Fully embodied

Halloween is a good time to reflect on bodies, and what happens when we become disconnected from our bodies. I am reminded of the headless horseman, or the ways in which zombies are portrayed, often missing limbs, eyes, fingers, etc. Representations of the “living dead” usually involve decaying or decrepit bodies.

Zombies

When I began practicing yoga and meditation more regularly as a part of living more mindfully, I started noticing the ways I had “abandoned” my body out of habit. I had pushed down feelings and not allowed myself to feel where they landed in the body.  I was not comfortable with feelings of sadness or loneliness, and so to disassociate from them, I used various means: food, alcohol, other distractions such as television or social media to disconnect from my reality. But the more I started paying attention to these visceral sensations, the ability to experience emotions fully and in their raw form, the more I realized how fleeting these sensations could be.

By not resisting the painful emotions I was trying to escape, I was able to feel those emotional “vibrations” in the body, and noticed how they passed through. Nothing ever stays the same in our bodies, in our lives. But a good deal can pass through, when we stop resisting it. I may not WANT to feel sadness or loneliness, but when I allow myself to experience them, they are what they are. They will not destroy me, but resisting them causes so much suffering. By embracing what is true for us, in this present moment, we allow it to be there. We do not chastise ourselves, or tell ourselves we “should be happy” or we “should get over it” whatever “it” is.

By coming back to my body, and starting to fully inhabit it, I have been able to access deeper truths about my life. At first it was quite scary, especially when it came to allowing desires. I did not trust my desires – are they not what got me “in trouble” in the first place? Desires for chocolate? Desires for that glass of wine? Desires to buy myself things I did not really need? As I started practicing and allowing emotions to fully express themselves, I realized that there were certain “false desires” that were really masking deeper, more fundamental desires. All humans desire acceptance, and are genetically wired for this, but few of us realize that begins with self-acceptance. Many of us all desire courage, and realize it is fundamental to living in our truth, because not all desires will seem acceptable to our “tribe” or the people with whom we grew up.

Many of us believe we should be happy, and certainly many marketers try to capitalize on our general discontent by selling us products that will evoke that feeling. But human experience is not all happiness and joy. Without the negative feelings we have no contrast and no way to know joy. About half of our lives we may experience negative emotions, and that is okay. When we allow them, acknowledge them, give them space, we also allow joy, peace, compassion and love. When we numb the pain we feel, through food, distractions, or any kind of “false pleasure” we also numb the joy and happiness we could feel.

I believe women have a special challenge in fully embodying their life. We are told how we “should” look, how we “should” feel, that we shouldn’t be so emotional, etc. But the truth is that we look the way we look, and we feel the way we feel. It is true that our thoughts heavily influence our emotions. When I practice thoughts that allow compassion and love for myself, I feel a greater sense of ease in my actions. My old habit is self-criticism and I used to believe this was how I could improve myself. But chastising myself for my shortcomings just makes me feel miserable and wretched. When I forgive myself and have compassion for my humanness, it gives me peace and the freedom to actually make changes in my life, if I choose.

When I return to my body, listening to it, honoring its needs for rest, or sometimes for excitement or adventure, I learn that there is so much wisdom there. I am re-teaching myself this skill, because I believe as young children we have this ability naturally. But as we go through school, through life and through a media-saturated world, we replace these instincts with layers of “should” and “must.” We are convinced that thinking our way through everything is how we must live. While thinking is an incredible tool, ignoring the body happens at our peril. When we return to acceptance of our body as an incredible tool for allowing us to live and thrive, we reclaim so much more peace.

May you, my dear reader, honor your body and live a fully embodied life. May you live not as a zombie, unless it is just a Halloween costume, but as a human fully awake and alive and aware of your miraculous body.

 

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I want the boy toy!

I am always pissed off when I go to McDonald’s and get a happy meal. (For the record, I do this probably 2-3 times a year, when I get one of those cravings for their fries, and I figure a kid-sized dose will not harm me much.) They ask if I want a “girl toy” or a “boy toy.” So I have taken to saying into the drive through lane “I want a boy toy” in a very ironic voice. Usually people don’t get the joke… But it always annoys me. I never wanted the fairy tale princess! I want the damn transformer!! Seriously, I can’t believe they still “gender” the toys!

transformer.jpg

Halloween season always reminds me how incredibly annoying it is that costumes marketed to girls still title heavily toward princesses and “cutesy” things. Meanwhile boys costumes get all the cool weaponry and usually involve super-heroes or characters that out saving the world. When I heard Christopher Bell’s Ted Talk: bring on the female superheroes a year ago it had a big impact on me. Toward the end (the last 3 minutes) his story still brings tears to my eyes. Well worth the watch if you are concerned about the impact of media on our gender constructions in this society.

