Where does stress show up in your body?

Sometimes people are skeptical when I say that stress always manifests itself somewhere in the body. They don’t recognize their symptoms – the muscle aches, stomach aches, headaches, or autoimmune conditions – as being related to stress in their lives. But even when we can’t draw a perfectly straight line from one to the other, they are connected. Stress shows up and it hurts.

For me, the left side of my neck and sometimes my left shoulder are where I hold tension. I might think that the chronic neck pain was something “more serious” if it didn’t almost totally disappear when I go on vacation. What a cliché! All I have to do is go somewhere, anywhere, other than home and voila! No neck pain. The fact is that pain and tension caused by stress is serious, not least because when it becomes chronic, it can start to be a stressor in and of itself.

Where do you hold on to emotions? Marlynn Wei, writing on the Psychology Today web site, explains how our bodies hold emotional memories, outlining research that shows how specific emotions are experienced in certain parts of the body. Yoga, for instance, teaches that negative emotions are often held in the hip area; something I’ve experienced by feeling very emotional after an intense hip opening yoga practice. It is as if something has been unleashed that was held in for a long time.

My therapist used to ask where in the body I was feeling something when I talked about a particularly difficult emotional experience. At first, I struggled to figure out where I felt it. I wanted to say, “nowhere”. But over time, I became aware that I was feeling it in my body, usually my chest, which, the research shows, is where anxiety and fear often show up.

When we hold this tension in certain parts of the body, and it becomes our “normal,” it can be hard to develop a new pattern of being. Humans, unfortunately, don’t come with a reset button – we have to work a little harder for it. As one yoga teacher put it, you have to “give the tissues permission to let go.” A possible way to do that is to move the energy to a different part of the body.

A Dahn yoga teacher once told my husband that his chi (or energy) was too much in his head, and needed to be moved down, more to his gut. Many of us live too much in our heads, and not enough in our hearts and physical bodies. The whole idea of “chi”, or “chakras” in the yoga tradition, is to keep energy flowing through the body, rather than having it be stuck in one place. Sometimes when my neck hurts, I feel like my head is too heavy to carry around, or that even a scarf around my neck is too much weight. How can I move that energy to a different part of the body? How can I stop carrying the weight of the world on my neck and shoulders?

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A good first step is the Body Scan (instructions here). By mindfully bringing awareness to each part of the body, we realize where discomfort exists and we can then bring some extra love to that area. Because muscle tension can lead to decreased blood flow, and therefore less oxygen, focus on “breathing in” to that area. Visualize blood flowing to the sore muscle, bringing restorative oxygen. Then on the out breath, let go of it. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as bringing “wise attention” to our symptoms.

Progressive muscle relaxation also teaches how to recognize tension in the body by deliberately tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. Another thing it teaches is that one part of the body can be energetic and strong while the rest of the body stays relaxed and soft. So, for example, I can hold a strong yoga warrior pose in the legs, while allowing my shoulders and head to relax in a languid reverse warrior. That brings ease to my effort, as Soren Gordhamer would say.

Yoga has proven helpful to me. With my subscription to YogaGlo, I can try all sorts of classes, from 5 minutes to 90, that focus on just one part of the body. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of short practices for the neck and shoulders. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how connected one part of the body is to another. One 10 minute class didn’t even involve the neck directly; instead, I worked on the curvature of my spine and practiced walking around the room with my shoulders back and my chin up like a model!

Of course, ultimately we have to address the underlying triggers for the stress. When I feel tense and I do a quick mental review of what could be wrong, often there isn’t anything specific. So I remind myself to ask, “What’s right?” instead.  It helps me focus on letting go of the background fears, and just being in the present, unguarded. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When you let go mentally, you relax physically, because the body and the mind are two aspects of one reality….Through stopping, whether in walking or sitting meditation, you are in control of the situation…you regain sovereignty over yourself.

