Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

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Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

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The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

How colored chalk changed my brain

Marian Diamond is best known for studying Einstein’s brain, as well as her penchant for carrying around a hatbox with a human brain inside. But my memories of her revolve around the color-coded lectures she used to give in her anatomy class at U-C Berkeley. Before we had PowerPoint, we had Marian Diamond and her colored chalk.

We would arrive in the lecture hall and find the chalkboard covered with an outline of the day’s class, complete with drawings of anatomical structures. Several different colors of chalk were used to separate parts of the lecture or demonstrate various pathways. I never knew exactly what I would see when I walked in, only that I would be mesmerized for the entire class period by the clarity of her presentation and her dynamic teaching style. Of all the professors I had in college, she is one of only two or three whose classes I vividly remember.Diamond-Zhukova750-410x273

So when I heard that Dr. Diamond died last week, at the age of 90, I was sad for only a moment, and then I smiled, thinking back to that Berkeley lecture hall. Marian Diamond was an expert in brain development, and I realize now that she wasn’t just teaching us about the anatomy of the brain, but actually changing our brains too. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity and to test theories of how the right stimulation can promote brain development at any age.

In the introduction to her book, “Magic Trees of the Mind,” Diamond wrote that “The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life.” She believed, and showed, that nurture is every bit as important as nature in determining how our lives turn out.

Back when I was in Marian Diamond’s class, I was contemplating a career in nursing, but unprepared for the competitiveness of Cal pre-med students. My laid-back studying habits weren’t a good match for the tough courses I was taking, and I ultimately switched majors. Little did I know that many years later I would go into the field of health education. Now I rely on Diamond’s work all the time in the courses I teach on stress management.

The critical factors in nurturing healthy brain development, according to Marian Diamond, are a healthy diet, physical exercise, being challenged, having new experiences, and being loved – especially love in the form of touch. In studies of rats, she showed that those living in an enriched environment had thicker cerebral cortices, the biggest part of the brain and the one most important for attention, memory and learning. She also learned that rats who were held and petted every day lived longer than others. While much of her work focused on children’s brain development, especially the negative effects of growing up in impoverished environments, she also realized that we retain the capacity for growth throughout life. As she wrote,

“Perhaps the single most valuable piece of information learned from all our studies is that structural differences can be detected in the cerebral cortices of animals exposed at any age to different levels of stimulation in the environment.”

People know this already, even if they don’t know anything about science. A Gallup survey several years ago showed that “learning something new” was one of the biggest predictors for whether someone thinks they had a good day. We’re bored if we’re not challenged, and we languish if we’re not loved. We know we feel better if we eat healthy food, and think better when exercise gets blood flowing to the brain.

Daniel Defoe wrote that, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” What we learned from the diamond that was Marian is that the brain needs its own share of polishing and nourishment for us to lead a rich, fulfilling life.

 

Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

5 Ways to take a Vacation Day right now

In Washington, some of the bars opened early yesterday so that people could come and drink while watching James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. All around the country people took the day off from work so that they could stay riveted to the TV. It’s a crazy world when this is how we’re spending our days off!

Instead of sitting on a barstool, however, I turned to my “52 Lists Project” journal for inspiration and distraction (although I confess to a few sneak peeks at the testimony). List #22 asks us to think of favorite places we have been and what made them so appealing. But that’s not the end — the next step is to think of places in our communities that could “transport” us the same way. In other words, can we bring the vacation experience to our everyday lives? Can we transport ourselves for a little while away from all the chaos of recent times?

When I list my favorite vacations, in places like Croatia, Hawaii, Seattle, Yosemite or Australia, here are some of the characteristics that pop out:

  • Simplicity
  • Scenic drives
  • Grandeur
  • Friendly people
  • Fresh food
  • Connections to the past
  • Bringing the outdoors in

How do I replicate that at home?

