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sensory motor somatic

What Is Somatic Yoga?

Are you curious about somatic yoga or heard of somatic movement and want to try it? Megan has been teaching somatic yoga classes and incorporating somatic movement into one-on-one yoga therapy sessions for 10 years.  Now you can join her class in person or virtually every Friday at 10:30 am CST or access them at your convenience in the On Demand library.  Have limitations or a specific goal? Schedule a yoga therapy session in person or virtually. And if you are already practicing somatics and want more, watch the fall schedule for another weekly class option.

“And now we’re suffering. Our bodies are suffering with lifestyle diseases, our minds are stressed, our spirits are confused. And our primitive, habitual responses just aren’t working. What we need is a practice, not just to alleviate our suffering, but to live the beautiful adventure we call life.”  From The Exuberant Animal, by Frank Forencich

The natural state of the human body is to be in motion. First person experience of motion is of equal importance as outside, third person observation. Somatic Yoga can change how we live, how we believe our minds and bodies interrelate; it can increase the power we hold in controlling our lives and how responsible we are in taking care of our total being.

The Body As Soma
“Soma” is the Greek word meaning “living body”.  Viewed from the outside, a human being is a body with a certain shape and size.  However, when a human being looks at him/herself from the inside, he/she is aware of feelings, movements and intentions – a very different fuller being. What an individual sees from his/her first person, living, sensing, internalize view is a soma.  To yourself you are a soma.  To another, you are a body.

The somatic viewpoint is that humans are self-aware, self-sensing and self-moving and therefore, self responsible somas who can change themselves, as well as bodily beings who are subjected to physical and organic forces.

Somatic Yoga Movements
Experiencing the body from within through the discipline of movement re-education
–  active “brain exercises”  that use the sensory motor cortex to increase brain neuroplasticity
– address the problem instead of the symptoms
– work with full body patterns that can teach a student how to be self-sufficient instead of returning for visits or medication
– most beneficial physically when the issues are a result of how we use our body; for instance mechanical back pain
– can be helpful in releasing trauma from the body; both physical and emotional.
–  reduce and potentially over time with discipline, eliminate the physiological memories of stress caused by accidents, injuries, surgeries or repetitive movements
– mentally, somatics can help separate emotional expression from thoughts, actions and symptoms
– increases and balances the life flow (Prana) in the body by dissolving pranic blockages, making it an accessible, effective practice to heal “when the issues are in the tissues”.

The majority of somatic movements are done on the floor, seated or lying down.  Fully supporting the body on the floor produces steadiness of body and mind. In most standing yoga poses and movements, the majority of the brain’s energy goes to balancing our body relative to gravity just to keep us in alignment and upright. A grounded body allows the energy of the mind to safely explore movement potential with less exertion.  The student is more likely to remain in a state of relaxation and can explore with lighthearted curiosity!

Join me in Light and Love,

Megan

Do What You Got To, But Choose Love

Like many small business owners, I wear my heart on my sleeve these days. My thoughts are dominated by a yearning to move forward. I’m doing my best to be pragmatic when looking at things through the local lens.  But I have worked hard the past 10 years to get where I am and watching it dissolve is disheartening. Why can I drive by Menards on this sunny day and see a parking lot full of cars but my business has to remain closed? What is Right Action? How do I let these hard lessons come through and trust the process when there is so much anger on all sides?

Below are thoughts I wrote May 1, 2009, while creating a mission statement for my business. I don’t think it is an accident that I stumbled on them last night. Reading my own words was the necessary agony of teaching the teacher.

“Give students the ability to further their spiritual growth through the practice of yoga. Create a sense of community and friendship where you have a group of open-minded individuals who are all on their own spiritual path and support each other.  Offer a space where people feel safe and comfortable when going through difficult times. Challenge them to connect with themselves in a more intimate and brave way even when it is uncomfortable.  Empower them to take care of their own health and control their own mind. Get them to recognize and live by their personal values. Remind them that regardless of our differences, we all experience similar obstacles and the same joy when we overcome them.”

The spiritual ride continues, but our training wheels came off. Bear Foot Yoga is just brick and mortar. The studio inside of you is still open to explore your spiritual path.  Keep showing up and moving forward even if you feel stuck. The subtle energy body is the more enduring body; it does not wax and wane with the hard lessons of the collective conscious – the Lila or play of life.  And protect yourself and support yourself in whatever way feels like Right Action for you. Take this situation seriously. Have a sense of humor. Learn something new. Do exactly what you normally do. Stay active. Sleep More. Be in the unknown and uncomfortable. Recognize and focus on what is expected and familiar. Live small and be private. Know yourself better through your connections and relationships.  Be in a funk.  Be jubilant.  Ask for your highest good.  Hold space for others. Watch the birds and the buds move and change. Trust that the planet is the same.

Please continue on your own journey; it is not inside a yoga studio or any other building. Your path is spiritual. So is everyone else’s. Part of trust is accepting your karma and not judging others for theirs.  Don’t let anger drive you to act in ways that are not an expression of who you are.  If you catch yourself doing that, come back. Spirit is always connecting us. The core center of self is divine love. There cannot be fear or loneliness in love. Let the bad guys battle it out. Please Choose Love.

Peace, Megan

A Real Person’s Guide To A Home Yoga Practice

Though I am not new to offering yoga classes on Youtube, I know practicing at home virtually is new territory for some of my dedicated students.  The comment has come back to me that “ I just can’t practice at home”. Here are a few suggestions from my years of home practice trial and error that may help you.

Asana is the physical limb of yoga, so pay attention to what your physical body is saying. Sensation is communication. How loud it is your body talking?  You always control the volume dial. Depending on the posture modifications you choose, how long you hold a posture, etc, that volume dial can go up or down.  Getting the right volume is  part of tuning the station in your practice. It may not be “easy listening” but its not something so disdainful that you want to shut it off or tune out. Pain is not the only way our bodies talk to us. There is pleasure.  And there is absence of sensation. Notice when the station changes. And if you want easy listening to lighten the load right now, try a replenishing practice like yin or restorative yoga.

If you are concerned about the safety of practicing yoga at home without the teacher watching, write a body contract with yourself.  Create a corridor of safety and healing; be curious and explore within that space.  The yoga term for good sensation is sukha, which translates to sweetness.  Yoga can be intense at times, but it moves you in the direction of strength, greater mobility, and comfort in your body.  The sanskrit word for pain is dhuka; it means suffering or bad space. Bad space is typically felt as localized sharp pain, often in a joint.  It might restrict the breath, cause a flinching reaction or anxiousness. Instead of freedom, bad pain brings us closer to long term limitations.

You are not the same as anyone else and you are not the same today as you were yesterday. When we walk in a studio class, we see bodies that look somewhat similar on the outside. That changes the moment we come into a posture. Even though we may technically have the same bones, muscles, connective tissue etc, we are all put together differently and unique in our adaptation of the posture. In a home practice, you have no one else to compare yourself to – take advantage of that! Explore comfortable alignment for your body, or skip a pose altogether and do what your body is asking for. No one can see you!

Space invites you in.  Boundaries keep you out. Those can be both physical and mental.  Bump up to your boundaries but don’t go beyond them. Some days you are unstoppable, conquer the the yoga class curriculum and should hi-five yourself.  And other days, you may feel sluggish or even sad.  Be vulnerable.  Be strong. Cry. Sweat. Let whatever bubbles up on your mat float away and explode into non-existence.  But learn to know what boundaries are physical and which are mental.  Mental limitations are boundaries that may need to be explored when you are ready.

Distractions happen, especially at home.  We can’t all have sound proof, home studios with Himalayan salt block walls; maybe just a spiritual trinket or two in a community room without decaying plants. Some environmental factors can be controlled and others you need to absorb into your practice like a zen master. Birds chirp and dogs snore when I meditate, so I say hello to the birds and send love to the dogs. I have had students willfully attend goat yoga and tell me they didn’t like it because they found the goats to be too distracting and couldn’t take their practice seriously. Seriously???  Lighten up! If you vilify outside distractions as the bane of your mindfulness (particularity sweet furry animals), there is work to be done.  Because guess what? That’s the real world; its what we are training for, unless you plan to live in a cave. Have kids? Let them sit on you in a plank pose or crawl under your down dog.  I’m not kidding.  I used to do this with my twins. Now I just hip check 180 lbs of three dog lovin’ off my mat occasionally – or use them as props.  But don’t use distractions as an excuse not to practice.  The real yoga starts when distractions come knocking.  Just like in the actual world, you can let them stress you out, get angry or quit or let go of expectations and thrive.

Hold yourself accountable. As a yoga teacher who has had a regular home yoga practice for several decades, I know how easy it is to start emptying the dishwasher, or get side tracked into cleaning the sock drawer even when your mat is laid out. If you suddenly have so much time that you feel lost, sign up for classes ahead of time and put them on your calendar.

Please remember to take a savasana or relaxation pose at the end of your home practice to allow all of your systems to absorb and integrate the benefits of your practice.  The physical practice of yoga asana teaches us about how we interact with ourselves and the outer environment, and is hugely important.  But as spiritual beings, savasana gives us the opportunity to perceive our inner environment through the felt sense and the subtle body. Intuition is a source inside yourself that needs to be nourished with time and love. Notice what gets loud when you get quiet and still.

And most important right now, remember you are not alone. Contact a friend and sign up for a virtual class together. Intimacy comes in many forms; some as simple as sending a blessing to the other students who might normally be in your class.

Peace,
Megan

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

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