An Essay on Acceptance

WELCOME TO-2I recently taught a class with with a theme of acceptance. This is not a new theme to me (nor the yoga industry), but one I like to revisit because I’ve always found the topic to be quite transformative. Acceptance is a precondition for growth and healing and thanks to a lovely student of mine I have had a couple of new realizations on this topic.

You never know what will show up during a mindful yoga practice, and sometimes you will come across difficult realizations. Deep in a pose, you suddenly realize something about yourself, or something about your life that you do not like. It could be an imperfection in the way you move and feel, an awareness of a strained relationship, an internal unrest about something in your life, or the surfacing of deep and painful emotion. Contemplating acceptance around such difficult realizations, doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with it, and it is not the same as surrender or sacrifice (nor is it about resignation or giving up). Rather, it’s about acknowledging reality as it is right now. Acceptance is an allowing, not about shutting things out, and our yoga becomes a practice of seeing things as they are difficult or not.

To fully embody this understanding, consider the opposite. When we don’t accept difficult realizations that bubble up, then we avoid, we tense, we resist, we force – essentially we don’t see clearly, and therefore delude reality. A deluded reality eventually catches up with us, prolonging the inevitable of what we must face. A deluded reality is also not a solid foundation from which to work from. How can we ever truly change without a solid base? Like points on a map, when a destination is known, how can you find your way without knowing where you are right now?

That student of mine that brought this all forward for me had come to the realization during one of my classes that she had a toxic relationship in her life and years of not accepting it was taking a toll on her on well being.  Realizing and accepting the nature of this relationship meant she could move forward and change the nature of it.  Without this acknowledgment it would be impossible to set the boundaries and expectations necessary for positive change.

Applying the practice of acceptance in relation to growth and healing is palatable with those things in our life where there is possibility of change, but what about those things in our life which hold no possibility of change, those things outside our control? There are times when the awareness itself is unacceptable… the untimely loss of a loved one comes to mind. In these moments, sometimes all we can do is accept the unacceptable. Within these moments, acknowledgement of “what is” allows a new way of being to emerge – not necessarily unscarred or liberated, but just new.

“Grieve. so that you can be free to feel something else”.  (Nayyira Waheed)

Whether it is on or off our mats, when we are bearing our authentic selves, our heaviest emotions, and acknowledging our messy, imperfect bits, it can be hard, but no one said this would be an essay on easy. The question becomes, with whatever is showing up for you, can you greet it with eyes wide open and with no expectation to be liked? Within this lies the difference to true healing and change: that solid foundation of seeing clearly and all that it has to offer.

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Gratitude Project to Improve your Health & Wellbeing

This holiday season I welcome you to join me on a quick and easy Gratitude Project for yourself. It only takes a few minutes of your day and research shows it is one of the easiest ways to improve your physical and psychological health.

A study done by Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading gratitude researchers, found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, higher levels of positive emotions such as optimism and happiness; they become more helpful, generous, and compassionate, and they experience less feelings of loneliness.

You might be wondering, how can something so simple be so effective? What the researchers found is that when we search for things to be grateful for, it activates the part of our brain that releases the feel-good hormone, dopamine, and it can also boost serotonin production, which helps to combat the effects of depression.

Also, gratitude can change our thinking habits. When we regularly spot the good things in our life, it makes it more likely that (even when we’re not looking for them) we see more positives. And, gratitude can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being.

So if you are curious about giving this a try, here’s how you get started… For 10 days, near the end of your day, take 10 minutes to look back and reflect on all that you remember in your day and see if there is anything you feel grateful for; not what you think you “should” be grateful for, but what you really “feel” gratitude for. It can be small and simple things like the food you ate, conversations you had, or simply noticing something beautiful in your environment. List one to three things that stood out for you.

By the end of the 10 days, I’m betting you will notice it will spark something within you. You will likely be more aware during your day of making note of what is happening around you that you are grateful for… you will start to see things you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It can shift how you look at the world and the moments in your day. And, at some point, you may begin to realize that it is within these moments that you will experience a lifetime of benefits.

Enjoy the journey and let me know how it goes!

P.S. Get you kids involved!

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Memory In Our Tissues

Do you believe that our physical bodies hold memory of our past experiences? 

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I recently worked with a lady who had a painful injury to the left side of her rib cage and every time she leaned towards this area she felt pain. To avoid the pain she would chronically lean away from the pain, and over the course of a year her muscles reset to a new “normal” of her trunk leaning to the right. This makes sense that our bodies shape around physical injuries and most frequent activities.