The disparity in the types of toys that are marketed to boys versus girls starts a long process of determining the types of activities which are expected and encouraged. Companies such as the Walt Disney company, which has made a tremendous amount of money since 1937 selling princess “gear” to girls. Princess Leia does not fit with the public pedagogy of the other princess stories, so there are zero pieces of merchandise with Princess Leia. I am curious about Rey, who is undoubtedly an up-and-coming woman superhero. Will she be more available as this Target display suggests?

Rey at Target display

While there are female characters in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, still the merchandise available is for the male superheroes, not the female ones like Gamora. What message does this send to girls? And what message does it send to boys? When t-shirts that show a scene from the movie that were originally featuring Leia against the Dark Lord are replaced with an image of Luke, we have to wonder: why is she always erased?

In the board rooms and the places where decisions are being made, women are still very much in the minority. When I am in meetings with other leadership at my company, typically the ratio is 5 or 6 to 1, or sometimes if we are lucky, it is 4 to 1. The pipeline for STEM careers, especially in science and engineering are not as large as for men (I am sure to write more about this in the future). But in leadership, it is even harder to scale those steep walls. When the brave and courageous images we receive and consume in our media-oriented society are all men, I believe this hurts women and girls. We do not have as many role models of ass-kicking, confident, and steady leadership to help us conceptualize our own possibilities as leaders. 

I was really excited to go to the Wonder Woman movie this year, and for the most part I was not disappointed. While a number of feminist critiques have been lodged against the movie, I still think the fact that it was made and wildly popular underscores our need for more female images of strength and power. I know for sure that is a “product” I will buy. And I believe if we transcend the “princess” images and open up more possibilities for girls and women, they will begin to claim their corresponding roles in leading in this world. We cannot afford to leave behind half of the wisdom of this world by suggesting they are any less capable than men. The challenges and problems of this planet depend on valuing and fully utilizing all of the talent we can muster. 

 

When work is play

Today I am working on a Saturday to prepare for a workshop that I will be co-facilitating on Monday with a favorite colleague. It will be a 2-hour session on “Innovation Jams, Design Thinking and the Medici Effect” with 16 students, mostly engineers and program managers at our company. The workshop filled up fast and apparently there are actually a few more people on the waiting list who had planned to take it as well.

I am so excited about this opportunity and the fact that I get to offer this type of workshop. The idea came about when we were brainstorming how to spread the word about how to use design thinking for every day problems, and how diversity drives innovation. It is a message that resonates with me, and I have so many stories and examples of how opening up to the “intersections” in our lives, whether cultural, or between fields or between genders, actually changes how we think.

In order to open up our creativity and to begin to invent novel solutions to problems, we must be willing to go beyond conventional thinking. Since our brains tend to resist that process, and are much more comfortable doing things as we have always done them, there are some tools and strategies we can use. One is to pay attention to what is happening around us and to notice things. Another is to talk with people who are different from us, who may have other perspectives. Yet another is to assemble teams from diverse backgrounds in order to solve problems. My favorite way is to PLAY! Do art, work with colors, play-act, do improve, and just have some fun. It is good for your brain.

Art store spree
Blick art materials – today’s spree for materials at our workshop

All of these are fairly simple and low cost, but yet they yield enormous benefits. I work in a very large medical device and health care solutions company that has big ambitions. My worry is that we are TOO BIG and the bureaucracy to get just simple things done is killing us. I think that stifles innovation, when we are weighed down by big systems that keep slowing things down. But I also want to help people find creative ways around this problem, because the mission of the company aligns with my personal goals.  There are a lot of brilliant scientists and engineers working there. I would love to help them find a way to tap into their best thinking to design products and services for patients around the world.

