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The Breath Blog

For most westerners, the word “yoga” conjures up something that looks like Cirque du Soleil auditions. In truth, you can only use the excuse that you are not flexible or strong enough to do yoga 1/8 of the time, (and that doesn’t really float since yoga postures are a way to gain flexibility safely). Let me explain the 1/8 comment. The yoga postures, contorted or comfortable, function as “Asana” which is the third of eight facets in the yogic system. The purpose of Asana is to get your body into shape to sit still in meditation with as little fidgeting and discomfort as possible. Can you believe that? The goal is not to put your hands below your toes, drench yourself with sweat or increase endurance. The body is the vehicle for the spirit. Asana is not what this blog is about though, and it doesn’t even have to be part of your yoga. It wasn’t part of mine for many years since I was introduced to yoga to alleviate anxiety.

A common phrase in the yoga community is that if you can breathe, you can do yoga. This is only partially accurate. Philosophically speaking, breathing IS yoga. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga), yogic breathing practices (Pranayama in Sanskrit) are so important that they claim their very own limb #4.  Pranayama is an essential part of a complete yoga practice. It involves regulating the breath to control the mind. Pranayama is also it’s own practice (no pretzel-like postures needed!). Pranayama is used to prepare for meditation; its an invitation into limb #5 Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), the first stage of meditation.

Most yoga traditions would tell you that Pranayama is much more important than Asana when it comes to heath and happiness. If we subscribe to the philosophy that the goal of yoga is to decrease suffering, develop inner peace and feel our aliveness, it is typically Pranayama, not Asana, that awakens us to our highest potential.

The classic teaching of all wisdom traditions is that humans suffer because we forget who we are – Divine beings. We forget who we are because as humans we are hard-wired pleasure seeking survivalist. We seek enjoyment and relief from agitation and pain from things outside of ourselves – drugs (both the prescription kind and the ones that will get you in jail), alcohol, food, working too much, and in our relationships with others. The yogic path reveals that who we seek and what we need is buried inside of us under all of our human roles and repetitions of self-defeating stories.

It is just one yoga teacher’s opinion that many American yoga classes are another form of exercise. What is missing is the link of movement to a reasonable breath pace. Asana is supposed to introduce the student to regulating the breath. When the practice is too physical or choreographed like the Jimmy Fallon History of Music Video Dancing (recommended if you need to laugh after this!) the breath is strained or forgotten about all together. You may as well be hitting a punching bag or doing crossfit; nothing wrong with that – strenuous sweaty stuff can be a release valve. Additionally, a gymnast or high-endurance athlete may one up you and excel quickly at Asana practice; it is beautiful to watch the flexibility and strength of the physical body. But can that fit body sit still in meditation? That takes a fit mind! Admittedly, if what you want is a good looking exterior, any exercise may work. What about exercising the mind? Do you do something that increases awareness and brings inner peace? Sleeping does not count – unless you have mastered lucid dreaming. We are multi-layered beings with a physical body, mental body and spiritual origin. Pranayama is experienced on the physical level as the breath, but it takes us beyond into the mental and spiritual layers of ourself. Pranayama is a fitness program for all the layers of our being.

On the physical level, Pranayama positively influences the systems of the body including respiratory, immune, cardiac and nervous system. Typically, our breath is automatic and involuntary. It is continuous and we do not have to think about it, but we only use about 20% of our breathing capability. The mechanics of your default breath might include chest breathing, which is too shallow to bring in maximum oxygen and does not allow the lungs to be fully expelled. The diaphragm is the main muscle of respiration but it is is often under utilized. The chest muscles are considered accessory muscles in breathing. When we maximize the role of the diaphragm in respiration, our breathing is slower, fuller and more powerful. We increase our oxygen consumption and the ability to release carbon dioxide. We also exercise the often tight respiratory muscles.