But what about this notion of storing “issues in our tissues”… can unexpressed emotion, fears, expectations, and our beliefs about ourselves actually be stored in our bodily matrix, shaping our physical form? Take for example, the chronic hiking of your shoulders from years of taking on too much responsibility or the forward rounding of your upper back to shield your front body, the place of your vulnerability and insecurities.

To me it feels very logical that thought, emotion, and memory can affect how we hold ourselves, and over time, how this holding pattern could be memorized through repeated transfer of information from cell to cell. There is a great quote from Ken Dychtwald that considers posture in relationship to the emotional body, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue, itself.”

What I find so interesting about this is how we can go months, years, and sometimes lifetimes being unaware of the storage of memory in the tissues of the body until one day, your attention is called inwards and you experience your body outside the conditioned grooves that day-to-day living assumes. So often is the case for many of us when we first start practicing yoga. As Elisa Cobb writes in her book, The Forgotten Body, “the silence and the moment-to-moment awareness cues in yoga are invitations to finally notice sensations, thoughts, and images that arise, and the physical postures, asanas, knead the body’s cells, moving energetic information and triggering cellular memories. Yoga provides the atmosphere that interrupts our patterned living and provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves with fresh perspective at the level of bodily experience.”

I find it fascinating that yoga can teach us that a tightly held muscle or rotation in our hip stores valuable information about our past and present selves. A simple stretch or pose becomes an invitation into the psychological and physiological web that form the matrix of the mind-body… a place from which we can let our bodies speak the stories of our past and reveal the ways in which our patterns of conditioning affect us. And with this new awareness of the “issues in our tissues”, it plants a seed for a different relationship with ourselves, the possibility of change, and in some cases a whole new way of standing in the present moment.

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Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia

yoga poses for myofascial lines.png

I just love the concept of connectivity in the body. If anatomy is defined as breaking things apart, then reversing anatomy the process of putting the pieces back together, and fascia is the connective tissue responsible for this return to whole.

Fascia is a popular topic these days in the therapeutic sciences and yoga – there are numerous blogs and articles describing what it is. Many are based on the work of anatomist Tom Myers, in his books on Anatomy Trains, with his underlying premise that fascia, as a connective tissue, links individual muscles into functional complexes, sometimes referred as myofascial lines or anatomy trains.

Here is an infographic showing groups of muscles being connected through fascia and other connective tissue to form some of the more commonly discussed functional lines:

Myofascial lines of the body.png

For this article, it is not my intent to delve into the anatomy of fascia, rather to appreciate its role as a connector in the body, and to consider how yoga is perfectly designed to access its connectivity capabilities.

Consider this scenario: a person gets an injury where they experience swelling and acute pain immediately after. Their natural response is to immobilize the area of injury, and while swelling and pain remain high, the individual’s posture and gait will be altered, e.g leaning away from pain, avoidance of pressure, or limping. Most of the time, the  person will gradually restore motion as pain lessens and all is good, but when these splinting or pain avoidance postures get prolonged, the area of injury and the surrounding musculature are negatively impacted as the muscles and connective tissue tighten, loose fluid, and weaken – this has the potential to affect the whole functional system. Consequently, through the connectivity of myofascial lines, a simple ankle injury can work up the chain of tissues causing pain and dysfunction at the knee, hip, back, etc.

Reverse this and consider emotional disturbances in an individual. Imagine what postural changes happen when a person is depressed – their head is usually lowered, shoulders rounded forward, their chest caved in. As Myrthe Wieler writes in her article on Fascia and Yoga, “This postural pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.”

So this connectivity through fascia works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, releasing and realigning our fascia, it can have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions. This is why I find yoga so effective in helping with system/functional disturbances. By design, yoga’s postures are perfectly arranged for global, multi-joint mobilizations, therefore, poses frequently stretch chronic lines of tension along myofascial lines (see picture above for a few examples). Additionally, because yoga encourages all aspects of the individual to be present moment to moment, it affords the opportunity for emotional change as the postures affect our chemistry from the inside out.

However, as a long time practitioner of yoga, what I appreciate most about yoga’s ability to change and affect the body is how we learn to move and stretch in ways that is directed from internal awareness. Having been through countless courses on anatomy and alignment discussing the do’s and don’t of the human body, what becomes more and more apparent is that rules change, and any good rule has exceptions. So when a student of yoga finally learns how they themselves can find safety in movement by listening to their own edges, or when they realize just the slightest movement to the left gives them that just perfect stretch, they are in essence learning how to connect to and heal their own bodies. And because fascia is like a web branching in any given direction; sometimes the line of stretch matches the above listed myofascial lines, or a specific pose alignment, but sometimes it is something quite different and unique to an individual’s body. So in yoga when we learn to explore our sensations from the inside out and to be creative in our postures this can be the most effective source of change.

