How Yoga Can Help Manage Chronic Stress & Burnout

Living during the time of a pandemic with worldly tensions around every corner, combined with constant societal pressure to be pushing, achieving, and being productive, and there’s no mystery why so many are teetering on the edge of burnout. Stress is a part of life; it is certainly not going away, and in order to thrive, we need to weather the storms. It is critical we learn ways to keep our nervous systems resilient so we can continue to “bounce back”, and yoga’s ability to improve nervous system flexibility can help manage chronic stress and even prevent burnout.

Chronic Stress & Burnout

Some of us are so used to being chronically stressed that our systems barely remember or know what it feels like to be restored and relaxed. Signs you are dealing with chronic stress are not being able to relax, finding it difficult to switch off from thinking or doing, irregular/rapid heart rate, panic attacks, insomnia, frequent bursts of irritation, rapid/shallow breathing, digestion problems, aches and pains from tense muscles and extreme tiredness.

It’s a very fine tipping point from chronic stress to burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It could be the compounding effect of one thing after another or it can be one big event like taking care of a sick loved one or losing a job or home. Burnout happens as a result of a complete overwhelm to the nervous system; it’s when our bodies literally force us to stop doing by shutting us down. In burnout, your nervous system shifts to a state of “freeze” (see dorsal vagal pathway in the polyvagal theory), which presents with symptoms of feeling frozen, numb, void of emotion, and having no motivation or energy.

Unfortunately, when dealing with high stress, we often make unhealthy lifestyle choices which heighten our risk for burnout, e.g. poor diet, too much caffeine, lack of sleep, no exercise, and numbing out or “leaving the body” by scrolling or binging on media. Unfortunately, these habits create a pattern where we are not replenishing our systems, nor are we processing anything – there is no emotional discharge, and our experiences can get stuck in the physical body.

We can interrupt and counteract this accumulation of internalized stress through yoga. Plenty of research is underway to understand this relationship better. The current research focusing on stress and burnout in healthcare workers, shows yoga is effective in the prevention and management of musculoskeletal and psychological issues, and in subjects who practiced yoga and mind-body meditation, sleep is improved and stress levels and burnout are consistently reduced.  The Use of Yoga to Manage Stress and Burnout in Healthcare Workers: A Systematic Review (nih.gov).

Below I highlight a few of the helpful ways in which yoga interrupts the compounding effect of stress and the shut down response of the body. It is important to note there are many different styles of yoga. For the purposes of this topic of stress and burnout, I am speaking about yoga of a slow and gentle nature, and practices which are intentional in its therapeutic application of pacing, posture choice, meditation, and breathing techniques.

Yoga Applications to Manage Stress and Burnout

Inner Body Sensing (Embodiment)
Yoga teaches us awareness skills of what’s happening within our bodies – noticing feelings, sensations, energy levels, body positioning, etc.  When we regularly practice tuning inwards to the senses of the body, we get more familiar, more comfortable, and more tolerant of that which we can receive, including experiences which are unpleasant. This helps be more proficient in digesting all the emotional-mental stress that is moving through us and we become more resilient to stressful and emotional times. In addition, by being more embodied, we are better able to attend to momentary muscular tension and this can awaken us from a shut-down response.

In my classes and in yoga therapy sessions, I often take the students through a mind-body check-in to heighten the skills of inner body sensing. Once this process is familiar, the check-in can be used throughout your day to keep the flow of body-based processing going and become more proficient at assessing your nervous system status, allowing you to intervene with therapeutic tools (breathing, meditations, gentle yoga) as needed. This helps to lower anxiety or awaken us from a shut-down response.

Try this quick mind-body check in to improve your embodiment skills (can be done in any posture and any time in the day):

  • Start by noticing where your body is grounding. If standing feel your feet to the ground; if sitting or leaning, feel the connection of ground through your seat, back and legs; if lying down, sense the back of your body and all the places it makes contact to surfaces beneath you.
  • Move your attention to sensing how you are holding yourself – posture, body tension, and notice any other sensations present with you in the moment.
  • Sense your breath and notice the rate and depth of your breath in this moment.
  • Reflect on anything else that seems to be present withing your internal body awareness – feelings, thoughts, energy levels, etc.

Mindful Breathing and Moving
Breathing properly is key to regulating our nervous systems and an important antidote to chronic stress and burnout. Breathing slowly, through the nose and with good movement in the diaphragm will help recovery. Be aware if you have a pattern of hyperventilation or upper chest breathing (it is very helpful to do regular checking of your breath throughout the day). Focus on long smooth breaths, breathing into to the lower lungs (expanding low ribs and belly on the inhale), and working towards a slightly longer exhalation, will help to engage the vagus nerve and parasympathetic division of the nervous system. Check out this information page for more information on how to do proper diaphragmatic breathing.