I often say when I am working on these types of “special projects” which are technically outside my job scope as a clinical research manager, that this work feels like play. I got to go to the art supply store and pick up an assortment of fun crafty items, so we can have the class members actually build physical prototypes to represent the solutions they create. Using tactile materials can help stimulate creativity, especially for those of us so used to working with ideas, words, and paper all day. I had a blast picking out various items that I thought our class could use. It truly felt like play, as it does when I work on design for these type of events.

How fortunate I am to be able to do this kind of work. Yes, I still have a pile of other things to do for my “real” job that I will have to catch up on as a result of spending more time on this. But what a privilege it is to get to do work that feels like play for some of my days. Namaste, friends. Hope you have plenty of time to play this weekend!

Losing weight while you sleep

Can you lose weight while you sleep? The truth is that sleep deprivation is a major cause of chronic stress, which leads to elevated levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone produced in the adrenal cortex. It is what keeps us safe in emergencies, and enhances our body’s ability to access glucose so we can burn them as needed to cope. However, when we are not actually under attack or fleeing a predator, but these stresses are not occasional but more constant (usually inflicted mentally, on an internal basis, even by our imagination) then cortisol remains elevated in the body, and so does glucose.

When glucose is elevated, levels of insulin rise in the body as well. Over time, elevated insulin leads to insulin resistance, and this is what leads to weight gain and diabetes. For more on the mechanism of these hormones, I highly recommend Dr. Jason Fung’s book, The Obesity Code, which sets forth a hormonal theory of the causes of obesity. Nothing he speaks about is truly ‘new’ but he examines and critiques the research literature to explore the true causes of this long term health crisis and I found very valuable insights.

To reduce cortisol in the body, and its subsequent effects, which cause weight gain, we must reduce stress. Other hormones, leptin and ghrelin, vital to the control of body fat and appetite are also disrupted by sleep disturbances. Ever wonder why you have “the munchies” when you are sleep deprived? It is because your hormones are doing what nature intended them to do – and as a consequence, if we do not manage our stress and restore our sleep, this will lead to weight gain for most people.

As someone who struggles with sleep, when I began learning the science behind cortisol, insulin and the regulators of weight gain and loss, it motivated me to figure out strategies to improve my own sleep. There are a lot of products on the market that are sold to people who want more sleep, and naturally, in an era where many of us seem to realize we need sleep, but seem unable to get as much as we want, we look for the quick fix.

 

Calvin sleeping
Calvin gets a lot of sleep but he has “hungry ghosts” and really loves his food.

 

I have found that, over the past year or so, I am developing better sleep routines that have helped immensely. I do take a magnesium supplement before bed or with dinner, since our diet and lifestyle tend to strip us of this needed nutrient and magnesium (400-500mg) helps me get deeper sleep. I have also cut way back on sugar, since swings in insulin while we sleep are one cause of wakefulness and disrupted sleep. Cutting out alcohol has helped my sleep quality tremendously, and when I realized that, it was much easier to say “no” to the glass of wine offered while dining out.

The biggest help to my sleep seems to be my devotion to shutting down my “addictive” smart phone and any screens at least an hour before bedtime. If you have not heard about the effects of blue light on our sleep, Google this to learn more. Leaving my phone outside my bedroom and powering it off completely is another way I preserve my sleep time. The bedroom is a place for sleep, sex and relaxation. I read actual, paper books before bed. Some people have screen readers without backlighting that might serve the same purpose but I am old-fashioned when it comes to turning the pages of a book.

There are many other strategies that people use to get a good night’s sleep, and I am sure I will write more about the topic. But suffice it to say, if you are skipping sleep to get your workout in, or thinking that more waking time means more calories burned, please realize your body does not work this way. The cortisol and insulin systems will work against you when you create more stress in the body by not giving it adequate rest.

If you have problems getting good sleep, you should consult with your doctor, and perhaps also a nutritionist because there are some nutrients that, when missing (like magnesium) will impair your sleep. By all means, try those before you reach for a heavily marketed sleep drug. But realize too that if there are stressful situations in your life causing you to lose sleep, sometimes talking with a friend or a therapist or someone who can help you process those anxious thoughts can be helpful.