The pattern of your breath is intimately connected to the mind. There is a breath pattern for every emotion. By learning to control the breath, we control the mind and emotions as well. Our involuntary breath responds to fatigue, stress or fear unconsciously by being incomplete or unbalanced. This auto-response ranges from the more obvious hyperventilation, shallow rapid breathing or to a simple reflexive sigh. The breath is the bridge between the brain (what your thinking) and body (what you feel). A starting point to control emotions is to simply observe the breath as it is. You could even close your eyes and do that right now for 1 minute…

Breath observation makes us more sensitive. Observation takes us into the present moment were we notice when the mind runs off to ruminate over the past or worry about the future. Our breath is a built in mindfulness teacher. But put your phone down – it doesn’t require money or meditation apps. We learn to block outer distractions and uncover what is especially present inside us. This is not for everybody and contrary to popular belief, it can be unpleasant. We may learn what troubles or agitates us; a bit like being stuck sitting with a blabbermouth stranger on a small airplane. You just want to put your headphones in and block her/him out, but the stranger is you. Instead of escaping physical or mental pain, we embrace it and lessen it with acceptance.

Once breath observation reveals what we are hiding from, we learn to safely and consciously lengthen and control the inhale (puraka) and exhale (rechaka). This practice alters the brain’s information processing. When we breath voluntarily, we actually change the region of the brain that we breathe from – unconscious breathing is controlled by the lower brain or brain stem and conscious breathing is function of the upper brain. We also balance the heart rate; the inhale slightly increases heart rate and the exhale relaxes the heart. By controlling the breath, we can listen to the chatty stranger in our mind with kindness, and redirect the story when it is not serving us. Pranayama is a free companion fair where you get to pick the person you want to sit with (you) and tell them when they are being irrational.

Energetically or spiritually (choose the term you like), Pranayama is how we begin to direct our Prana, Chi or life force (again – pick the term that works for you). On the subtle level, inhalation increases our focus, energy and vitality; the breathe out is an opportunity to purge, purify and relax more deeply. Eventually, you can learn to add a breath retention (kumbaka) which culminates in a balanced mind and provides a “peaceful pause” in energy body. The power of controlled breathing leads to a fusing of the complimentary opposites of solar/lunar and expand/contract. In this state of balance, the pleasure seeking senses and physical cravings are controlled.

Yogis believe we are all given a particular number of breaths in each karmic cycle. A lifespan is only limited by the number of breaths you breathe. Listen to the sound of breath in your own body as the argument of being alive.

Namaste,

Megan

PS – If you are looking for a place to get started with a Pranayama practice at home, visit the Breath Meditation Series in the free meditation library. BFY also offers free meditations the second Wednesday of each month or a private Pranayama and Meditation session with Megan can address your unique needs.

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.

Gardening the Soul

Have you considered going on a spiritual quest?  The short, cold days and holidays season provide a particularly inviting opportunity and energy to explore spirituality. But the problem is we cannot take a spiritual journey because we are spiritual beings having a human experience. What we can do in the dark of winter is garden our soul.

On our human journey, accomplishment and success are measured by our intellectual pursuits that are sustained by what we learn and do in the external world. Make no mistake; how we interact with our outer environment is critical.  But as spiritual beings, we have the innate ability to perceive our outer environment through intuition instead of intellect.  Intuition is sometimes a soft voice inside ourselves, but more often it is a feeling in the body – the heart racing or butterflies in your stomach for example.  These voices and sensations are misread or missed entirely because of the constant stimulation in our outer world. Even though intuition is our essential nature, it needs to be cultivated like a garden through meditation or another practice of inner knowing.  When we purposely get quiet and still, intuition becomes the all powerful weather app for Spirit. Except, it actually predicts correctly because it relies on our internal senses.

In spiritual practices, there is an image that is widely used of the body being the temple of the soul.  I prefer to think of the body as a greenhouse.  Everything we take in with our five senses is a seed that is planted in our greenhouse.  Our words (to ourselves and others) are containers of energetic vibration that we put the seeds in. The enlightened spiritual Self is the gardner who decides what to water and where to make the best use of our Light energy. Spirit gardens from a higher sense of knowing than intellect, even though it may defy reason and logic.  It is the mind that often makes the mistake of providing the wrong seeds. The seeds of the mind can either take us toward or away from our recognition as Spirit. The good news is that even when we unconsciously plant rows of weeds, and no matter how much they take over, the spiritual gardener can step in and pull them to make space for new plantings. 

