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Social Distancing or Spiritual Retreat

See this sunrise? It’s not an NCAA basketball game where I could have won my bracket. It’s not the voice of Sinead O’Connor at the canceled concert I was looking forward to seeing Sunday (and Happy St. Patrick’s day today!) It does not come with the knowledge I stood to gain training with Dr. Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute in 2 weeks. It also doesn’t give me back the proud mom moment of watching my daughters unfinished musical or the happy human contact of the postponed trip to visit my companion in another state that FaceTime can’t replace. But this sunrise brought joy to my reality after a sleepless night. Today, that is what the world gave me and it is enough.

A difficult but confident decision was made Sunday night to close the studio until April 1. I attended my last class for awhile yesterday knowing that it didn’t feel right. My desire to support neighboring studios at this time cannot take precedence over protecting loved ones and those who may be asked to care for them. If attending a class as a student comes with guilt, why would I offer them? No amount of essential oils or pranayama will keep my parents, my kid’s teachers, our health care workers or anyone else safe right now.

What I struggled with in making this decision is not the idea of closing or staying at home, but how it is being presented. The terms “social distancing” and “quarantine” make me cringe and contract. Sorry, I accept the purpose, but the languaging is brutally depressing right now, even for an introvert. Its only a stones throw from solitary confinement to me. So in finding purpose in my petulance this weekend, I am training my brain to substitute “ spiritual awareness” for “social distancing” and “retreat” for “quarantine”.

Disassociation from the outside world does not need to be seen as a punishment. It’s an opportunity. When I first got divorced, the 4 day weekends without my kids were devastating.  Their bedroom doors were kept closed as if I couldn’t see the empty space, it didn’t exist. I went from being “mommy multi-tasker”, to experiencing painful absences from my kids and acquaintances and having time on my hands to brood. In an unconscious argument with what was real, I made plans doing anything that would avoid silent time alone;  keeping so busy that there was barely a moment for denial. In time, those moments left deep cracks in me. The saying goes that the cracks are where the light comes in. Exhaustion. Grief. Financial fears. Loneliness. Anger. You can only hide yourself from those feelings for so long. Then, against my best judgment and pocketbook, I went on a silent retreat. Intentional silence was nails on my chalk board. I realized I was drowning myself in busy when I didn’t even know I was in the water. Compassionate spiritual silence (mauna as it’s called) was a life vest. Since that retreat, when I’m submerged, I can’t hide from myself. Coming up for air looks a lot like “social distancing”.

As a result of the painful yet insightful retreat, I  began to occasionally schedule purposeful silent extended weekends that I called “home hibernation”.  There was lots of outdoor time to practice presence and gratitude. I had “dates” with myself for dinner, consciously cooking a healthy meal. In time, something changed. Slowing down brought clarity and spiritual awakening. “Home hibernation” was re-titled “ashram weekends”.  I could open the door to my kids empty bedrooms again without tears. I learned to reach out socially not as an act of defiance but with love. I get it that a global pandemic is not a fair comparison, but it invokes the same feelings for me and I recognize them. What do you feel right now? Can you name it, be with it, and know that you are still a Divine Being?

I have been listening with hopeful anticipation for either the state or federal government to close non-essential businesses, or for other local business to start the trend. Then I would not have to make this decision and I wouldn’t be alone in my community. Removing props and extra studio cleaning per CDC guidelines carries good intentions, but no guarantees; and perhaps a false sense of security for some students with compromised heath. It is a simple supply chain. If I keep the studio open, it gives people a place to go. I would like to avoid being one of the places that potentially held the bomb if it goes off. The financial implications of closing scare the crap out of me as they do any small business owner, but worry plants aggressive seeds. Fear is a form of self-mutilation, as opposed to human insufficiencies and difficulty which are normal. I cannot control a pandemic that at times still doesn’t seem real. However, I can influence my own biology with my thoughts and perhaps shine positivity through the veil of universal consciousness. Imperfection is human – the “I, me, my” of what I am forced to give up keeps surfacing. But part of my is job to keep up the morale. I see my daughters’ grief and my son’s anger and feel both of those things. Spiritual awareness is not perfection; it is recognizing, accepting and redirecting selfish egoic thoughts. More than ever, our connection is obvious and terrifying all the same. Are the choices you are making helpful to some and harming to none?

