I recently wrote an article for a client on “meditation 101”. It was fun to write, given my study of the topic and my practice for the past 2.5+ years. It was posted at the client website, sadly without a byline. But it is all good practice and part of my writing portfolio, so to speak.
I wanted to reflect on a principle that I think is a misconception about meditation, at least in my experience. People often assume that you must do something to “transcend” the body, when in reality the goal for me is to get grounded in the body. I seek to come back to my body not to transcend or escape it in any way.
Most of my days are spent “in my head” and outside my body. I recently realized that my body contains a tremendous amount of wisdom and intuition that my over-active brain conveniently “skips” much of the time. When I come back to my home, the body itself, I access what my soul is trying to tell me. It is through understanding the subtle emotional language of the body that our truths can be revealed to us.
A lot of the men and the male teachers of meditation that have instructed me have encouraged us to “transcend” the body, and go to some ethereal destination. Perhaps this works for them, and I will not disparage their efforts.
We are built with this mammalian architecture that is incredibly subtle and wise. We ignore it at our peril. Women have been “escaping” and transcending their bodies for millennia due to patriarchy, cultural norms and many other reasons. It is time we stopped taking that advice, and stepped into full ownership and joy in our bodies. That’s where the magic happens.
It is Friday! I wish you an excellent weekend ahead!
I was thinking about my yoga “evangelism” and some subtle things I have not explored on this blog about the differences in types of yoga. Based on some questions/comments that readers have contributed, and my recent bad experience with a hot vinyasa class which actually triggered my fight/flight/freeze response, I thought it would be valuable to comment further.
On Monday I was working in the morning and missed the hatha yoga class I planned o attend. I had a hankering for a class so I searched the available ones at the different branches of my gym and found a noon class not too far away. It was vinyasa (or flow) yoga, a class in which there tends to be continuous motion throughout the class.
This particular gym tends to pair upbeat rock music with the flow sequences, at least after the teacher walks through the sequence once or twice. Then we flow on our own, and sometimes the music is turned up. In this particular class the music was turned up so loud I actually got triggered, and immediately considered leaving the room, it felt so loud and uncomfortable.
I nearly left the room but first I searched for the teacher and asked if she could turn it down slightly. She did. The class was “energetic” but I took breaks as necessary during the flow and did not get caught up with what everyone else was doing. I made the practice my own and adapted to what my body needed, as I have been taught by several wise teachers.
After the class I explained what had happened to the teacher. She told me not all teachers at the gym would be as willing to accommodate but that they could supply earplugs if they were needed. I was so shocked by this, given what I have come to value about yoga, and its value on soothing my nervous system and coming back to the body.
The practice I am most fond of can be described as hatha yoga. At this gym, the most similar practice is called “root” and at other venues it may be described as mindful yoga. I also enjoy soma yoga, which is a process of teaching the body to let go of involuntary patterns of holding that we sometimes develop subconsciously over time.
The point of this comment today is that not all yoga classes are the same. It is important to give yourself the opportunity to try different classes and different teachers to see what works best for you. While there may be classes that are challenging in terms of developing your strength, all good teachers understand that some students may need to adapt their practice.
YOU are the only one who knows what is right for your body. No teacher should ever push you beyond your limits. They simply cannot know if you have injuries or vulnerabilities that affect your practice. Even if you spend an entire hour laying on the mat in savasana (corpse pose) and focus on your breathing, you have done your yoga.
I was not proud of my angry response to an inflammatory post from someone in my WordPress feed over the weekend. I was temporarily unable to step away and I got side-tracked from the intention I had for that morning. It made me want to fight, defend and debate.
In reflecting on this phenomenon later, I realized that I had been “triggered” but that I had a choice about how to respond. Eventually, when I realized I was not going to get anything productive out of the interaction, I stepped away and disengaged. I re-directed my attention and moved on to more fulfilling and satisfying endeavors.
In truth, someone who has been through trauma has a much more difficult time dealing with a situation that triggers them. I cannot recall any specific trauma that led to this response, so I was able to bring my frontal cortex back online relatively quickly from that amygdala “hijack” by telling myself there was no need to add fuel to the flames. There was clearly high emotion on both sides, and we were not able to “hear” one another arguments.
I also realized in hearing the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford, and the humiliation she endured after her assault, I deeply empathized with her story. I could feel viscerally that shame she must have felt, even though I am one of the fortunate few who has not suffered assault.
It occurred to me that so many women who have similar stories are likely feeling a little more vulnerable and emotionally rocked by the testimony. And it is good for those of us with empathy to be there to reassure our friends that their reactions are valid, and that we are willing to sit with them during their process.
Some time ago I became intrigued by some research on trauma and PTSD by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who was featured in the On Being podcast episode. He explains that trauma leaves an imprint on the body, not just the brain, in sensory and hormonal systems. Of the treatment options, body-centered practices like Yoga help develop a body that is strong and feels comfortable.
In an article published at the Trauma Center, explains that “Yoga offers a way to reprogram automatic physical responses.”
“Yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states. It allows the body to regain its natural movement and teaches the use of breath for self-regulation. What is beautiful about Yoga is that it teaches use – and this is a critical point for those who feel trapped in their memory sensations – that things come to an end…
The process of being in a safe space and staying with whatever sensations emerge and seeing how they come to and end is a positive imprinting process. Yoga helps them befriend their bodies that have betrayed them by failing to guarantee safety.”
Yoga also teaches us to use the breath. Western culture tends to solve our issues through means from the outside, rather than teaching us how we can master our own physiology. This is where the intersection of these practices can and should be used in conjunction with “modern” medicine in the treatment of trauma and its effects.
Perhaps this is why I am such a big “evangelist” of yoga and why I am developing a course on “yoga and mindful leadership.” Based on my own consistent practice of yoga and meditation, I have seen the effects in my own life. I am always grateful when I also come across strong research to back this up.
So, what to do when we are triggered? The first thing is to breathe deeply a few times and slow down. We can realize that our physiological response is real, but that it does not reflect present danger. We honor that part of our primitive brain that is trying to keep us safe, and recognize that we need timely self-care to calm our nervous system. Over time, with practice, it is possible to heal with the right support.
Happy Wednesday! It is time to focus on wellness and I shall return to a topic near and dear to my heart – sleep!
I started listening to a course recently on Insight Timer by Jennifer Piercy called “Your Guide to Deeper Sleep.” I really like how she describes sleep as a “cooling” of the inflammation in our body and brain. Getting good sleep is fundamental to healing and vitality in our lives. More research is being published all the time showing lack of sleep is connected to conditions such as diabetes.
I have struggled with insomnia in the past periodically. I am getting better in that regard but every now and then, typically in response to stress, I do struggle to get my zz’s. When that happens I know I need to cut back on my caffeine and/or cut back on my media consumption, which tends to churn the brain. I also find that I need to avoid any “weighty” topics of discussion just before bed.
Sleep amounts can vary naturally based on the season, and we typically expect to get slightly less during months where we have more sunlight. I have embraced the idea of early sleep on winter nights, snuggling with a book before bedtime and making sure my devices are powered down at least an hour before lights out. I actually have an alarm that goes off before bedtime to remind me to wind down, in case I am too absorbed in an activity to realize it is time.
Yoga nidra is a practice I have recently discovered which can help me drop off into deeper sleep. I have used some guided meditations in order to let go of tension in the body and allow for mindful relaxation.
On the days after I sleep a nice, juicy 8-9 hours I notice that I have more consistent energy all day. I make decisions faster and with less agonizing. It also has an added benefit of allowing for greater weight loss as it reduces cortisol levels int he body. Who knew you could rest more AND take off extra weight?!?
The most important factor in getting restful sleep seems to be a good wind-down routine at night. Ariana Huffington explains her book The Sleep Revolution that she has a ritual of taking a bath or shower, escorting her devices outside the bedroom, and perhaps using lavender to create an atmosphere of relaxation.
Jennifer Piercy challenges the notion that when we nap, we compromise the quality of our sleep at night. Sleep has been domesticated in the service of “industrial life” and policed with an alarm clock (summary of quote). Dr. Sarah Mednick’s book Take a Nap! Change Your Life helps us understand that our state of being overtired can make us to wired to fall asleep effectively. So napping can be almost a “dress rehearsal” for sleep.
So, if you have the flexibility in your schedule to take a rest in the afternoon, consider a nap rather than fighting your post-lunch sleepiness. This multi-phasic sleep is actually quite natural, so embrace your body’s call to rest when you feel tired, especially between 1-3 p.m, when it could be especially nourishing.
When we treat sleep as a treasured event rather than a drag, we are more likely to enjoy the process and settle in a little deeper. We dream more when we sleep deeply, as it happens, and that can be an adventure as well.
What are your favorite sleep rituals? Do you make sure to get adequate rest every night? How often do you nap?
Today I want to focus on a practice that has been immensely helpful to me, especially in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us these days.
This is the process of centering in my body, feeling my whole self grounded on the earth physically. I experience this practice of centering through yoga and meditation. I start by closing my eyes and focusing for a minute or two on the breath. I just observe and notice the breath for a bit, the length of the inhales and exhales. I begin to feel it as it travels into the abdomen and chest and as it flows out of the nostrils.
My mind calms down a bit, and then I focus on my feet to begin. I notice what my feet are connected to: the floor, my legs, possibly clothing or a blanket. I move up to the calves, noticing everything they are in contact with, and then move up to the knees, thighs.
I notice the torso, the center of the body, work my way through my chest, down each of my arms, my hands. I move upward through the shoulders and neck and finally through the center of the head, the space behind the eyes and the crown of the head.
The process can take as little as 6-7 minutes, or I can prolong it a bit and focus for longer in each area. While sitting in yin yoga I am able to do this while in a long hold for a pose, noticing some slight discomfort if there is some fascia that is tight. I am able to “zoom in” on a sensation and then possibly “zoom out” to the whole body. I might do this zoom in and zoom out a couple of times during a hold.
All the while I take note of what is happening in my mind. It’s not as though the mind stays quiet during this process. People sometimes think meditation is about clearing the mind. Really it can be about noticing what is going on there. Thoughts arise, and with them, feelings vibrate through the body. There is no shame or judgment toward these thoughts, just a mild curiosity.