When you know your stress is at an unhealthy level and things are so overgrown in your greenhouse that they are blocking out the Light, 2 things can happen: 

Option One – the glass on your greenhouse will break; the body will experience anything from a cold to slight physical discomfort to disease. 

Option Two – you can remodel, split the heathy plants, reuse what you want and reseed. Sometimes that includes making changes in relationships, jobs, or moving.  If external changes can’t be made (at least right away), there is the opportunity for climate control within the greenhouse; establish and honor boundaries.  Spirit as the gardner has the right to say “no” to anything that is detrimental to our Being-ness. If visitors to your greenhouse are annoyed by your boundaries, it is because they are the ones who benefit from you not having any.  In recognizing that we are spiritual beings, we can offer unconditional love to others from the heart, but not like what they do or let them seed our mind.  It’s the heart, not the mind or body, that is in tune with our infinite nature. In remembering this we transcend the stories and trauma on the human journey.

When I live from my soul as Spirit, I am empowered to honor the notices the gardener posted in my greenhouse:

Refuse to just cope with things or settle.  Unfortunately, our human system is hardwired for that – coping or settling.  The proof is in our tendency toward addiction and all the drugs created to mask pain, depress emotion, function with disease etc. When I remember I’m a spiritual being, I want more. Joy is the natural state of Spirit, but it doesn’t fall into your lap on the human journey. I’m disciplined and motivated to find happiness. 

Refuse to be a victim. No matter what difficulties I experience, it is only the mind that can take me away from spiritual wholeness; and only if I let it.  Pain is real – physical and emotional – but the mind can make me a victim of that pain or lead me to my true nature as Spirit, where every difficulty, flaw, and failure is an opportunity for growth and transformation.

Refuse to have expectations.  As humans, we need to have desires and goals to guide us.  But Spirit asks that we include a clause that when we ask for something, we understand that we only get it if it is in alignment with the highest good of all.  In yoga, this is referred to as ishavara pranidhana – surrendering to a force greater than ourselves. Failure does not need to cause pain and suffering; it is a flaw of the mind and ego. Spirit does every action for the sake of itself and not for reward.

Refuse to feel alone.  I am never alone when I am in the presence of my higher power.  It also helps to be grateful for and keep contact with my friends in the garden club. 

Peace and Light,

Megan

 

In the Irish tradition, honeysuckle was believed to have power against evil spirits. In other places it’s believed that grown around the doors it will bring good luck. Its clinging nature in the language of flowers symbolizes, ‘we are united in love’.

Honeysuckle or Fairy Trumpets

Spiral Meditation

If you would like to experience the Spiral Meditation as a guided practice, it is available as a digital download on my website: Spiral Meditation

The Spiral Meditation is a technique developed by Dr. W. Brugh Joy that uses sacred geometry as means to heal and nourish the body, mind and spirit. It can be used on a daily basis when dealing with illness or as desired in a healthy person to maintain a deep sense of inner harmony. It is also beneficial as a pre-surgery meditation to encourage the body to heal more rapidly, or before any stressful situation to bring your whole being into balance.  To experience flow of energy in and around the body more fully in this meditation, please use your hands as guided and/or sit in a comfortable position.

You may also consider doing this meditation in place of “counting sheep” before bed! If doing the meditation to promote sleep, you may want to lie down and keep the hands on the heart center throughout the meditation; it is not necessary to close the spiral before sleep and you can set your intention for the light field to finish the expanding spiral pattern if you fall asleep before it is completed.

The power of this meditation is in its ability to teach the meditator to experience their conscious awareness as both the giver and receiver of energy. This meditation is taught to practitioners in the Healing Touch Program as a technique for self-care and often given to the client to do as self healing. It is also used by the practitioner on the client to encourage a deep state of expansion and peacefulness.

Energy is a dance, and a spiral is a very special dance. By placing the center of energy awareness in the heart, the higher states of awareness in the upper energy centers can be integrated with those in the lower energy centers. Above all else, enter a state of Unconditional Love when you experience this meditation.

As with all guided meditation, once you have done this often enough, you will no longer need my voice to guide you. You may choose to listen to the music only file as you bring yourself into the Spiral Meditation’s expanded state of awareness.