 

 

 

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First, do no harm

To reflect upon our true nature is one of the purposes of the five “yamas” in yoga, the ethical and moral codes that are at the center of the practice. In English they are nonharming, truthfulness, generosity, balance and moderation, and abundance. At the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday, I saw the yamas — and our true nature — on magnificent display. 2017-01-21-09-34-09

People of all ages, races, and backgrounds joined together with one purpose — to say “no” to the policies and mean-spiritedness of the new administration, and to say “yes” to love, inclusiveness and prosperity for all. While everyone came to the march with strong feelings and determination, there was still a joyfulness in the air. It was a relief to hear leaders speak the truth, and energizing to be surrounded by such an abundance of passion. There was no violence, there was a balance between pro and anti messages, and I saw uncountable examples of generosity and kindness among strangers. 2017-01-21-14-43-15

Going forward, though, the most difficult yama to practice could well be nonharming, because it means more than just physical nonviolence toward others. Stephen Cope says that the yamas “are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred and delusion.” So when we practice nonviolence (ahimsa) it means we have to monitor our negative thoughts, which can be a form of violence. We have to let go of hostility, and invite peace into our hearts and minds.  2017-01-21-09-13-08

Yoga Journal has some suggested asana (postures) for cultivating ahimsa. They include warrior poses, which might sound counterintuitive, but the challenge is to use our “warrior” energy with virtue. If you have ever done a warrior sequence in a yoga class, you may remember flowing from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2, to reverse Warrior, and perhaps Warrior 3. The sequence is done slowly and with grace, so that it becomes thoughtful, intentional and nonharming.

Can we bring the strength and quiet grace of the warrior to the long task ahead of us now? Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“Many people…know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace.

“Practicing mindfulness in each moment of our daily lives, we can cultivate our own peace. With clarity, determination, and patience — the fruits of meditation — we can sustain a life of action and be real instruments of peace. I have seen this peace in people of various religious and cultural backgrounds who spend their time and energy protecting the weak, struggling for social justice, lessening the disparity between rich and poor, stopping the arms race, fighting against discrimination, and watering the trees of love and understanding throughout the world.”

If we are to be warriors for preserving the ideals of our democracy, we need to be mindful about treating ourselves and others with ahimsa. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, ahimsa toward self means that you recognize your limits and don’t push yourself beyond the point of well-being.  “You can start practicing ahimsa’s gentleness on yourself,” before turning it toward others. Expect to be challenged by ahimsa, he says. “It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to a person or situation when you do feel threatened.”

This January, don’t resolve — repose

 

It’s interesting that January 1st brings on a frenzy of promises to eat better, exercise more, stop smoking and similar action-oriented resolutions when I always feel like all I want to do is hibernate like a bear. So I was happy to find out when I went to my yoga studio last week that the pose of the month is Savasana.

Savasana (shah-VAHS-anna), also called Corpse Pose, usually is done at the end of every yoga practice, and it looks deceptively easy. After all, what could be that hard about lying flat on one’s back with arms and legs stretched out away from the body, and closing the eyes for 10 minutes or so? But I say “deceptive” because Savasana can be the most difficult yoga pose of all — first, because it’s hard for many of us to truly relax, and second because Savasana is about relaxing “with attention”. Yoga Journal says that in Savasana we attempt to “quiet the physical body and pacify the sense organs”, so we need to pay particular attention to relaxing the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It asks us to surrender to the point where the boundaries of the body begin to dissolve, where we can symbolically “die” to old ways of thinking and doing. savasana_in_yoga_gembira_community

Savasana is the bridge that allows you to take the benefits of class into your everyday life. This is why yoga teachers tell people who have to leave class early that they should plan to stop the regular practice with enough time left to take a few minutes in the pose before going. As Jon Kabat Zinn says, “Not forcing anything, we just do our best to line up with the warp and woof of body and mind, floor, and world, staying in touch.” Savasana brings together all the disparate pieces of the yoga class and gives you time for processing them and absorbing their benefits.

Sleep, which we tend to crave during the cold winter months, is like Savasana in that it is important for integrating the separate pieces of our days. We can be more effective the next day if we’ve spent time in sleep, regrouping and consolidating everything that we learned and experienced during the day. In addition, sleep sometimes helps us problem-solve because the useless information that came in during the day is forgotten, and only the crux remains. While there is still much to learn about the purposes of sleep, some researchers theorize that it helps the brain be “plastic”, to dial down synaptic activity for a while and use less energy. We are literally resting the brain, perhaps more so than resting the body.

Animals hibernate in the winter as a way of saving energy too, because food resources are scarce. Most of us don’t have that problem, but there’s still a case to be made for looking at January as a month of repose. It’s the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere and has some of the shortest days, so why not sleep a little more and yes, get down on the mat in Savasana? Use the darkness to gather energy, reflect on where you’re going and prepare for the longer days ahead. The word “January” comes from the Latin word meaning “door”. Consider opening the door to the new year slowly rather than abruptly. Take the time to first figure out what’s on the other side.

Indira Gandhi said that, “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” That’s not only the challenge of Savasana, but also the way we manifest it in our everyday lives.

 

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.

Splish, Splash

When are chores not really chores? When a spoonful of mindfulness is added, of course! While it’s not exactly front page news, a recent study out of Florida State University found that students who washed dishes mindfully — by focusing on sensations — experienced a reduction in nervousness and an increase in “mental inspiration”.

The researchers may themselves have been inspired  by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose best selling “Wherever You Go, There You Are” included an essay on “Cleaning the Stove While Listening to Bobby McFerrin”. Kabat-Zinn wrote, “I can lose myself and find myself simultaneously while cleaning the kitchen stove…I get into the round and round or the back and forth, feeling the motion in my whole body.”Handwashing with salt 3

In fact, it is attending to the sensory experience that uplifts both washing dishes and cleaning the stove. We start to notice the smell of the soap, the soothing warmth of the water, the hard or soft surfaces being cleaned, and the sounds of scrubbing, scraping, and water running. If a jumble of sensations has been metaphorically going in one ear and out the other, mindfully cleaning offers the opportunity to stop and focus on each one separately.

Educator Maria Montessori once said that, “We cannot create observers by saying ‘observe’, but by giving them the power and the means for this observation and these means are procured through education of the senses.”

Just as the Montessori method of learning emphasizes exploring and manipulating things in the environment, our practice of mindfulness can also be enhanced by educating our senses, and manipulating them to discern the separate inputs. Our everyday lives provide many moments when we can practice this, but we can also benefit from designated exercises from time to time. Here is one from the book, “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind””:

Hand Washing with Salt:

Close your eyes and wash your hands.

Take some ordinary table salt and rub it gently over the back and front of the hands. Do each of the fingers. Rinse, and feel the skin. After drying your hands, rub in some oil or cream.

Experience how your hands feel.

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For those of us who sometimes think that our sense of touch has been reduced to tap, swipe and pinch; our sense of hearing to beeps and buzzes; and our sense of sight to the glow of a retina display, practicing sensory awareness can restore and renew us. Become the observer, rather than the thinker, for a while. The means to do it are there if you choose to use them. So if a few weekend chores are hanging over your head today, consider them an opportunity to lose yourself  — and then find yourself anew.

 

Time flies, but it’s a lovely ride

Every time I have to wash and dry my hair, I think, “This again, already?” Each week when we put out the trash, I ask, “How can it be Friday again, so soon?” Paying the phone bill always makes me think, “How can a month have passed so quickly?” And whenever I celebrate a birthday, I wonder, “Where did the year go?”

Mundane tasks and rituals can be comforting because they provide order to our days and a sense that some things do not change, but they can also be disturbing because they remind us that life seems to be inexorably speeding past, with nothing to slow it down. The fear that time is slipping away, combined with the tediousness of some of our days is enough to bring anyone down.

But, as James Taylor reminds us:

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time

Any fool can do it

There ain’t nothing to it….

It’s just a lovely ride.”

Maybe the secret to enjoying the passage of time is to bring more mindfulness to the chores and more awareness to the celebrations. Can I up my level of engagement? Paying closer attention might imbue activities with more of the pleasure that James Taylor sings about so beautifully.