I am not ashamed to admit that I value good therapy. If you are working through difficult circumstances or life situations, please find a good one and make time to see them regularly. Mental health to me is as critical as physical health. Sleep is a part of keeping consistent mental health, energy levels and overall quality of life. While I occasionally deal with a bout of insomnia, I am not willing to sacrifice my sleep for any non-emergency, including work demands or even some fun events that mess with my sleep cycle. I have found that, in losing weight and keeping it off, this is a critical ingredient, even more than all the miles I used to run…

Getting adequate sleep is not lazy! Try to get more of it and see how much LESS lazy you feel, and how much easier it is to maintain or lose weight, if those are your goals. Happy Friday, friends! May you sleep, dream and feel restored.

 

 

Sleep as aphrodisiac

My post yesterday on Yoga vs. Sleep got a nice number of likes on it, and I started thinking about how deeply I regard sleep now that I am in the habit of receiving more of it. So I think I may write daily short post about other benefits I’ve seen for the next few days. I hope my readers can reflect in the comments on their own “sleep experiments” and whether they notice the same effects.

Sleep works better than wine, better than Prozac and it has no adverse side effects! Start getting more sleep and you will be pleasantly surprised when you have more inclination to get cozy with your honey. Now that it is beginning to get darker sooner in the evenings here in Minnesota, I am making a commitment to getting more sleep, and enjoying more quality time with my husband. I have been married only a month, so it seems fitting, no?

Sleepy feet

A quick search of the research on sleep and sex revealed some interesting articles like one from CNN entitled: Want more Sex? Get more sleep. Want more Sleep? Have more sex. It was written in June 2017. Clearly this is a hot topic for many, and I believe it is probably because it is something we desire, and something many of us struggle with. There are many things we can do to help enhance our ability to wind down and I have been experimenting with these as a person who periodically experiences insomnia, despite a renewed commitment to getting more and better sleep regularly.

I am not a physician and I encourage you to consult one if you struggle with this. My personal experience that, if I am not sleeping well, I am not in the mood for sex. It’s pretty obvious, perhaps, and something I suspect many people struggle with. But it is a reinforcing virtuous cycle if good sleep leads to good sex, and vice versa, focusing on one improves the other. And since good sex generally relies on two people, but good sleep is more reliant on the behavior of one person, it probably makes sense to focus on getting good sleep first if your sex life sucks.

If better sleep does not improve your sex life, then there are probably other factors going on. I am not a relationship counselor, so I will not speculate on that portion. Again, consult a professional if there are other issues. But I encourage you to try sleep first as an aphrodisiac if you want to get a little more – ah! – in your relationship.

Keeping this post short & sweet today since I will work on co-creating a workshop on design thinking and the Medici effect with a colleague this morning. Let me know how things are going, and if I should keep going with my daily series for the next few days on sleep. Cheers, peeps! 

Yoga vs. sleep

Today I decided that getting an extra 30-45 minutes of sleep would outweigh my desire to attend a 5:45 a.m. yoga class that I typically enjoy. It is a lovely opportunity to meditate, get fully in tune with my body and my mind, and sweat out my worries. I approach the day with more a more even-tempered and loving perspective and it seems like I am kinder in the world, and therefore it is kinder to me.

But in my last year and a half of focusing more intensity on my my overall WellBeing, a large component of that has been working on getting adequate sleep every day. I used to struggle mightily with insomnia, and I tended to neglect sleep and rest in favor of early morning runs or other physical activity. When I started studying the clinical research on these issues and encountered books like Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath, I realized that sleep was non-negotiable for me. Another recent book by Arianna Huffington called The Sleep Revolution compiles both the history and the current research on the value and benefits of sleep.

Sleep

Clearly I am not the only one evangelizing on this topic. But I want to share my personal experience, both as someone who was a “sleep skeptic” and someone who still occasionally struggles with insomnia. One of the first benefits I noticed when I began tracking and measuring my sleep a little more closely was that I could see a correlation between the quality of my days, and my quantity/quality of sleep. As a clinical researcher, data always help me commit to habit changes that are beneficial. If I do not see the evidence that it helps, I just question its validity.

So I conducted an n=1 experiment. For those unfamiliar with clinical research “n” is the number of subjects you include in a study. Many people would be skeptical of a trial in which n=1. But I say: if that “1” is you, it is highly significant. Not to say that you can “design” a trial that is truly rigorous, because it cannot be a Randomized Controlled Trial as exists in the scientific literature. So there are confounding factors. For example, as I got more sleep, I began craving less sugar and carbs. Since sugar tends to disrupt our sleep (especially if consumed right before bed) it led to a virtuous cycle of both sleeping better and consuming less sugar.