Peace and Light,

Megan

 

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

Setting Intention in Yoga

The Significance of Setting Intention in Yoga

The word yoga has 2 meanings in Sanskrit: one definition is to yoke or union, as in the way we bring together the physical body and mind with postures and breathing. We also use the word yoga to describe a state of being where we do everything in life with more awareness. What we do and say to ourselves in class becomes a mirror into who we are and our self talk in life.  How do we respond when we are challenged in a pose? Do we painfully push our way through, degrade ourselves, get angry, or compare ourselves to others? When the practice appears easy or uneventful, do we mistake relaxation for boredom, have difficulty surrendering or does our mind wander off?

An important component of yoga as a state of awareness is setting an intention.  An intention can help guide us through the physical poses and choose the modifications that are right for our body and mind that day. Heartfelt intention also brings positive energy like gratitude, acceptance, peace or unconditional love to ourselves and others. The teacher will typically ask you to set an intention at the beginning of class. It is your responsibility to bring the mind back to your personal purpose throughout class.  When the intention is made from the heart, it is simple, pure and feels expansive, as if it is already a part of us that maybe we just forgot about or misplaced. Intention may be the same for days, weeks, or even years, and comes out of a commitment to support our highest self.  Where there is nothing wrong with doing yoga just for the exercise and physical benefits, setting an intention helps to make yoga part of your life!

A few suggestions if you are new to setting intention:

Sometimes an intention doesn’t come up right away.  Don’t pressure yourself.  Keep the space open for something to formulate any time during or after class.

Simply ask yourself any of these questions: what brought you to your mat today? What does grace mean to you? What makes you feel strong?  How do you find calmness?  What can you let go of today?

Think of something or someone you are grateful for; or think of the idea of gratitude.

If you come up with several purposes for your practice and have a difficult time choosing one, politely ask your heart what it wants.

When you are experiencing physical discomfort or disease in your body, set your intention to continually send healing thoughts and energy into that place.

Ayurveda sees the Self as a 3 legged stool; one leg is the physical body, one is the mental/emotional body, and one is the spiritual body.  If one leg of your stool has been neglected, set your intention to focus on that leg!

Feeling exceptionally joyful? Consider dedicating your practice to someone else who could benefit from your practice like a prayer. Imagine them watching you and send them your blessings at the end of class.

If the spiritual, esoteric and philosophical components of yoga do not appeal to you, set an intention purely for the physical body.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being completely easeful and 10 being extremely challenging, pick a number for your practice and honor that.

And if you don’t practice yoga, you can still benefit from the daily mindfulness of intention.

Namaste, Megan

Breaking Through the Self

I celebrate Earth Day coming from the inside out.  Like the hatchling, I break out first.  You may see it as a crack or a hole.

My specialized egg tooth is meditation; well equipped on the inside. Breathing the air deeply I ready myself to break free; the air that is within the egg.  Like the egg tooth itself, all dissolves.

Then I have to peck to break out. This takes consistent effort. Rajas – passion, energy and motion. Not just when my butt is on the cushion or the mat is rolled out; daily with self-love and discipline; striving toward my goal. The yolk that sustains me is tapas – the fire of desire.

Working in circles, using its wings for propulsion and feet to kick, the chick takes rest in between pipping. Permission to spend more time on the inside to strengthen when what is outside is hard. I cannot break out until I land.

Some chicks are preoccupied with the pecking itself…always trying to do, learn, expectations, accumulations, letting busy be a distraction.  Mistaking grace for boredom. Release and allow.

My tendency is to let the shell become armor for the Self. I will not let it harden ever again. Rest and peck the way nature intended. Too much substance breeds self-doubt. Tamas – complete darkness holding and limiting me.  Engage in outer activity. Break that shell.

Be open to the forces coming from the outside. Who breaks into me? Teachers? Loved ones? Difficult neighbors? View them all with a non-rejecting mind. They are here to help me find freedom. Agitations and affirmations coax me out equally. They peck in as I peck out.

My pecking out.  Their pecking in. They lead to the same place – life history, experiences, stories, all that is in my shell. In me, but not me.  I will break out.

Mother Earth supports transformation in spring. This chick will decide for herself when she is ready. My only goal is to break out. The final push, with no urgency to fly.

Love and Light,
Megan

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

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