Mindful movement is about paying attention to what you feel as you move and making decisions of how much of a stretch or how long to hold a stretch based on what feels helpful in the moment. Many slow paced, gentle yoga classes are excellent to encourage the mindfulness aspect while moving; however, doing a few stretches on your own can be very effective as well. The process is accumulative – the more your body relaxes from the mindful movement, the more the mind relaxes and the nervous system regulates, and this pattern becomes more efficient with practice.

Try this short yoga class focusing on mindful movement. For more classes like this, try Stretch & Relax Yoga which is offered as a drop-in class at In Balance Yoga.

Intentional Rest (relaxing or restorative yoga postures and meditations)
When you take time to properly rest (not zone out on your phone), but enter a state in which you find a comfortable posture, close your eyes, and actively encourage a quieting of the mind and body, then your brain waves shift from the active thinking, known as Beta state, to the slower Alpha state where decompression happens. Brief periods of relaxed, alpha state in your day will assist the brain with waste removal, aid in the consolidation of new skills and knowledge, and serve as a way to balance the drive for productivity. After intentional rest in alpha state, your mind is more receptive, open, creative, and less critical, and this is important to restore the balance of stress and burnout.

Doing a restorative yoga pose or guided meditation, such as body scans and Yoga Nidras, will provide you with a moment in your day for intentional rest. Check out this blog highlighting a few yoga techniques and postures to stimulate the vagus nerve in relationship to regulating the nervous system. When possible, it is beneficial to close the eyes and use an eye pillow when resting. The light pressure on the eyeballs from the pillow stimulates the vagus nerve and oculocardiac reflex, facilitating the relaxation response.

If you want to learn more about how yoga can help you manage chronic stress or return you to a more regulated state in the case of burn out, consider connecting with a yoga therapist. With guidance and practice, you can develop better regulation skills for emotional resistance to stress and burnout.

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The Heart Space

Follow your heart… Open up your heart… The heart knows…
We are all familiar with these expressions about the heart. Often, we reference the heart as a part of ourselves we can source for answers outside of the analytical mind; a place from which we can be informed from a body-felt wisdom and emotional truth; a part of ourselves that knows who we are and what we truly want. Do you believe in this heart space?

I do. I believe this heart-felt wisdom is ages old, and the heart is symbolic of our sense of center. Our busy, intellectual minds go astray and we get caught in the story telling, the details, and the analysis of it all. Yet most of us have, at some point, experienced the feeling of being calm, grounded and centered into ourselves. When you are connected to yourself in this way, you are more in tune with your authentic, emotional needs and confident in the choices of the path before you.

I believe this inner guiding truth teller is always there, it just gets buried under the layers of reflexive, conditioned thinking and out of balance from habitual doing. An effective way to reconnect to the wisdom of the heart space is through a physical yoga practice—engage in postures which literally energize around the heart. Don’t think about it so much as finding the perfect pose, but rather movement about this figurative center to bring feeling and connection back to this part of you.

Drop into the metaphor and let your practice bring balance and connection back into the heart space. Feel from the core of the body what is missing—back bends, forward folds, twists, or wherever the movement has been lacking, and dive into the expression of these forms. Bring the breath in to fill the heart space, sense and feel this giving and receiving of energy to this part of you, and at the end of the practice ask nothing of your heart other than for it to speak, and maybe in the quiet moments you will hear what it is that only the heart know to be true for you.

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Interoception – Mindfulness in the Body

By Bo Forbes

What does it mean to be embodied? And doesn’t yoga already take care of that? When we take a closer look, the answer might surprise us.

Think of embodiment on a continuum. On one end we have exteroception, in the middle proprioception, and on the far end interoception. Each of these points says something about where we place our attention: outside us, part of the way in, or deeply inward.

Exteroception deals with the question, “What’s happening around me?” When we’re engrossed in the latest Hunger Games film, scanning a crowd for a friend, working out and hear our favorite song, or note the tears pooling in a friend’s eyes—these are examples of exteroception.

Proprioception deals with the inquiry “Where is my body in space?” When we sense where other people or objects are, and know the relative size and movement patterns of our own body, that’s proprioception. It helps us navigate our world without knocking into things or, as often happens, other people. If you’re a weekend warrior, athlete, or yoga practitioner, you need well-developed proprioception; it’s an integral part of good movement.

Interoception addresses the matter of what’s happening inside our body. In the interoceptive space, attention turns inward. Awareness matures and becomes subtler. Interoception can be seen as mindfulness expressed in the body. And in the words of renowned researcher Stephen Porges, it can be thought of as our “sixth sense.”

Interoception has a few requirements. It asks us to:

  • Let go of any predictions of what we’ll encounter.
  • Resist becoming “fixed” on a particular sensation.
  • Turn down our mental chatter or narrative.

When we’re truly practicing interoceptive awareness, we enter the body without expectations. We attend to momentary sensations in the body as they fluctuate from one point in time to the next. And we can move awareness after a few moments and not become immersed in one sensation too long.