Ask yourself, “what’s my role?” Mine is to take my classes online. I believe it is my highest good and the best way to reach out to my students and beyond. I am genuinely excited to offer daily video classes and communal meditations! I know the difference between creating “busy work” that blinds me and using my gifts. What are your gifts? Find your purpose and reach out to others with that purpose in whatever wacky cyber-social ways you can. We are still allowed to laugh and smile. Thank you for the spoken, written and silent support you offer me and each other. I am here for you and we are all on retreat together.

When I got in the car yesterday to drive to class, the first random song that came on was the Pretenders “Hymn to Her”.  Many years ago in a time of difficult transition, that song gave me strength.

Let me inside you
into your room
I’ve hear it’s lined
With the thing you don’t show
Lay me beside you
down on the floor
I’ve been your lover
From the womb to the tomb
I dress as your daughter
When the moon becomes round
You be my mother
When everything’s gone

And she will always carry on
Something is lost
But something is found…

Peace, Megan

Mindfulness is Like Making Chicken Soup (and how to make the soup!)

We have a tradition in my family that when someone gets sick, a pot of chicken stock goes on. The art of making healing chicken soup was taught to me in college by my roommate from NYC who’s grandmother referred to it as Jewish Penicillin. The process starts with someone not feeling well; anything from sniffles, discomfort or suffering. Conscious cooking to the rescue! The prescription is liquid gold.

In order to make the broth for the soup, you only need a big sturdy stock pot that will fit an entire fresh chicken, two good handfuls of whole carrots, the top half of a whole stalk of celery, an onion, some peppercorns, kosher salt and a few bay leaves. Fill the pot with cold water until everything is covered. Stick around and be patient.

When you first turn the pot on not much happens. After awhile, things begin to move and this icky gray and white foamy stuff floats to the top. Technically, its just protein, but you look at it and know its is not something you want to put in your body; extremely unappetizing and a good way to ruin the clarity of your broth. So you have to get rid of the impurities. The lid is left off the pot and you play witness to the transition. A long handled skimmer with fine mesh is the best tool for the job. Intermittently skim the top of the stock then rinse the skimmer in some water to start clean. Before the broth comes to the boiling point, you have to decrease the heat, but still keep it hot enough for the scum to surface. Scoop and dump. Repeat. The trick is to make sure the stove is not too hot or the scuzzy contaminants redistribute themselves back into the stock before you can get rid of them. This is the patience part. And please don’t stir it up. The stock is best when it cooks slowly and gently. Once the skimming is done, turn it down even more to a soothing simmer. I like my stock to cook for 8-12 hours before straining it so that the collagen and minerals leach out of the bones. If you don’t have the luxury of letting it cook that long, work within the space you have. Once all the cooked items are removed, you get to put whatever you want in the stock. In my house, it is fresh carrots and celery, matzo balls and fresh dill. Share it! Give from your overflow. Word of warning: keep some Kleenex handy because it will also open your lungs and make your nose run!

Thanks for reading about one of my favorite healing traditions. Now try making some and consider the process a philosophy for life. How often do we recognize that our thoughts are creating scum? And what do we do when they surface in the form of impure language or actions?