For instance, my first act upon waking is to start making coffee. But I usually do it by rote, not stopping to appreciate the smell of the coffee or the clarity of the water going into the pot. Though my attention snaps back when I take my first sip, my challenge is to bring awareness to the entire process. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” wrote T.S. Eliot. If this is literally true of my life, shouldn’t I at least smell the coffee?

Jon Kabat-Zinn says that, “If we are to grasp the reality of our life while we have it, we will need to wake up to our moments. Otherwise, whole days, even a whole life, could slip past unnoticed.” In his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, he has a wonderful entry called “Cleaning the stove while listening to Bobby McFerrin,” about using the process of cleaning the stove as a mindfulness practice, and the accompanying music as a way to engage the whole body in the task. It is a good lesson for me to remember when I reluctantly approach the job of drying my hair – can I engage both my mind and body while doing it, can I be more fully aware of the transition from wet to dry?

So maybe you’re saying “Sure, I zone out when I’m doing boring jobs, but I always pay attention when it’s something important like lunch with my mom, or playing a game with my kids.” Really? Kabat-Zinn suggests that one way to wake up “is to look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them. Sometimes our thoughts act like dream glasses…Without knowing it, we are coloring everything, putting our spin on it all.” Am I fully IMG2present at the birthday party, soaking it in with all my senses, or just going through the motions of enjoyment while planning the story I will tell about it later?

As I write this, it strikes me that everyday mindfulness can’t help but be connected to a sense of gratitude. How can I smell the coffee beans or acknowledge the clean water that goes into making the coffee without being grateful that I have both those things available to me? How can I pay my bills every month without gratitude that I have the money to pay them? How can I observe my birthday, and those of others, without giving thanks that we’re all here together to celebrate? Yes, time flies, but the ride is lovely even when it’s fast.

 

You gotta have heart

For how many moments of your life is your heart present? Do you do things in a “half-hearted” way? Do you agree to do something, knowing that your “heart isn’t in it”? We use expressions like this to describe lack of enthusiasm, but they are really just another way of describing an absence of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, described in an interview the Chinese ideogram for the word mindfulness. He said it is made up of the character for presence, combined with the character for heart. In essence , mindfulness means presence of heart. By cultivating a quality of presence, he says, we inhabit our true selves and are more able to uncover our sense of compassion.image

I’ve spent the past few days reading a book called The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It is a novel about separation and grief, loneliness and misunderstanding, freedom and imprisonment. It contains a beautiful passage that, to me, perfectly describes mindfulness:

When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, rife with compassion.”

Is mindfulness necessary for compassion to exist? Are we able to feel deep sympathy for someone else, and to care about ending their suffering, if we don’t have the ability to pay attention and be present to what they are feeling? The character in the book realizes in moments of mindfulness at work that she has attained a greater capacity to feel, that there is a spaciousness in her heart that wasn’t there before.

I’m also reminded of Like Water for Chocolate, in which all of the emotions of the character Tita become contained in the food she prepares, so that when people eat the food, they immediately feel what she feels — sadness, joy, pain. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the magic; there is something to learn from the idea that our work can contain some essential part of ourselves and that others can use their senses (taste, in this instance) to feel the emotion and presence that we put into it.

If we tune in to what our senses are telling us, really tune in, what can we learn? Whether it’s the expression on someone’s face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of someone’s perfume, the taste of just-baked cookies, or the touch of a dog’s nose on my arm — engaging with my whole heart in that moment can help me understand what someone else feels, what is happening in my world, or just how much love can be contained in a batch of cookies. And that sense of understanding can open doors in the mind.image

Our brains are plastic; we can change them if we desire. The work of Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists has shown that if we train ourselves in mindfulness, we can hone skills that help us experience more happiness and compassion. But this isn’t something minor that just makes me or you happy on an individual level. The more we “widen our circle of compassion” as Einstein said, the more chance there is for harmony and peace in the world.

Our brains are plastic, but in order for them to expand, our hearts need to be present. So think about it — can you bring your whole heart to more of what you do every day?