By repeatedly coming back to the body, feeling where we are, centering our awareness on what is within, we gain stability and wisdom. It can be a miraculous sort of discovery, this centering practice. I find that, now that I have practiced in silence and stillness, I can also find my center when the environment is a bit more chaotic.
I have learned to find my center in airports, during stressful meetings, and in conversations when I notice that I am holding my breath rather than breathing fully. I bring my awareness into my center and might notice I am holding tightness in my shoulders or in my gut. I breathe more deeply a couple of times, and try to relax those tight areas, becoming conscious of what thoughts are running through my head.
By centering my body, I access wisdom that typically used to be “walled off” from my mind. I bring my heart in line with my brain, and with my gut. I access intuitive abilities that once were more elusive to me. I make decisions from a place of greater ease. I know to ask certain questions in conversations.
People sometimes look at me with surprise, wondering how I have “guessed” their intentions, even though they may be different from the words they use. Truly it feels like a super-power, when used with love and compassion. When I stay aligned with my center, everything flows better. I am able to pay close attention to what my body needs, and adjust accordingly.
While I am no expert, I encourage you to try this out, whether through a guided meditation on Insight Timer, or in a hatha or yin yoga class. If you have experience with this, I would love to hear more about it as well.
I have been possessed by an idea I had while at yoga class on Saturday. It reminds me of the notion Liz Gilbert describes in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It is one of those ideas that came to me with a visceral sense of excitement and fascination.
It is an idea that caused me to reach out to my favorite yoga teacher to collaborate, since it involves yoga as a tool for mindful leadership. Y’all know that I practice meditation and yoga regularly. Meditation is a daily practice and yoga is typically 3-4 times a week. I consider yoga one form of my meditation practice because it is about body awareness and has helped “ground” me in my life and truth more firmly.
As I contemplated this idea, I met some women after class who are also attendees of the class. We reflected in this women-only gym on how this hatha/soma yoga practice has enhanced our lives. I started to explore my idea with them, explaining how radically my world has changed since beginning to re-embody myself through this practice. They shared their own stories, and we sat for an hour in mutual exchange of some big life realizations.
I carried that spark to my yoga teacher, asking if she would meet with me to discuss the idea, to figure out if we could co-create a workshop around this notion. I seemed to have confirmed there would be interest, but of course had not figured out the venue, the exact audience, the marketing, etc. That will come later. We will meet on Wednesday to discuss.
Who knows where it might go, but the idea has taken hold of me. Last night I woke up from sleep around 1:30 a.m. and the idea was with me in vivid color. It didn’t give me insomnia like some ideas do. But it did very firmly take hold of me, and it seemed to ask if I wanted to dance with it.
Indeed, I do want to dance. There is pleasure and excitement in the idea, and it is starting to blossom into more creative ideas within me. This is truly enchantment. It is allowing rather than pushing and striving. But it is also being ready for what emerges, even if a fluttery nervousness is also present. That is part of the process, and I accept it as well.
When did you last dance with an idea that would not leave you?
This week’s Throwback Thursday is an edited piece from November 2017. It sent a chill down my spine thinking about how far I have come in that time, in writing through these changes in my life. So grateful that this blog has allowed an exploration toward the next part of my path.
As I was sitting in savasana today at my morning yoga class, a concept kept arising into consciousness. It was Integration.
I wonder if my search for balance and equilibrium is actually a search for integration. Bringing together my personal and professional lives, uniting my body, mind and spirit, accepting the positives and the negatives. It is all part of one rich and fulfilling life, after all.
Why do I find it challenging? Perhaps my scientific training works against me here. I strive to isolate variables, to design proper controls, to decrease “confounding factors.” It is a noble pursuit, when we want to understand a mechanism for a system.
I then consider another concept from a similar root: Integrity. These concepts both relate to a state of being whole. Stemming from a similar Latin root, these words express what I seek.
It is not so much about work/life balance, which always reminds me of a seesaw. It is more about bringing it all together, not having to isolate parts of myself in certain contexts, but rather bringing my whole self to every situation. I like the yin/yang concept, and the idea that we have complementary parts within us. I have written about this before. Perhaps that is what this blog is about, to integrate the “mexi” and the “minnesotana” parts more meaningfully, in every part of my life.
What if we viewed the entire natural sphere as an integrated whole, all part of some vast and intricate web? Everything, everyone and all of the in between is connected. We are not binary – one against another, us against them. We are all part of this vast universal story, ever changing, ever growing, ever recycling the parts that need to evolve to something new.
This brings so much peace to me, embracing both my darkness and my light. It means acceptance of what I am, where I am today in my journey, not chiding myself that I am not further along. Change unfolds gradually and when I “push” instead of allowing, it often sets me back. I am eager to know what is next, to see around the next corner. But I need not worry.
My soul works and plays at integrating. It seems to do this better without the fretting of my ego or mind. When I pay attention to the ease and the grace that comes from sitting still or small movements, I can feel integration physically. At the same time, I notice myself acting with greater integrity in the world. This feels like a true definition of success for me.