1. Simplicity & fresh food:

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When I visited Croatia, I was impressed by the beautiful national parks, the simplicity of people’s lifestyles, the ability to eat a meal where every bite of food came from the farm we were on. Here at home the next best thing is to make a meal based on what comes from the farmer’s market or my yard:

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2. Bringing the outdoors in:

Poipu Beach Park

In Hawaii, the thing I liked best was the way the boundary between indoors and outdoors was so blurred. Nearly everyplace I went was open to the outside; there wasn’t a big reliance on artificial air conditioning.  This is hard to achieve during summer in DC, but I could spend more time on the roof of my building, eat at more outdoor restaurants, and open my windows when the temperature allows:

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3. Grandeur. I haven’t been to Yosemite in years, but the grandeur of the park is something one can never forget. Its sheer rock faces, memorialized by Ansel Adams and countless photographers since him, are familiar even to people who haven’t been there. It’s a place that is just jaw-dropping in all seasons. What my area offers:

Great Falls_3Great Falls Park – the rocky passage of the Potomac down the Mather Gorge, accessible by way of the Olmsted Island bridges, provides a pretty awe-inspiring outing that I never tire of.

IMG_2318The monuments, while man-made, have a whole lot of grandeur about them.

4. Connections to the past:Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Palatine (12)In America, we can’t compete with the Greeks or Romans on the ancient past, but we do have the advantage of recent history here in Washington:

Arboretum_20120407_13The original columns from the U.S. Capitol can be seen at the National Arboretum.  The way they rise up out of nothing, in the middle of a huge expanse of green, is spectacular.

5. Scenic drives:

Great Ocean Road_226In both Ireland and Australia, I took breathtaking drives along coastal roads. That’s tougher to replicate here where we’re inland, but how about the cherry blossoms in spring:

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In some ways, this prompt is very much like a values exercise we do in stress management. It asks you to imagine your perfect day and what it would include, then compare it to your typical day. How alike are they? Is there a way to make more days perfect, by incorporating more of what you value?

The columnist Earl Wilson once said that, “A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking.” As much as we might value watching important Senate testimony, a steady diet of it isn’t good for anyone. If you can’t take it anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a real vacation day.

 

Listen well to those still, small voices

Sometimes in yoga class I hear voices in my head. No, I’m not losing my mind – rather, I keep being reminded of lessons I’ve absorbed from my teachers over the years, both the ones I loved and the ones I didn’t. Their “voices” trigger muscle memory, but also something more – a deeply ingrained wisdom.

We’re nearing the end of the traditional school year; my semester of teaching is already over. I often whether my  students have taken anything away with them from our short time together. Sometimes I tell them straight out what I hope they will remember: pay attention, don’t lose sight of your strengths, remember to breathe. But once they’re gone from my sphere, what do they recall? Have I given them anything that serves them in their future?

Current pedagogy tells us that teachers talk too much, that if students are really going to learn and internalize concepts, they need to be the ones generating the ideas and doing more of the talking. But it takes a special kind of teacher to pose the right questions, the challenging statements, or even the metaphors that prompt students to think critically and come up with valuable ideas.

When we take the responsibility for our own learning, it doesn’t necessarily matter if  what we hear from one teacher contradicts what we were told by another. This happens sometimes in yoga class. One teacher will instruct that the position of the feet be just so for a certain posture; another will say something different. Or one will say the hand should rest just here, another will say no, it shouldn’t. That used to annoy me, now it just makes me smile, because I know I can count on the wisdom of my body to position feet, hands or whatever just where I need them to be. At the same time, I’m still hearing the voices of teachers saying things like “Don’t collapse into the posture,” or “Imagine that your shoulder blades are the temple doors,” and their whispers tell me what adjustments I need to make in that moment.3-Co. Kerry-Slea Head loop (35)

Most of us talk too much, and listen not nearly enough. What if we were to see ourselves as being both teachers and students, simultaneously? Instead of passively taking in information, students also need to be able share and teach it, but they need tools and the right environment for that shift to happen. Otherwise the wisdom – whether it’s the teacher’s voice or our own — doesn’t stick. My younger sister, who just received her doctorate in education, has mastered the creation of that kind of environment. It doesn’t matter whether she is sitting with a class of sixth graders or with a group of adult learners — she raises everyone up by the respect she shows them and the joy she brings to the process. She perfectly embodies the concept of taking your work very seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously. She is humble enough to know that she has as much to learn from the sixth graders as from her professors.