Making chicken soup is a recipe for mindfulness. We all experience unpleasantness and have the ability to create and heal through contemplative practices. Roughly 90% of thoughts are below the conscious level. When we practice mindfulness, we become aware of some of that 90% and icky stuff surfaces. When we are uncomfortable, physically sick or emotionally upset, things turn cloudy and gray. Like clear broth, clean thoughts don’t come in a neat package. It takes patience and love to turn water into to nourishing food and it takes the same to uncloud your thoughts. The practice of mindfulness lets us skim the undesirable mental fragments. Scoop and dump. Repeat. Sometimes we need a tool! A yoga or meditation practice is the fine sieve of the soup stock of life. Dip and delete. Skim and purge. My morning recipe, or sadhana as its called in yoga, allows for an hour to simmer in my subconscious. Maybe you only have or want 10-15 minutes. Sometimes that is all it takes to see who or what is bringing you to your boiling point.

The process of mindfulness makes us connoisseurs of our own consciousness. We learn to separate our thoughts, which are always changing, from the Self, which is unshakable. That which is always changing is called prakriti – thoughts, emotions, our physical bodies, the environment outside us. Think of prakriti in terms of the process of the stock cooking; when we have the right ingredients and process in place, water transforms into a magical medicine – that’s dharma baby! But first the waste surfaces and sometimes prakriti causes suffering. Yet, we keep eating it until all we can identify with and taste is prakriti. Purusha is another philosophical force to dine on. As the conscious cook, you can thoughtfully observe the broth cooking. Purusha allows us to watch the experience without putting ourselves in the pot. The healing begins when we see the Self as separate from prakriti and look beyond the displeasing scum at the whole process.

Prakriti shows itself through 3 forces called the gunas. Change is represented in the rajas guna. Rajas is experienced as agitation, anger or anxiety when we don’t continually attempt to remove the grubby thoughts. But if we keep skimming the undesirables, rajas becomes the creative force of change. Heat, or tapas in yoga, provides that agent of change. It is the force that burns impurities when you are disciplined in your practice. Just like making healing broth, tapas has to cook from a place of love; include acceptance and leave out judgement in the recipe. Other undesirable ingredients include expectations of how things will turn out, denial of what our awareness shows us and guilt about “bad thoughts”.  If we hit the boiling point or let the scum keep cooking, it will redistribute itself somewhere in your life. If we never even turn the heat on the pot, we experience tamas guna – nothing changes and life, like the stock, will be tasteless and unfulfilling. When we balance rajas and tamas, the third guna – sattva, makes chicken soup out of our suffering.

In the end, cooking chicken stock and your conscious awareness are both about not letting the scum ruin your day. And maybe sharing some of your liquid gold…

Happy, Healthy Cooking,

Megan

MindBodyRadio Interview – What I Wish I Said

I did a twelve minute interview on mindbodyradio.com today and you can listen HERE.  Since I am more comfortable writing than public speaking, after the interview, I wrote down what I wish I would have said.

What do you do?
I offer a variety of accessible weekly classes at my studio, teach individuals meditation and work privately with clients to co-create a daily yoga therapy practice that best meets their needs and goals.  To find a yoga therapist near you, visit the International Association of Yoga Therapists. ​ Or you can visit Yoga Therapy and Meditation on my website. I also offer energy medicine by appointment to enhance healing and increase well being and am certified through the Healing Touch Program and California College of Ayurveda.

Why are you passionate about this line of work?
It’s an exciting time in my field of yoga therapy! Our western culture has opened the doors wide to yoga and meditation. When I moved to Wisconsin 20 years ago, there was no yoga within 30 miles. We will soon have 3 studios in my small town. When I was introduced to meditation in Boulder, CO in the 1980’s, it was for the Buddhist students at Naropa, the long hairs and the granola’s (like me!). Now there are apps with thousands of meditations where you can see who is meditating with you across the globe. I’m thrilled to have my meditations available on the Insight Timer app for free. Science continues to line up with wisdom traditions. Everything from anxiety to pain care are being explored through the bio-psycho-social-spiritual model which is congruent with yoga therapy. Medicine is embracing yoga, but there is a lack of information about appropriate yoga for heath challenges, chronic pain and mental wellness. A disastrous over-emphasis on the physical aspects of yoga and misunderstanding about mindfulness leaves yoga outside of the reach of many who could greatly benefit from the practice.