What’s the relevance of interoceptive awareness to our health and well-being? It turns out that many illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment. In these illnesses, awareness becomes skewed. In chronic pain syndromes, for example, we tend to predict what we’ll encounter, but to remain there ruminating about it. “I think that shoulder pain’s about to start up,” we might say. “Yep, there it is. In five minutes it’s gonna feel sharp, like it always does, and then I’ll get that stabbing pain that lasts for hours.” Then we stay in that same area of the shoulder, refusing to move our attention. Should the pain actually let up, it creates a cognitive dissonance. We feel a disparity between the identity of pain and freedom from pain. The freedom is actually harder to integrate; it’s at odds with our pain-centered self-concept. Our mind cancels out the comfort, and wires the pain response in further.

The Continuum of Embodiment is a framework for understanding several things: First, the extent to which we inhabit our interior. Second, where we place our attentional spotlight, as it’s called in MBSR and mindfulness: outside us, on the outer layer of the body, or deeply inward. Third, the continuum of embodiment refers to the degree to which our awareness is gross or subtle.

Interoception evokes the quality of the relationship between our mind and body. Can the mind move out of its comfort zone? Can it learn to tolerate and even seek out the gentle surrender, the humility required to enter the wilderness of the body? Can it cultivate a sense of neutrality, a kindness toward the pain and suffering it finds inside?

In the end, it’s not all interoception, all the time. It’s the dynamic interchange between the three kinds of attention that benefits us. And we might ask ourselves: as yoga practitioners, teachers, or therapists, are we engaged more with proprioception as beautiful movement or interoception as deep awareness?

Our response is significant. Neuroscientists are beginning to study the effects of interoceptive awareness on our brain, in our immune system, and in our emotional lives. The results are astonishing: Embodiment, as it turns out, is vital to our health and well-being. It may also be a doorway into higher consciousness.

This post was republished with permission from LA YOGA Magazine. You can find the original post here.

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An Asana is a Question, Not an Answer

I have been teaching a fair amount of physically challenging yoga these days. At my studio, the months of January & February tend to bring out the goal of getting in better shape, and I tend to see an interest in the more physically challenging classes… I too can relate to the motivation to getting more fit, and I go through phases of using my classes for this goal. However, teaching from the sole intention of “getting in shape” has a short shelf-life for me, at least from a yoga point of view. I inevitably crave to return to the slower paced classes which provide opportunities to be truly present to myself. It’s my experience that when classes are fast-paced and overly directive, we may be getting a good answer to our fitness needs, but we miss the depth of the learning yoga can provide us.

When we do a yoga asana (pose) we should have the time and space to truly experience it in the moment for what it is. It should never be about performing the perfect pose—a pose is like a living thing that changes and evolves from day to day, and we should be able to meet it with the questions, “What do I need to understand in this pose right now? And what do I feel?” In classes where we are rushing we miss this. Something as simple as feeling the point of resistance in our body tells us something; it creates awareness. For example, it might be telling you that this is enough for me right now, or I’m really holding on right now, or simply, I really need to pay attention to this part of my body right now. Resistance is your body’s language saying “slow down, pay attention”, and if you over-push yourself into a pose, you miss the lessons of that. 

As a yoga teacher, I am an educator. My job is to help you learn more about yourself: what your natural limit is, what feels appropriate for you in the moment, where is your resistance coming from, and what it is telling you. I want you to use those internal observances so that you make a choice that is conscious. It’s not my job to push you past your limits; it’s my job to entice you into the depths of your own understanding. No one can walk your path. If you override your physical reflexes, your awareness, the speed with which you want to move, that is not about learning, it’s pushing, and it says that progress in yoga is only about going further in the pose or to look a certain way. Maybe the progress in yoga for someone is accepting themselves as they are, or believing they are good enough and can simply enjoy where they are in a pose. So if you choose to step into a deeper experience then I feel it should be from a place of readiness, and benefit in your learning of the pose.

As you read this, I hope you can relate to some of what I’m saying and have experienced how yoga can be much more than a workout (And if you can’t relate, I wonder if it might be time to try some different classes?) Yoga can be many things, and there’s no argument that it can provide you with improved fitness, but it’s my opinion the greatest benefit comes when you stop pushing and truly listen to your body and let the asana show you the questions, not the answers.

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A Closer Look at Yoga Therapy

Today I want to offer a little information on what role yoga therapy can play in helping you gain better health and wellness.

Yoga Therapy, as the name implies, uses yoga techniques—postures, breathing exercises, and meditations to assist people towards a whole-person approach to healing. A yoga therapy assessment considers your physical body (posture, movement, injuries, digestion, etc.) alongside your breathing style, emotional/mental health, and personal history and goals.

Thinking about how yoga therapy helps, you might picture the yoga stretches releasing physical tension from your body, or the relaxing postures and meditations reducing mental and emotional stress… this is all true, but what people don’t realize is the biggest benefit yoga therapy gives you is ‘embodied awareness‘.