I often reflect on a what an amazingly complex and intra-connected system the human body is. It is fascinating to study these connective platforms, like fascia, so we can be reminded how health issues in one part the the body don’t happen in a bubble – there is a whole person to consider. And as yogis, it’s nice to know, that as we develop our yoga practice over time, we shape and shift this scaffolding of tissue known as fascia, which inevitably changes our soft-tissue body, internal chemistry, and thoughts/emotions; and sometimes, in just one pose, we gain insight into our who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become.

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Top 10 Reasons To Try Yoga Therapy

151016-028-2Do you believe that the mind and body are connected? Most people do these days. It makes sense that whatever happens to you physically affects you mentally/emotionally and vice versa.

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapists are mind-body practitioners. By blending supported yoga poses/stretches with non-directed dialogue, the connection between what’s happening in your body is explored in relationship to your thoughts and emotions.

To borrow a phrase from a Vancouver based yogi, Eoin Finn, “Our issues are in our tissues.” And let’s face it, we all have issues… it’s just a matter of how much and when. And when life deals you a case-lot size of them, it might be time to check in with what valuable information your body has to offer you.

Here’s a list of 10 really good reasons to try yoga therapy:

1. When you’re faced with a big decision or difficult life choice and need clarification on what the next step can be.

2. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and the pace of 21st century life feels out of balance. Like many people seeking out their first yoga class, you feel a need to slow down, reflect, and regroup.

3. If you have run into a roadblock with your healing, either physical or emotional and you want to assess the source of your obstacle or want to investigate other options for healing.

4. Because you put everyone else first. Ever sit down at the end of a day and realize that between work and family you’ve done absolutely nothing for yourself?  You’ve been taking care others for so long you’re left wondering, “Who am I and what do I want?”

5. Your body needs it. You have tight muscles and stiff joints and you feel you could use some deep relaxation and, really, when couldn’t you use some gentle stretches and traction done to your body?

6. You’re confidence is low and you’re up against feelings of self-doubt and you are doubting your aspirations.

7. Life took a turn you didn’t expect and now you’re left sorting and processing – What now? What are my options? Where do I go from here?

8. You’re in a creative slump. You feel your source of inspiration–your creative well–is all dried up and are looking for ways to access it again.

9. Your past is catching up with you. Whatever you have pushed away and avoided dealing with, whether it be some aspect of your physical health that you’ve ignored or an emotional issue from your past, it’s resurfacing again and it’s time to check in about it.

10. For the joy of Discovery. You are interested in delving into your spiritual and mindful self and seeing what might be revealed.

For more information about what it’s like to received a yoga therapy session link here.

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Your Friend the Breath

The mind is an ever-evolving, multi dimensional landscape. Moving in all directions, it’s like a lost puppy, darting from past to present to future, and back again. Alongside your busy mind is your breath–a steady companion to the wayward puppy. As the mind changes, so does the breath, as our mood changes, the breath mirrors it, as we become excited, the breath moves as rapidly as the mind. The breath and mind are inextricably linked; they dance together, mirror and mimic each other and share clues about one another.

We can experience the mind and breath partnership, for instance, when we are afraid–our breath might be held and we become very quiet, ready to flee or take action against a predator or attack (real or imagined). When we are anxious, as another example, our breath is rapid, high in the chest or in the throat. Or, if we’re depressed our breath is slower, usually lower in the body. When grieving, we sigh a lot–all of these changes in breathing patterns are caused by, or regulated by emotional or mental states. Subsequently, knowing that breath and mind are connected, we can become curious about it and familiarize ourselves with its patterns. We can become intimate with its signals, rhythms, and reactions—it’s a way to take a look more deeply into our own mind and behaviour.

Once we attune ourselves to our breath and begin to be mindful about it as we go about our day, we can recognize it’s more subtle signals. Noticing a change in our breathing pattern can alert us to an emotional state about to arise. For instance, if you are holding your breath as someone is talking to you, or begin breathing more rapidly, this can be information for you. Do a quick check in and ask yourself what is going on for in this moment–what are your thoughts, your emotions? Is it real or is it imagined? From this awareness we have choice, and by simply taking a moment to bring your breath into a more stable rhythm or relaxing the area of the body where we feel the breath being held or strained, we can alter the process and progression of the emotion.