What is your background?
I was raised Catholic and attended 12 years of Catholic school including an all girls high school. When I was in grade school, I told my Irish grandma that I wanted to be a priest and she assured me that could happen by the time I was her age. I have always been spiritual and introspective and somehow that dharma found me through yoga.

I dealt with panic attacks in college and my holistic doctor put me on imipramine and xanex and encouraged me to find a long term solution to a healthy mind. I registered for a class called S.M.A.R.T – Stress Management and Relaxation Technique – which was yoga in disguise. As awkward as learning alternate nostril breathing was, it was better than breathing into a paper bag. At that time, I had mountain biking and skiing to keep my body fit. There was no need for the physical practice of yoga. Short meditations and breath awareness helped me to make friends with my anxious mind. Once I had kids and got locked into Wisconsin’s brutal negative temperatures, yoga was something I could do at home to move and beat the winter blues. It kept my body fit. With twins, I would also dampen the emotional stress of sleep deprivation by doing mini-meditations. Now I get up early and look forward to awakening with pranayama, chanting and luxuriating in a long meditation. Some mornings, the timer goes off way too soon. Other mornings, I’m thinking about my oatmeal cooking as I struggle to stay present, or tears come to cleanse my emotions.

What is your focus?
The juxtaposition as a yoga teacher is to teach a balanced class for mind and body; The mind needs stillness and the body needs movement to heal. As a teacher, I try to weave in stories and themes to bring my students beyond posture and show them that their awareness is a precious gift. Awareness is what yoga gives me. It is a gift I have to keep giving myself and no one else can do it for me – or take it away. We have so much potential to influence our own outcome. To this end, some or all postures may not be necessary or appropriate.

In yoga, there are two teachings I often think about for my students. The first is “everything is medicine and everything is poison”. We need to get to know ourselves on an intimate level and work with a practically trained teacher who can guide us to find our practice of yoga. The other idea I teach is that embodiment can lead to a peaceful place and it can also lead to feeling like you are locked in a bathroom stall with a lunatic talking to you. If you are comfortable, its my job to stir you. Those who are suffering get soothed. Yoga is not all blooming lotus flowers. The lotus grows in the mud. Part of the yoga ride is to find comfort in the uncomfortable. Philosophically, yoga teaches that pain and suffering are a result of forgetting who we are. We can learn a lot about ourselves when we are challenged in a posture – everything from the crazed monkey mind to physical limitations show us our boundaries. We learn to make space within those boundaries.

It is easy to forget who we are. Over-stimulation is the accepted norm. Just as we digest our food, our bodies have to “digest” everything our senses experience. We are constantly exposed to negative images globally through TV, movies news etc. We also unconsciously compare and judge ourselves and what we have or don’t have to others on social media. Our own thoughts expand or contract us. The body is hard wired for survival; it reacts negatively to physical and emotional “enemies” – the lion chasing us might be our own thoughts. Chronic pain is contraction in the body, and it can be of physical or emotional origin.​

What are you working on?
In the past decade, I have been blending my training and personal exploration in yoga and energy healing. The result is a somatic yoga practice which I lovingly call “Body Prayer in Motion”. It is therapeutic movement that blends neuromuscular re-education, emotional self-regulation and pranic (life force energy) enhancement. It is in keeping with my current educational focus on yoga for chronic pain and self-regulating energy therapy. I want people to be empowered to fix themselves.