Embodied awareness, otherwise known as interoception, is simply the practice of being with your own sensations in your physical body. It is learning to being still within yourself and noticing what you feel, and come in touch with where you are in time and space. It gives you the awareness of your own internal experience and the learning of how to be at home in your own body. 

Why is embodied awareness or interoception so important for health recovery? Many times even before we have a health diagnosis or condition we are turned off from our own awareness and sensations… we become dis-embodied. Overtime, we become more externally focussed, and as a result we don’t notice what it is that our body is trying to say and we don’t identify what it is that we need so that we can take action to get that need met.

So when we practice embodied awareness we become more at home with our own experiences. We become more accepting to our internal experiences, and we learn to recognize and listen to what our needs are and then take action to getting those needs met. This is how yoga therapy helps. It can literally be the key to understanding what it is you need to move forward in your health recovery.

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Your Yoga Practice Reflects Your Life

Have you ever heard a yoga teacher say, “How you show up on your mat is how you show up in your life?” If you think about it, our personality, characteristics, habits and belief systems don’t just disappear when we walk into a yoga class, so likely, the way you are in life, is the way you practice yoga, and depending on what habits and characteristics show up, it can helpful or hindering to your yoga progress. Acknowledging this, and taking a step back to become more aware of how your personality shows up on your mat, is a powerful point of reflection from which you can learn and grow as an individual.

Consider these questions: Are you a very determined or disciplined person? Do you get frustrated and angry very easily? Do you need to do everything perfectly? Are you usually quite hard on yourself and always push yourself – or do you not push yourself at all? Do you avoid challenges or discomfort? Do you prefer activities that are slow moving and low energy? Are you open and expressive or are you withdrawn and quiet?

These are just a few questions to get you thinking about your nature and how these characteristics affect your behaviour, preferences, and choices. Then consider how these tendencies might be showing up in your yoga practice – the style of class you choose, how you engage throughout the class, where you place your mat, and the thoughts that show up during the practice… When you begin to reflect on your patterns, it can lead to insights about how you approach and engage in life and maybe even why.

Consider this example: Sally is a high energy, physically strong person who craves challenges and likes constant stimulation. She gravitates to flow and power yoga classes with lots of movement and distraction. Sally is very motivated by extrinsic goals and competition and strives to perform poses a certain way. The teacher notices she is often over-tensing in her body and holding her breath and begins to offer her cues to provide internal reflection on these tendencies. As Sally begins to notice how her body and breath respond to her strong achieving mindset, she begins to notice connections such as feeling sore after class or over-stimulated rather than calm, and she begins to make connections about how her high-expectation thoughts for her own performance may not always benefit her improvement in yoga and overall health.

When one begins to make these connections about habits and preferences, we can use our yoga practice as a way to bring more balance into our life and begin practicing new ways of being. Because there are so many different styles of yoga and tools we can sample, it may be helpful to try the opposite of your “preferred” or “regular” style. That means slowing down and practicing gentleness if you are a go-go-go person who always pushes. Or, for those of you who are low energy and avoid new challenges, turn up the volume a bit and try crossing some boundaries.

In the case of Sally, she might choose a slow restorative or yin class, and by placing herself outside her norm, and listening to how her body and mind respond, new insights can arise. For example, she might notice feelings of impatience or agitation when staying still in longer poses or during silence. Or she might feel edgy when the poses feel too easy and there is little sensation. There is a good chance that these feelings on the mat can reveal lifelong patterns and beliefs she carries about herself and others, and with revelations such as these, she can then begin to ask herself why or where it came from. Within these questions and answers a whole universe of self-discovery can be possible.

Yoga can be a marvellous discipline from which we can learn about our habits and behaviours, and once we make these connections, and practice in a way that challenges these habits and belief systems, new patterns are eventually created. This inevitably crosses over into our daily life. Sometimes, this process happens slowly and gradually, and in other instances, it happens very quickly. Regardless, by committing to our yoga practice in this self reflective way, the result is that we are forever changed.

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Koshas – The Layers Of Our Being

I often post about how Yoga provides us with a base from which we can explore the connection of the mind and body. When we practice postures, meditation, and pranayama (breathing) techniques we get direct information from the systems of our body and the relationships between these various systems. To better explain these experiences in yoga, ancient yogis devised models to describe what they were experiencing. One of my favourite models is that of the five Koshas, which first appeared in the Vedic Upanishads dated around 3000 years ago.

According to the Koshas model, every one of us has five bodies, otherwise known as sheaths or layers, that make up our being. You can visualize these layers like that of an onion, with five progressively subtler bodies moving from the outside in. The onion layer analogy is a good visual of how these bodies are contained within one another; however, it is important to remember that these sheaths are not separate nor isolated. Rather, they are inter-penetrating and interdependent on one another, and in order to live a fully balanced, healthy life, all these layers need to be kept in good condition. If one of them is ignored or unsatisfied, there is a lack of harmony.

Here is a description of each of the five Koshas starting from the most superficial to the deepest layer:

1. The Physical Layer
The outermost sheath, called Annamaya Kosha, is the most obvious and easily identified as it is comprised of the physical structures of your body, bones, tendons, muscles, and other dense materials. You can experience this Kosha directly. It’s your body, and you can see and feel it. This layer has structural importance as it houses all the other layers.

2. The Energy Layer
The second layer is called Pranamaya Kosha, otherwise known as the energy body, which is comprised of all the physiological processes that sustain life, from breathing to digestion to the circulation of your blood. ‘Prana’, in yoga, is understood as life-force energy, and without it, our physical body layer can’t survive more than a few minutes. Prana, which is the equivalent to Chi in eastern medicine, is that which acupuncture treatment is based. In yoga we connect to this energy layer through perceiving the breath and circulation. Energy is balanced through the breath in relationship to the body and mind.

3. The Mental/Emotional Layer
The third layer is called Manomaya Kosha. It is described as the psychological sheath, which includes the mind, feelings, and the processes that organize experience. Through the nervous system, this body processes input from our five senses and responds reflexively to the needs of the mind and body in its environment. Here we begin to truly understand the inter-dependent effects each layer has on then next. Imagine a person in a coma, their first and second sheath are still operating so their heart and lungs continue to function and their physical body is intact, but the person has no awareness of what’s happening and no ability to take action because the activity of Manomaya Kosha has shut down. Without the mental layer we are unaware of the first two.

4. The Higher Intelligence Layer
The fourth layer is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha. It is the body of intellect and wisdom, and of conscience and will. This is the layer that is assumed to separate humans and animals. It is a higher level of awareness that underlies all the reflexive mental processes of daily living. In yoga, through mindfulness and meditation, your ability to observe your own thoughts and behaviours gets enhanced and you begin to experience the events in your life from this more objective aspect of awareness. Self study and meditation lead to clarity of judgment, greater intuitive insight, and increased willpower as your Vijnanamaya Kosha grows stronger and more balanced.

5. The Spiritual or Bliss Layer
The fifth, and inner most layer is called Anandamaya Kosha. This the most subtle of the five layers which is experienced as deep contentment or bliss. For most people this sheath is underdeveloped and few are even aware that this level of consciousness exists within themselves. It is said the Anandamaya Kosha is the energetic veil bridging ordinary awareness and our higher, spiritual self. The great sages,  life-time meditators, and even those who have had near death experiences, have all described this part of  being where our true, inborn nature of peace and love reside. It connects us to all of universal existence. You come into this world with it.

Identifying these layers that comprise our being can aid us in learning more about our own personal existence and balance in life. Each of us has moments in our development that can enhance or impede connection to one or more of these layers. Take for example someone who sustains a traumatizing, physical injury. On the surface it affects the physical body, the Annamaya Kosha. Sometimes, the pain or mental suffering, experienced through the psychological layer, can create blocks to the awareness that flows to this physical part of yourself. Overtime the psychological block withers your connection not only to the physical structures, but also the physiological flowing and mental and emotional realization of this part of you. There lies a hole in our body/mind complex that requires reconnection, on multiple layers, to heal. This is one of the explanations for why physical pain can last beyond the healing of an injury.

The opposite can be true as well. Sometimes a newfound awareness into one layer can ignite wholeness and unity onto all the layers. In yoga when we shift into a mindful state, working from that deeper part of our consciousness (the Vijnanamaya Kosha), we can become aware of blocks in our mind-body complex. For example, in working with individuals through yoga therapy, I have witnessed how a gentle touch or stretch to a body part ignites awareness that this part was not registering in their bodily perception due to a past issue, such as an emotional trauma. In essence, experiencing a physical sensation, while being connected to your higher, intelligence layer, re-introduces the person to this part of themselves, and the re-established connection brings healing to all the layers.

There are many of individuals existing in their daily lives with healthy functioning outer sheaths (strong bodies and minds), but who are totally void of awareness to their inner sheaths. When one is disconnected to their Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya Koshas, its like leaving an empty whole in the center of their being… and these people can literally feel uncentered in their lives. When disconnected to the core sheaths, one can feel reactive to life and often feel unfocused and lost when considering their choices and goals. Personal growth and  spiritual practices that connect with these deeper parts of ourselves  allow us to remain fulfilled, energized and whole.

Being human is complex; as far as we know, we are the only species on earth that can experience ourselves on multidimensional planes. I liken this to the phrase, “Awareness knowing itself”, and it is through practices such as yoga that we can open this world of self study and gain better understanding of these varying layers of consciousness. The five Koshas give us a framework from which we can organize and express all these layers of our being, and in doing so, we are one step closer to enjoying the health and fulfillment of an enlightened life.

