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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

Meditation Into the Chakras

Why an Audio Meditation on the Chakras

When someone begins to experience their subtle body or energy body, whether it is through an assisted healing modality like acupuncture or reiki, or in a yoga class, skepticism turns to curiosity. I am often asked for recommendations on books about the chakras.  Despite my collection of worthy books by knowledgable writers about chakras, nadis, kundalini, marma points, tantra, etc, personal and professional experience have taught me that meditation is the most creative, authentic way to introduce oneself to, explore, and expand the seven energy centers. Reading books on the chakras without experiential play time is like reading a cook book and never getting the satisfaction of eating any of the recipes. The intellectual knowledge a book provides on the subtle body only finds its power when it is in harmonious relationship with our intuitive perception. I believe intuition is organically accessible through sound healing and meditation.

Mind Body

Unlike when many of the ancient spiritual traditions were developed, we now have a scientific explanation on how the brain works.There is excellent research being done on the benefits of meditation all over the globe (and at our very own Center for Heathy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). Written words are fodder for the left brain, which intends to intellectualize and rationalize the information that comes through our five senses. Just as the five senses are gates of perception for the mind, the chakras feed the body information about the the world around us by metabolizing energy. To heal all levels of our being, we need to enter the expanded state of consciousness of the right brain. Where the brain goes, energy flows.

“ I maintain that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest incitement to scientific research” – Albert Einstein

Energy Body

Called Chi, Qi, astral light, Prana, the field, or depicted as a halo as it often was in ancient paintings, all religious and spiritual traditions recognize our bodies as light energy. Spiritual awareness is a transformational process that takes place in this realm. Even in conventional medicine, we see the use of sound and light for both evaluation and treatment of the physical body. When we block experiences from our mind (often unconsciously), we also block the electromagnetic energy flow of the experience. To use a term I don’t particularly care for, energy gets “stuck” in our bodies, causing pain, physical and emotional discomfort and disease. Our bodies naturally attempt to remove these blockages; an example of this is the flow of tears, yet we are taught from a young age not to cry. Sound healing and meditation are safe acceptable ways to release physical and emotional trauma and agitation from the body. They can also help to balance an overreactive energy system.

Disbelievers

In my field, I compassionately excuse cynics. They do not have the ability to believe in something they have not experienced for themselves. Undoubtably, it is not because they can’t. We all have higher states of consciousness available to us. It is our mental conditioning, the gluttony of information flooding our sympathetic nervous systems, and the way in which modern society holds intellect above intuition that prevents us from reaching our energetic potential. Expanding our state of awareness is a matter of accepting our unlimited potential and being still with as few external distractions as possible.

Motivators

This project is for all of my students who have journeyed into their subtle body, perhaps unintentionally in a yoga class or sound healing; you are my instigators. With every awakened encounter you experience, my inner child jumps for joy! We are ALL always healing from something; only the significance and awareness varies. Remember to set your books and phones down and put technique and tradition in the back seat. Study your heart. Love is the universal healer.Thank you to all my teachers in the fields of Yoga, Ayurveda, and the Healing Touch Program for making me see that there is more than one way into the subtle body – and there is no right way. In gratitude to my gifted musical counterpart, Michael, for exploring planet earth with me from the inside out.

Utilize

I value the Western medicine model, but the bio-mechanical paradigm is about curing. Healing occurs separate from curing. It can take place within any level of our being – physical, psychological and spiritual. Start by utilizing this meditation for your own healing. Keep it simple – we are energy and awareness. Enter the subtle body. When you are ready to be your own greatest healer, bring your energy to the level of the heart. Share that with others through a gentle touch or hugs. And never stop wondering, growing and believing we are infinite.

With Love and Light,

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

Application To Be A Yogi

Dear Student,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light and Love,

Megan

Wonder Woman or Yoga?

Body language has the ability to empower or defeat.  Where I don’t follow the belief that a cluttered desk is equivalent to a cluttered mind, I firmly support that body language, or non-verbal communication, can be more revealing than words.  Even before a hand shake or hug, much can be assumed about a person by the position of their head, shoulders, arms and their gaze. Clairsentience is the ability to see and feel things in others that are not sensually present.  A heartfelt look at another’s body position opens a doorway to clairsentience where we “have a feeling” about someone. Most people recognize that the feelings then lead to judgements. But what is not typically understood is that our body language also influences what we think about ourselves.

As a mother of 12 year old twin girls, it is instinctual to gently touch a finger tip to the space between their shoulder blades as a gentle reminder not to slouch; or more poignantly, to stand with confidence.  “Girls’ self-esteem plummets at age 12 and doesn’t improve until 20, an unhappiness attributed to changes in body shape…” (NYC Girls Project). The NCY Girls project is addressing the issue of self-esteem and body image in young girls. One of their recommendations: The Wonder Woman Pose!  I grew up in the 70’s as a huge fan of Linda Carter and secretly imagined she could dominate the Six Million Dollar Man. What I was too young to understand is that her high power pose was the source of her success.

According to Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy, standing like Wonder Woman can improve self-image.  In her TED Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”,  Amy shares research on how adapting a posture of power for as little as two minutes a day can change the outcome of your life. She explains how body language shapes outcomes in everything from employment interviews to MBA grades to the likelihood of a doctor being sued.  Cognizant or not, we form opinions about others based on non-verbal communication. But Amy’s talk centers on how non-verbal communication not only governs what others think about us, but that “our bodies change our minds;” chemically speaking. Research shows testosterone (dominance) and cortisol (stress) levels are directly related to body position. And unfortunately there is a gender discrepancy as the young girls grow up to be women who are better at making themselves small.

Please take 20 minutes to watch Amy’s TED talk, because as she says, why reserve this information for doctors and MBA’s?  Maybe the old school idea of young girls walking around with books on their heads isn’t such a crazy idea; or as Amy Cuddy suggests, doing a “power pose” in a bathroom stall to prepare for an important event.  But as a yoga teacher, I question why we would hide in a bathroom stall.  If “our minds change our bodies, and our bodies change our minds”,  and yoga is the uniting of the body and mind, why not stand in your fiercest Warrior pose for 2 minutes? Many yoga poses are meant to expand the front of the body and bring us into our powerful presence in a way that we can apply to life without hiding.

Fake it til you make it? Yes.  Fake it til you become it? Even better.  Nothing against the Wonder Woman Pose, but I will stick to using bathrooms to pee and yoga to self empower. And bring on Lee Majors!

OM Shanti,

Megan