Where can we find you?
At the studio! Speaking of empowering, if you want to change yourself, consider a retreat. My daily practice supports me, but going on retreats transformed me. My studio schedule limits me to offering one week long retreat to Ireland. We hike and do yoga to move the body. The spiritual mysticism of Ireland is palpable. There are lots of laughs and joy getting to know each other. But we also practice silence, meditation and “time off the grid” (nothing that plugs in) to get to know ourselves more intimately. It will change you. The energy of your new tribe is there to support you in remembering who you are on retreat and to remind you who you found when you leave. I am not a big fan of traveling a lot, so my dream is to have a small retreat center somewhere, someday. Environment is important but we don’t all have the time or money to live “Eat, Pray, Love”. The retreat should mirror your lifestyle so you can recreate some of it at home. If you live a lavish life, then go five stars. But a retreat just needs to be far enough to get away from the daily roles, requirements, drama and stores for an extended period of time.

In addition to offering free meditation recordings on Insight Timer and my website, I have practice videos on YouTube.

If you are a teacher, body worker or mental health professional, I have a six hour Somatic Movement – Body Prayer in Motion training coming up on December 8. If you would like to bring  my somatic movement course to your studio, I am willing to travel for two day trainings.

Who is someone you admire?
Dr. Richard Davidson, ​ a Neuroscientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin. I respect his insight and dedication to researching the neuroscience of contemplative practices and appreciate his desire to educate medical professionals, teachers and our veteran population. I have no interest in research to prove what I already know intuitively and am so thankful for people like him.

Any last thoughts?
In the end, we can master yoga postures like a collection of trophies, but the highest goal of yoga is spiritual awakening – remembering you are Divine. That’s what I want for my students.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Love,

Megan

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.

In Praise of Spider Webs

Mind is the spider;

spinning, spinning, madly spinning.

Recreating the past; restless and poisonous.

A tapestry of turmoil.

Thoughts all connected with one unsubstantiated thread.

I lost my place in the center.

Terrified of heights,

I grip the edge, fearful of falling back down.

So desperate for a satisfying meal,

unable to get beyond the gasping fly.

Too self-absorbed to see the beauty of the whole web.

Be patient. Be still.

Web is an intricately woven Mandala; unique and purposeful.

A single silky strand crosses my forehead,

knocking me conscious.

Hitting me like Newton’s apple as I walk to awaken.

Spinning stops; I reconnect to Self and Source.

Using all eight legs to walk the path of the Eight Limbs,

I crawl back into now.

Namaste, Megan

Habits Feed the Fire of Intention

As we journey to the end of 2013, the word intention is a hot button; a hot button that often goes lukewarm in the first 30 days.  But it doesn’t have to. In setting intentions, first there needs to be an awakening – accepting yourself as you are presently and knowing what it is you want to achieve.  Then you can keep the fire lit by transforming the habits that might hold us back; free up time and energy to manifest those dreams. If the word habit has a negative connotation, consider that your current ones need some reworking.  Yes, habits can be destructive, but they can also provide reinforcement for our intentions.  Though it takes some dedicated rewiring to keep the positive circuit flowing, good habits are more powerful than bad ones. If you are ready to ignite the flame and reflect on a few of your mental habits, ask yourself the following questions (written answers are best):

Are you ok with changing your routine?  And if so, how often do you do so?

Do you believe you have choices for healthier options? Are you willing to explore them?

How often are you engaged in your thoughts of the past and enslaved with judgement?

When are you preoccupied with thoughts of the future that strengthen the worry loop?

Do you feel guilty when your healthy habits pull you away from other’s needs?

What are your attachments?  What are your aversions? And how do they each influence habitual behavior?

What/who empowers you?

And finally, have you surrounded yourself with a whole team of defenders?  Denial, victim, cynicism, sarcasm, being highly critical, rigidity, withdrawal, being too nice, endless rationalizing, and self-deprecation just to name a few.

In the end, we have a conscious choice to repeatedly grab on to something to maintain a relationship with it or release.  Sometimes life brings pain.  There is no way around it. We forget to remember or just get lazy.  But if our good habits are more clever than the bad ones, they provide the transformative fire we need to get through the cold spells.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson