Yoga Sutras in her book “The Secret Power of Yoga”.  She suggests the Yamas are a reflection of our true nature and Aparigraha is the innate ability to recognizing our blessings in everything.  So I can choose to mope and fret or to be grateful for what I have… and practice more yoga!  The thing about yoga is that I can still be alone and it gets me off my nest at whatever level I can muster with asana or just mentally with meditation.

If you are an endocrine system affection-ado or want more scientific evidence showing how yoga rewires our broody brain, please read “Reducing Cellular Stress with Yoga”. In summary, cortisol levels, which is the steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, naturally go up in the morning when we need to get out of our nest and go down in the evening for sleep. Throughout the day, cortisol is meant to be our little helper when it comes to getting through short-term difficulties. When the stressful event is over, the adrenal glands need time to rest. But when we brood about the event, the adrenal glands miss their opportunity to rest; hormone hell.  Like my chickens, the longer I brood, the more difficult it is to rewire myself. There are also circumstances when brooding needs to be interrupted and I accept and appreciate help from my spiritual community.

Sometimes we need to remove ourselves from the outer world in order to “hatch” into something greater. Solitude and stillness are ingredients in transformation. And when incubating emotions, honor and enter into the loneliness or whatever the feeling is, but don’t let it take you so far that re-entry is difficult. Like when the hen continues to sit in the nest without realizing that there isn’t even an egg under her anymore. Sometimes I’m like that hen; sitting in my thoughts even when the event is over; sulking about the loss of what I had or worrying about not getting what I want.  Or experiencing self-doubt. The reality is we are always going in and out of changes.  And the positive side of self-doubt is humility.

Peace to all chickens world-wide,
Megan

Application To Be A Yogi

Dear Student,

Thank You for applying for the position of yogi/yogini.  This position is not to be underestimated or taken lightly, but a sense of humor is encouraged.  During your initial yoga internship, you may commit to only one or two class per week. Before you can make a decision to accept a full-time position, you have to show up for yourself.  Eventually, becoming a yogi will require more time in the form of every day mindfulness with family, friends and total strangers.  You may be training for this position while doing things that bring you joy as well as with people who deplete you.

Perhaps you think you are applying for a seasonal position and a 3-6 month commitment is sufficient.  This is accurate if you plan to return to your current position.  However, you cannot place a time restriction on transformation.

Please detach yourself from any outcome. Things happen that we cannot plan for. Do not quit.  Always code your program with the belief that you are capable and deserving.

You are encouraged take your work home with you; a home practice is highly recommended and could include a few postures, meditation, or taking time throughout the day to observe your breath. This will promote self-study, increase productivity and promote happiness. You might even sleep better and like yourself more.

You will need to gain strength, flexibility and balance. These are mental traits. At times, you will be asked to slow down and under-do. You will also be taken outside your comfort zone, dig deep within yourself and stay present for whatever arises.  This is a prescription to reduce your own suffering, be more compassionate toward others, and uplift you from a state of ordinariness.

This position requires you to accept that you are a multi-dimensional being. Yoga is meant to release karmic bonds of human suffering using the Panchamaya Kosha model; there is a unique physical body (Anamaya Kosha), a breath body (Pranamaya Kosha), a mind/senses/emotions layer (Manomaya Kosha), a deeper intellect representing the relationship between self and the universe (Vijnanamaya Kosha) and the even deeper layer of pure, unbound bliss (Anandamaya Kosha). We can get stuck in any of these layers. What on the surface appear to be physical postures will bring about changes to your whole being. Working with any one of the Koshas can ‘unstick’ all layers.

To say this position is in the field of health care is accurate, but understand that you are starting with all the healing tools you need already within you. And while long-term health is important, please find who you are in spiritual terms.

Don’t worry about a dress code.  You will be observing yourself from the inside.  What you may come to see is that you are a spiritual being dressed in a human form.  And the human form can be uncomfortable.  Over time, you will begin to see possibilities in yourself. You will want to change, or so it appears.  But what is really happening is not a change as much as it is a shedding of anything that didn’t fit you to begin with.

There may be tears.  Thank them for carrying the agitated energy out of the body. You are not the first one to wet an eye pillow in savasana.

And know that if you chose not to show up for class, your teacher and co-worker yogi’s miss you and may even worry about you. By coming to class, we extend our own life energy to others.

This position is permanent and you are everyone. The main qualifications are self-love and discipline. Are you ready?

Light and Love,

Megan

Weeding The Inner Garden

Perhaps it was the soaked soil after several days of straight down rainfall that motivated me, but it was the first time in 2 summers that I got into the garden to weed. I used to do some pulling and transplanting in spring then leave things like watering and expansion to Mother Nature. The motto was “only the strong survive”.  In spite of all the years of thoughtful tending, and in a relatively short time, the 16-year-old garden has morphed into a forbidden jungle.  What were clearly marked flagstone pathways have perennials of all sorts growing in the cracks over the stones.  One particularly invasive ground cover strangled out some favorite flowers.  Certain plants that are tall and strong still manage to bloom, but it is officially the “in spite of me” garden.

Squatting in the soft rain with soaked gloves and mosquitos buzzing made me realize how much life is like a garden.  Low maintenance is preferred and something grows even in complete neglect. There are still good seeds in there somewhere, they just get overtaken when we stop working. But there is no such thing as no maintenance. When you can no longer see the path, it is hard to take the next step.

Sometimes we don’t see the work that someone else puts in.  My neighbor has what appears to be several acres of natural, unkept woods. Every spring, he spends hours in the thick of forest floor clearing out garlic mustard and buckthorn. Inner work is like weeding. You need to be alone in a sacred place similar to the garden or woods.  Being in that space encourages transition and growth; yet, you will feel uncomfortable and in the dark at times. And it will seem as if no one else appreciates the amount of effort you put forth.

It is said that yoga therapy is waste removal; substitute ‘weed’ for ‘waste’.  If you pull enough weeds, the light will touch the things that are already planted that you want to develop.  In removing the weeds, you are also clearing space for new seeds to plant themselves…even if it is in the cracks.

Words Within Our Body

soften, melt, surrender, whole(ness), gentle, release, breathe, invite, feel, let go, assimilate, nourish, observe, joyfully, love, offer, access, integrate, flow, allow, transition, impartially, sweeten, transcend, tenderly, ground, stimulate, centre, nurture, awareness, peace, miraculous, heartfelt, organic, smooth, soothe, advocate, please, relax, expand, passionate, presence, bliss, manifest, notice, receive, smile, remember, grace, lighten, subtle, uplift, brighten, precious, goodness, pause, witness, support, openness, sukha, loving kindness, acceptance, sensation, consciously, welcome, embrace, beauty, exploration, amazement

The above word list fell out of a book from a yoga therapy training from several years ago. Sometimes it takes things literally falling into my lap to know it was meant for me. This was a gentle reminder that in a state of healing, our words and thoughts (both conscious and unconscious) play an integral part in the outcome.  “Healing Words” as it was labeled, was compiled by the teachers in the training to help each other speak to our students in a way that would encourage them to have a nurturing relationship with their body. Regardless of the conditions, diagnoses, or experiences, self talk is the sounding board for our innate ability to heal.

In ancient philosophy of yoga, the yoga sutras offer a present day GPS to find physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing. Out of some 196 sutras, a mere three directly discuss the physical aspects of yoga (asana). And to the surprise of many practitioners, the suggestions could easily slide into the “Healing Words” list.

Sutra 2.46 sthira sukham asanam – postures should be steady and comfortable.

Sutra 2.47  prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam – perfecting the posture means releasing tension or effort to remain in it and allow attention to merge with the infinite.

2.48 tatah dvandvah anabhighatah – then the perfected posture brings balance to complimentary opposites and freedom from suffering.

It was dark stories that ultimately brought us to the yoga therapy training. But at some point, and perhaps presently, our journeys were graced with the healing power of yoga firsthand – that of body, mind, emotion and spirit. Often confused with curing,  we came to understand that healing is an inside job. It requires effort, form and self-discipline. But never without “Healing Words”.

Peace and Light,

Megan