Posts

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

The Other Path to Enlightement

Imprisioned in the house from the cold, Christmas is a holiday to get through and New Year’s resolutions have never worked for me, so I struggle… every year, this time of year.   Repressed memories.   Unreached goals. Fear of more failure.   Gratitude for having more than enough laced with guilt in thinking of all those in need. I know this is part of the cycle – to doubt myself and the good of humanity. This is not the time to place false external expectations on myself; it is when I peer into my cracks and burrow into the dark crevices in meditation. From inside, I find what I need and manipulate those spaces.   Yes – manipulation because that is another term for manifestation.   It is in the scary dark corners that I remember how to manipulate my own mind.   And it does not happen from a place of repressed emotions or joy but from honest outbreaks wrapped in acceptance.

“Enlightenment is understanding that there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nobody you have to be except exactly who you’re being right now.”   – Conversations with God

We glorify rigidity and schedules and sweeping “undesirable” under the rug.   The intellectual outdoes the intuitive. Our pursuit of unbridled knowledge and proper etiquette is the systemization of compressed emotion and lack of spontaneity.   What if I don’t keep it together today? What if I surprise myself and cry in front of you just because I need to? Let my tears flow for this screwed up world. Cry for my friends who have left too early, and the ones that live feeling alienated. And then what if I tell you that it feels good to cry? That there is no shame.   What if I scream at the headlines with no remorse? Would you be shocked to know I believe in righteous anger? Self control is not for the Self – it is a coupon book of societal etiquette – which is not normal but repressed; or dull and mundane at best. Sadness, jealousy, self-loathing; rip it up and replace it with something pleasant out of the Ms. Manners book.   Seeing someone in their unmasked vulnerability is too delicate or complicated or unpredictable.   Repression of shame, grief and anger is safe and keeps us within the norm, but normal is average and average is a cop out.   None of us are on this planet to be average. I’d rather be called oversensitive or emotional than normal or stable.   Reserve the stable label for medical coding.   We all have something powerful and unique to share on this journey and we can’t recognize it by playing it safe. So in the safety of my morning space, I ask:

Who do I want to be for the world this year? I can’t answer that unless I fully embrace what I feel. What do I long for? What am I passionate about? This is not selfish – it is selfless, because that is how I give the best part of who I am. But I approach passion with kid gloves in the private of my meditation.   Passion has two faces – desire and aversion, and if I’m not careful, the aversion exhausts me emotionally.   Passion is the fire of desire…and desire, when manipulated, brings us to the highest expression of ourselves.

What is desire? It is a rollercoaster relationship with my emotions; emotion is the byproduct of desire.   Explore the emotions.   First the dark ones.   What do I fear? When do I protect myself from a new beginning by being complacent? When do I stop or not start again because of past failures and guilt? When and with whom do I withhold forgiveness? The kind that hides in contractive thoughts of myself and others. What do I crave that takes me away from my truest self?

Yes, desire.   Physical, mental and spiritual.   Acknowledge it.   Illuminate myself in it. I am made of the same partially torn cosmic cloth as my source and it doesn’t serve the world to deny who I am.

So I ask, what do I desire? It is found in the the spaces when I feel creative energy. What do I do that keeps me in my highest vibration? Prioritize those things for myself. And who supports me in my highest vibration?   Spend time with them. How do I encourage desire in my life, without confusing desire with expectation?   I allow myself to WANT, with no presumptions or pre-arranged notions of what I will get so that the small, partial pleasures are satisfying.   And denial is acceptable, because that too, serves my highest good.

Passionate, Peaceful New Year,

Megan