Last week, my sister shared a reflective practice on her professional blog that came out of a course for educators. The first two questions of it could (and perhaps should) be used by anyone who aspires to be a lifelong learner:

What have you learned this week?

How have you learned this week?

Her point is that to incorporate learning into practice, we need reflection. We have to be able to articulate not only what we learned, but how we learned it. Whether that’s kinetically, through practicing postures in yoga, or through the use of a metaphor, like the temple doors, reflection on the process reinforces learning and stores those voices in memory.

A couple of years ago, I heard from a former student unexpectedly. He wasn’t a particularly stellar student, nor had I been that close to him. It had been at least a year, maybe more, since he was in my class. But he emailed me to say that he was using the breathing techniques that he learned in my class and they were really helping him. I guess he was hearing voices too.

 

Dreaming & scheming together

I was nearing my seventeenth birthday before I slept in a room without one of my sisters. I’ve always thought those years of close contact had something to do with my need for a lot of “alone” time now. As Joseph Campbell said, we all need “a sacred space,” even just a corner of a room, where “you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” And yet, my memories of the rooms I shared resonate so much more vividly than those I had to myself.

The Patient Voice Project at the University of Iowa (an expressive writing project for people who are ill) often assigns participants to write about their childhood bedrooms. After all, it’s a topic that virtually everyone can write about, and it offers a “way in” to the practice of expressive writing. Telling stories through expressive writing often changes the experience and shows us the way forward.

We lived first in a small duplex house built in 1924. The presence of my older sister, born only 16 months before, hovered over me. We napped together, played together, and shared everything. Shortly after our third sister was born (just  shy of two years after me) we moved to a “bigger” house, about 1000 square feet, but with three bedrooms. Most of my memories begin  there.

The musician Robert Smith says that he still goes back to his parents’ house so that he can just sit in his childhood bedroom and “feel small.” When I think about the shared rooms of my childhood, small is the operative word. We felt small and so we played small games and dreamed small dreams in those rooms.

Little golden bookMy older sister and I like to tell people how we constructed paths around our room with our collection of Little Golden Books. I have no idea how many books we actually had, but at the time, it seemed liked hundreds. Since they were all the same size, we could line them up and turn them into roads. While we were supposed to be napping, somehow we were developing a sense that we needed to have a path to somewhere else.

Role-playing the life of the adults we knew was another pastime in our room. Our mother went every week to have her hair done, so we decided to do it too. My sister (being the bossy one) decided to take the part of hairdresser, so it fell to me to have my hair “done.” She cut my hair with preschool scissors, we stuffed the shorn locks into a shoe box and thought no one would notice. I don’t recall feeling any remorse or regret, even after we were found out.

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After the haircut

For many years, the three of us shared a room with Sleeping Beauty cut-outs on the wall where we created our own fantasy lives. We had to go to bed when it was still light outside and other kids were playing in the streets, so we played “house” in our beds. By carefully turning down the covers (bedspread, blanket, sheet) to different intervals, we could delineate three different rooms atop the bed. There, we would each play-out grown-up life in our own “home.” Invariably, we ended up making too much noise and bringing down the wrath of our very real parents.

By high school, of course, our world had expanded, and the bedroom was no longer our playground. My older sister and I got a “new”, wood-paneled bedroom when my dad finished the basement of the house, but we fought like cats and dogs over the space. My sharpest memory of that time is when I divided our room by building a wall between our beds out of my shoe boxes. (Even then, I loved shoes!) We had gone from building roads to building walls, and I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college and leave me with a room of my own.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember much from the time when I had the room to myself. Sarah Susanka has written that, “We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space,” instead of thinking about the essence of what makes the spaces feel like home. Without someone to share it and fight over it, the room lost some its luster. There’s a line in the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” that goes, “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray…” I think I must have sensed that so much of the dreaming, scheming and praying had been a shared experience, that it was the people, not the place, that were important to me.

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