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If You Know Better, You Do Better – Right?

Maturity brings change, right? Not always. Have you ever wondered why some people seem to grow up, get better, do better with age, while others get stuck–doomed to repeat the same patterns of self sabotage and unhealthy choices? As we move through puberty, connections to our frontal brain develop, making us more rational and less egocentric. Yet beyond this, there are still those individuals who seem to get stuck, lacking self reflection and relational growth. I find it especially noticeable during reunions of past friends or family where you realize an individual hasn’t changed much at all and it’s hard to connect and maintain a relationship with them.

Outside of educational opportunities, mental illness, and brain developmental issues, I believe part of the difference comes from how much one learns the skill of self awareness, and that this is a technique can be enhanced through practices such as yoga and mindfulness training. The more we develop our skill to shift out of the default “overactive, thinking” state, (reflexive thoughts encased around personal narration and evaluation of past events and an imagined future), and drop into a present-moment awareness state (becoming the observer of what is happening within the body and outside in the environment in a non-judgemental way), the more we can take a step back and see ourselves for how we really are.

In yoga, we have the opportunity to practice being in this aware state more often than in day to day living. We are drawn into the present moment through our bodies (known as embodied mindfulness), and in this way we can witness the coming and going of our reflexive thoughts and behaviours. It is through the sensation of the postures and breath that we are focused into the state of “now.” In my experience, using the breath and the body together as a way to draw our attention into our aware state, is very effective for beginners because there is more to keep the mind occupied than, for example, traditional sitting meditation which often uses only the breath. Therefore yoga can be a very effective gateway to self awareness.

There is more to it. The nature of some yoga poses, releases blocked or repressed experiences. Our human minds are hardwired for self preservation and protection. Some things are easier to live with when pushed or packed away. The problem is our unconscious selves still know the truth of it all, and it’s been my experience that our physical bodies house this information in cellular memory. So when, we move, stretch, pressure, breathe & release  parts of our body (in a non-threatening and safe manner) it can reveal memory and emotion from previous experiences. Once this is brought to the surface, and received from a non-judgemental, aware state, it’s hard to ignore its presence. The more often this happens, the more we get connected to the blind spots and repressed “stuff” we house, and deeper self-knowledge is gained.

So if you combine these two ingredients of embodied mindfulness and transparency into our body’s memory and wisdom, our lives begin to shift and change as a consequence of practicing yoga. It’s like opening the floodgates; its difficult to close once opened. My practice has lead me to a place where I can no longer be in a situation where I know better, and turn a blind eye. My body literally rebels and I am quickly in tune with the knot in my gut telling me I need to do better. This can manifest in all sorts of scenarios such as choosing boundaries for relationships that are toxic to my wellbeing, or saying sorry after I realize my actions (or lack of action to another) is unkind or dismissive. Once self awareness and connection to whole body intelligence has taken root, it is much harder taking a walk down the easy road.

I believe we are all on a journey of self understanding and mastery in our lives. Some will move mountains, others will repeat destructive patterns. We can’t deny the reality that it never works to change another person; it is their life to live, and the only thing we can do is work on ourselves and hopefully become the best version of our self. When we connect to practices such as yoga and mindfulness, it gives us a route to get there.

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How Has Yoga Changed Your Life?

I recently read an article asking the question, “How has yoga changed your life? I thought this to be a very good question, here’s some thoughts about what I would say…

Let me start by saying, when I first started doing yoga, I could not have ever imagined how much yoga would change my life. Over the years of practice, yoga became a platform of learning about myself through my body, and from that, all sorts of change took place. Most notably, things in my life that were no longer “serving me” began to fall away. People, things, and habits that weren’t healthy for me have fallen away with a quite a bit of ease. The more I practice the more clear the “next right step” is to me.

The process was gradual and somewhat complex…During yoga, the movements of the body and breath bring us into contact with habitual and unconscious patterns of movement, thought, and feeling. We start to learn about the ways in which the body is conditioned―we can extend our hamstring only so far, the breath is shallow and rapid, the spine is inflexible in certain motions, and so on. Soon after recognizing our physical limits, we also notice how these limits give rise to preferences―we like postures that give us pleasure, we resist postures that cause us difficulty. However, this difficulty is not just a physical limitation but what the mind does with that limitation. For example, when an uncomfortable sensation builds in the body, the mind might become impatient or irritated, thereby affecting the way we are in the posture. We can start to see the patterns arise, the way we interpret and react to the physical experiences, in this way yoga postures become invitations into the psychological and physiological webs that form the matrix of the mindbody.