Whatever is happening with the breath is a reflection of the mind and its thoughts and emotions; it is a profound and useful self-awareness skill. It is a key for the practice of being awake in the moment, seeing things as they are, not missing out on life, and being aware of it as it is happening. Intimately knowing the breath and mind as partners allows us to be participants in our life and all that occurs in it.

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A post on creativity and yoga

Well, my first blog post is up on the Phoenix Rising website. It’s about creativity and yoga; if you’re interested have a read here.

Until next time, adieu.

“Think left and think right
and think low and think high,
Oh, the thinks you can think up
if only you try!”

-Dr. Seuss

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The Uninvited Guest (It’s okay to cry)

You can close your eyes to the things you don’t want to see but you can’t close your heart to the things you don’t want to feel.

-Johnny Depp

I was just on Facebook and as I scanned through the numerous pretty pictures with inspiring quotes and affirmations, I was pleased to happen across this one post linking to Elephant Journal with an article on healing and pain, Pain is a Process; Honor It . In this article the author, Christine Gutierrez, is referring to the type of pain that comes from life’s bum deals, you know, the heartaches, failures, cruelties and unfairness, lessons of loss and grief, disappointments, etc. To heal this pain, she explains, there is a process that needs to take place, and this process doesn’t always come in the package of positive thinking and affirmations – sometimes the process needs to include the messy moments, the sadness, and hurt.  I especially like her line, “No matter how good we may get at tracking a storm, the beauty of nature is that she does her own thing. Sometimes it hurts, but it is what it is.”

Reading this article was like a sigh of relief! Tbh [to be honest] I get really disconcerted when I hear “keep your chin up”, or, my personal favourite, “stay positive” when I’m really down. It seems to me that some of this proper, tea party talk has roots in the idea that it’s not okay to show your emotions, that it’s weak and improper, and god forbid imposing on another. Or, rather, if you just wish it away it will be no longer… Really? So you just learned some really crappy news or maybe you’re sorting through some painful childhood stuff. I for one, am not going to tell you how to feel, how to be, or when to be it. I can see how it would be radically confusing to chant messages of light and optimism when every cell of your being is aching in grief. And, it’s my opinion that if you look a little deeper at this notion of “staying positive” there’s a shadow called fear walking beside the mind-set. Yep, people are afraid to feel emotions, afraid to show emotions, and afraid to witness another’s emotions because this makes them feel uncomfortable, or better yet, vulnerable.

I once read that to watch a young child be with their emotions is a good example of healthy expression. When it comes to feelings, toddlers have a natural ability to flow from moment to moment – they can go from peaceful, happy play to abrupt tears and cries, and then, like the flick of a light switch, back to peaceful, happy play. I wonder, what would it be like to let our feelings move through us in this way rather than stuffing them deep down where they can do the lethal damage? Now I’m not saying we should all regress to childhood tantrums in the schoolyard, but I am suggesting to feel is good, and to feel all of it. It’s okay to cry, to be messy, to be angry and sad. This is all a part of the human experience we call life. As Dolly Parton said, You can’t have the rainbow without the rain.” And really could we even know happiness without it’s polar opposite of sadness?

So I say befriend your emotions – all of them. Acknowledge and accept them, and when the time is right, find a place and a way to be with them. Maybe something you do is journalling; some like poetry, painting, talking with a friend or therapist, watching a chick flick… whatever opens the dam and lets you feel and express. Personally I have found my yoga and yoga therapy to be the most healthy and effective ways to get in touch with what’s really going on. My promise to you is feeling the ugly won’t make you ugly. I’m betting that if you find authentic and productive ways to be with your emotions, your body, your being, will thank you for it. To quote Ms. Gutierrez, “This to me is the true art of healing – to allow the healing to be what it is.”

 

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A Maui Memoir

Here I am doing tree pose on the black rocky shoreline of Wai’anapanapa State park in east Maui.  I had been there once before, and ever since I longed to return.  I imagined myself doing yoga one day along this shoreline, standing amiss the inhospitable edges of the volcanic rock and turbulent seas.  So here I am, an intention unfolded… a friend asks me why I want to do a serene practice like yoga in such a rough and violent setting? “I’m not sure”, I said.  Perhaps I loved the contrast, no, perhaps I longed for the fear, the feeling of being alive and humble alongside nature’s raw power.

The experience was edgy (pun intended); my feet hurt, the wind blew, the water sprayed.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it was where I needed to be.   And so I did yoga, on the edge of somewhere in between, ready for the next step with fear and vulnerability as I knew it would be a leap and then a dive into waters less calm.  That day, I left Wai’anapanapa State Park, grateful for its unease, and ready to step.

Change never happens when you’re standing still, but shift does.

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