I have struggled with attention deficit throughout my life, and it is managed somewhat with medicine and somewhat with regular exercise, which is why I posed the “either or” in the title of this post. I knew that getting vigorous exercise helps my brain with the focus issues, and there is plenty of clinical research to support this notion. But what I did not realize, was that the trade-off of sleep in favor of exercise, may have been causing inflammation in my body and brain. Try Googling those search terms and you will find a host of studies on how brain inflammation is connected to virtually all types of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety as well as more serious conditions like autism, dementia and schizophrenia.

My Dad always used to tell me to get my sleep, that I would risk heart attacks and other serious consequences by not sleeping. This was because in the early days of my adolescent (and throughout my adolescence and adult life) I was always an “early bird” and enjoyed mornings. But I would often stay up late reading a book or studying or doing other things that I enjoyed. Dad knew, without consulting the research, that I could be doing some damage by becoming sleep deprived. I also think this led to unhealthy eating patterns (high in carbohydrates, and lacking healthy fat) which I noticed especially during college and continuing into adulthood as well.

Bodies which do not have enough rest crave energy and restoration. While they cannot get this through food, they often turn to this “cheap substitute.” But when we feed ourselves the right nourishment in the form of adequate rest, our systems tend to reset. So while I love my yoga, and generally practice at least 3-4 times a week to feel my best, I have decided never to trade sleep for yoga. If my body is tired, and needs more rest, I will grant it the rest it needs before going to yoga. Developing this level of trust with my own body, and giving it what it truly needs to be healthy has allowed my body and brain to be more productive and more fulfilled.

Ironically, even though I spend more time sleeping these days (averaging 7-8 hours/night) I actually find time for yoga more easily. My priorities have aligned to make sure that I get regular yoga practice into my schedule, and I honor that commitment to myself. Also: yoga after work seems to lead to better sleep quality that night. Another virtuous circle.

So, dear reader, I suggest that the next time you are tempted to skip the workout because you are tired, maybe skip the workout and get another 60-90 minutes of sleep. If you really want to get that workout in, go to bed an hour earlier the night before. Set an alarm in the evening which reminds you when it is time to wind down for the night. Do this regularly and you will not regret it.

Namaste. Sleep well.

 

We get to do this!

Some days I struggle with being kind to myself. I have a pretty strong inner critic, and she has high standards for me. She tells me I should be brave and find the courage to leave my corporate job and leap into my next thing (whatever that means, I’ll let you know when I figure it out). Or she wonders if my ambition is too spread out between too many things, and divided in trying to fulfill others’ expectations of me. She complains that, if I were more organized, or more focused, I would be achieving my potential. She spins tales of doom and disaster about my periodic insomnia, and chides me for not yet learning how to take better care of  myself.

Then some other, deeper part of me reassures me that I am just fine as I am. I need not worry about paths not taken, plans not completed. All of these life experiences and decisions I make are here to teach me and guide me to what is next. I just need to be here, and make the next decision, in the time it is required. There is no “wrong” choice that is made out of love and generosity, just the next step toward the next phase. There is always some fear – change requires our brains to figure out new things, maybe new ways of being or acting in the world. Because it is unfamiliar, our brains tell us “wait, wrong move, be careful!”  But as Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us during creative endeavors: it’s okay, it’s just a poem (or a story, or a piece of art). It’s not going to kill anyone. Thanks for keeping us safe from predators and harm throughout our evolutionary history. Now you can ride in the back seat of our journey. You do not get to drive or choose the music.

cat at laptop

When I start getting whiny about my job and down about the fact I have a lot less writing time than I want, a re-focus on gratitude can pull me out of that. I begin to embrace the gift of what it means to be alive today, in a time when we can start our own blog, write every day, and share our thoughts with the world. We do not need to have published a book in order to share our stories. We get to create, and shape and develop ideas and thoughts on paper, and on the internets. We get to create communities around our interests if we want to do this. We get to try and fail to get an idea across, to try again, and see what works, see what resonates. We get to be here, those of us who have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, shelter to keep us safe. We get to use our time how we choose, if we have the privilege of living free in a democracy.

How amazing and rich to be a human being on the planet living this life right now. May all of us embrace it, and realize it to be the gift that it is.