Many of these conditioned responses that imprint themselves into the mindbody are related to our past experiences and memories, often dating far back into early childhood. Yet more and more, research is showing that our memories can be highly inaccurate. The human mind has an uncanny ability to subjectively filter and interpret what it is that we remember, and our stories about ourselves can become exaggerated or distorted to protect or to fulfil ourselves in some way. Regardless, this is what we weave into our belief systems and characters, despite sometimes leaving us in unproductive or unhealthy patterns of thinking and action. And when such patterns are revealed to us in the physical movements of body and breath, a yoga pose becomes a tool of awareness, a moment to see ourselves outside of conditioned response, and an opportunity for liberation.

Ultimately this process of shedding light into the hidden corners of our embodied psychology, teaches about the way we have built up armor of protection from the stories we have told ourselves to avoid discomfort or to appease others’ opinions. Once known, these patterns begin to shift and change, and sometimes fall away completely. What remains is an undivided and authentic self. Once this door of personal truth gets opened, who you want to be and what’s important to you gets louder and more conditioned. New grooves in mindbody get created and there is really no turning back.

Much of this relates to the concept in yoga known as samskaras (latent impressions of our past actions, forming habit in mind & body). If you want to dive deeper into the concept of samskaras have a look at this article: What are Samskaras and How Do they Affect Us. Breaking free from the negative samskaras cannot happen without self awareness and self-study, and yoga’s holistic processes ripen the opportunity for this to happen.

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Yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind…

Have you ever done a yoga class and somewhere along the way you realize (maybe at the end during savasana) that you feel more calm, connected with your body, and relaxed compared to when you first arrived. You might also notice the busy mind chatter has dulled and there is some distance between you and your reflexive thoughts. If yes, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind, and by this very nature, you’ve experienced entering into a deeper level of awareness through the experience of yoga. One could even say you’ve dropped into a “meditative state”.

There are a couple aspects of yoga that assist in the process of experiencing this calm, more peaceful state. When you move your body and get the muscles warmed, stretched, and the circulation flowing, this eases tension and pain, resulting in less distracting sensations to attend to. It’s also the mindfulness aspect – paying attention to sensation in body and breath, from moment to moment. This keeps the mind anchored to the present moment, which stills the mind chatter.

When we drop into this more meditative-like state in the mind, we are not actually stopping thoughts from occurring. Rather we enter a different state of awareness where the thoughts feel more distant – we are less attached to them and their meaning.  A nice parallel is to imagine the reflexive thoughts of the mind to be like waves on the surface of the ocean. When we are swimming on the surface, the waves push us around, lifting us to their peaks and dropping us into their valleys. When we are connected and calm, we can drop into that deeper water space where everything is still and peaceful… And in this place, we are able to see the thoughts for what they are – surface waves.

I have always found the transcendence into this calmer level of awareness easier to access by doing a little yoga first. In fact one could say the very purpose of physical yoga is to ready oneself for meditation. So the next time you are on your mat, soak up the stillness you’ve created within – lay still and linger in this experience. This short few minutes will leave you feeling focused, connected, and calm.

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How You Know You Are A True Yogi

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Some of you are really getting it. You’re really starting to become fine-tuned yogis and I can say I’ve succeeded in my job as a yoga teacher!

How do I know this?

Well, as a some of you have probably heard me say in class… I know I’ve done my job when I see you start ignoring me and doing your own yoga. Yep, you heard me correctly, when you you do something completely different from what I’m teaching.

I’m starting to see it more and more with a few of you… first you begin your way into a longer hold than I suggest, or you shift into a different variation of the pose we are doing, eventually to find your way into a completely different posture than what I’m teaching.

These are the signs you are on your way. This tells me you are listening from the inside out… letting your body be the guide to your practice. In this way we meet our needs on any given day – some days we push, some days we rest; we opt for postures for the sake of nurturing or for personal challenge. When we move from this place of embodied presence we honour our truth in the moment and then yoga truly becomes our own.

So I am never offended when I see a seasoned student start to move outside of the box. Class structure and alignment principles in yoga are there for your safety while you begin your learning, but as we develop our fundamentals and our skill of internal listening we can let go of this a little. The only distinction here being the student that moves or tries postures free of direction, un-attuned to the body’s signals of limits and the student that adjusts and moves from a place of personal need and caring for oneself.

In a way, this learning process is about empowerment and trust. What I want, as a yoga teacher, is to support my students finding union with themselves – not with me.  I want them to feel empowered to be with themselves and their bodies from an inner source of knowing, and to trust that they know what is best for themselves in class. This may mean you can no longer just go through the motions of asana practice, and your time on the mat then becomes a partnership of what I am teaching and honouring what you need.

So the next time you are in class and the urge strikes you to stay a little longer in a pose or move and shift to something new, trust it, and let this be a signal that you too are on your way.

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Yoga for Your Brain: What You Need to Know About Mindfulness and Meditation

110203-064Here is a little Question & Answer piece to explain some basics around mindfulness and meditation, and how they relate to yoga.

What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness simply means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.

How are mindfulness and yoga related?
Yoga teaches mindfulness each class when we become the observer of what we are noticing in our bodies and minds during a pose or transition. When your yoga teacher cues you to notice sensation, alignment, breath, and thoughts during class, she or he is cultivating the state of mindfulness. This is what makes the practice of yoga different than other physical sports/disciplines – you are learning to move with conscious awareness, and you are learning the skill of shifting your attention away from the unconscious mind-chatter to that of the observer, present to all that is happening in your mind-body from moment to moment.

What is meditation?
Look up the definition of meditation and you’ll get a lot of different answers. That is because within the practice of meditation there are many different styles and techniques. Most commonly, meditation means the act of giving your attention to only one thing in order to focus or affect the mind. Generally, a meditation practice follows a specific procedure to produce transformational results in some way, such as the development of concentration, emotional positivity, self-knowledge, calm, or spiritual growth.

Also, among the many forms of meditation, the process varies – some use an object or a sensation to fix the attention to, while others use chants and mantras (sometimes having a religious connection). There are also guided or content-directed meditations with the focus of achieving a certain state of being or emotion, e.g. cultivating a state of loving kindness or relaxation.

One of the most simple forms of meditation, and the one I am choosing to highlight in this blog, is Mindfulness Meditation; it is secular, well-defined, and researched with proven benefits. Mindfulness meditation uses the process of sustained focus, specifically by focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Here are the steps:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seated position with your back straight and eyes closed
  2. Notice the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot where you sense the breath to be most prominent (could be nose, chest, or belly), and focus fully on the sensation of the breath coming in and out.
  3. Your mind is going to wander off in thought constantly, and when you notice you’ve lost your focus on the feeling of the breath, let go of whatever you were thinking and start again, bringing your attention back to the sensation of the breath.

Many people think meditation is about stopping thoughts, but it is not. The mind thinks. That’s its job. The purpose of mindfulness meditation is to help us unhook from our tendency to get caught up in thoughts without any conscious awareness. The first time you meditate, you might notice the instructions are simple but the practice is difficult. You may keep getting lost in thinking about the past or future. The key is to remember that getting caught up in thoughts is normal. Just make note of thinking and return to the breath over and over again.

Why should we practice mindfulness meditation?
Because it is yoga for your brain!

During the meditation practice, every time your mind wanders into thought (and you notice this), and you bring your attention back to the breath, you are strengthening your brain. As Dan Harris explains in his YouTube clip, Meditation for Beginners, (link at bottom), “it is like doing a bicep curl for the brain.” This process of letting go of thought and returning to the breath, improves your concentration and focus, builds grey matter in the brain, and creates a shift in cortical processing (for a more in-depth review of the research showing how meditation positively changes the brain see these links: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain or Harvard Unveils MRI Study Proving Meditation Literally Rebuilds the Brain’s Grey Matter in 8 weeks.

In my opinion, the greatest benefit of practicing mindfulness meditation is the way it helps us become aware of the self talk in our minds, and specifically to gain awareness of the preoccupation of fixations to things we like, and the aversion of things we don’t like. By watching our thoughts we get insight into the frequency of rumination and projection that is constantly going on in the brain, and we learn how we talk to ourselves. Consequently, mindfulness meditation is proving to be extremely helpful for mental health conditions, specifically for individuals with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as for children as it improves their emotional regulation and focus/concentration.

How often do I need to practice to get benefits?
As a yogi, you are likely already learning the skill of mindfulness during your yoga classes. However, if you want to take this a step further, and get the brain strengthening benefits discussed above, start by setting aside 5 – 10 minutes per day for practicing mindfulness meditation. Here is the short YouTube clip to help you get started: Meditation for Beginners.

So, I hope this blog clears up some answers you may have had about mindfulness & meditation. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to comment or email!

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Get Grounded In 3 Short Steps

110203-064What does it mean to get grounded? To me, getting grounded means pulling ourselves out of our “heads” (out of our stories), and into the present moment. To do this we can use our physical body and our senses to anchor into present-time awareness. When we are present to what is happening now,  in our bodies and around us, we are no longer obsessing about future or past worries, and in this way we are grounding ourselves.

Whenever you are feeling mentally overstimulated or anxious, try these three short steps to feel more grounded:

  • Pause and notice your environment. Simply take a look around and look at the details, e.g. see the colour of the walls or weather in the sky, what objects are around you, look at their shape and texture… Look around, what do you see?
  • Feel you feet on the floor. Whether you are sitting or standing, shoes or no shoes, feel the connection of your feet to the surface below. Really feel that connection. If you are sitting you can also travel your awareness to noticing all the areas of your hips and legs making contact with your sitting surface.
  • Then bring your focus inwards and feel your breath coming in and out of your body. Notice how your breath feels right now. Where in your body do your feel your breath moving…? Continue to concentrate on the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your body and see if, at the same time, you can return to noticing your feet connecting with the ground and your back body to your seat (if you are sitting). Divide your awareness on both these things for one minute.
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Memory In Our Tissues

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

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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