Mental and Emotional Ease

Tame the Anxiety & Worry Monkeys

Mental and emotional ease are states of being that we can all appreciate.  We put our best selves forward when we are peaceful, calm and focused.  We need fast, easy and accessible tools to bring us back to order and calm when fear, anxiety, stress or worry monkeys knock on our door and enter our inner sanctum, wreaking havoc.  The ancient practice of yoga therapy has tools that can be tailored for working with the monkeys.

The journey of life brings difficult changes, losses and transitions that create disturbances of thought and emotion.  It’s like an entire jungle of monkeys vacationing in our home.  We may also be “hardwired” genetically or through family or other conditioning to be more anxious, worried and fearful.  In other words, you bought the house with monkeys included.  Ultimately we have to accept innate tendencies, process life experiences and learn tools for cultivating awareness and changing the inner sanctum when the monkeys take over and create a mess of our minds, emotions and physiology.

Yoga can work in the short term by soothing the stress response, quieting the mind and balancing emotions.  Over time, regular practice that is tailored to your needs can help to reduce or prevent stress and anxiety symptoms, panic attacks and side effects of stress and anxiety such as distraction, insomnia, digestive distress, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and high blood pressure.

My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, a master level Yoga Therapist and trainer, says that “one of yoga’s most important gifts is an inner connection to the reality that you are not your diagnosis” or your monkeys.   Working with the monkeys of anxiety, stress, worry or fear requires cutting through the physiological stress response to connect to something deeper within ourselves, that inner aspect of ourselves that is unchanging, even in the face of our genetics, family conditioning or external life changes.

5 Steps to Soothing Anxiety, Worry and Fear

Step 1:  Move your body.  Engage in some exercise.

Step 2:  Breath in coordination with movement in a yoga posture, adapting the breath in a unique way to soothe the stress response.

Step 3:  Do at least 12 – 18 breaths of a specialized anti-anxiety breathing technique.

Step 4:  Use a mantra (word or phrase) with awareness of your inhale and exhale whenever you feel that inner quickening feeling that arises before worry, fear, anxiety or stress kicks in.  We can prevent the monkeys from getting in the house.  A simple mantra might be Inhale – “Peace, Peace”, Exhale – “Peace, Peace, Peace”.

Step 5:  Connect to a source of inspiration or faith that gives you courage and strength for all that is ahead in the journey of life.   This shortened version of the Serenity Prayer is an example.  “Help me accept the things I cannot change, courage to change those that I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The nature of our mind is that tendency toward monkeys repeatedly showing up and taking over.  By doing regular yoga practice we place the bananas outside on the lawn for the monkeys, keeping our peaceful inner sanctum.   If the monkeys do get in, we can use our emergency tools of movement, breath, mantra and sources of inspiration and strength to calm the monkeys and gently evict them.

 

Grounding During Grief

Grief is a unique combination of sadness, memories, fog, strong emotions, bodily experiences and occasional moments of peace and clarity. This simple quote reveals so much about what we are just beginning to understand about the science of chronic stress and the effects of grief. Dr. van der Kolk, a researcher who studies the effect of yoga on stress and trauma, is reminding us that the body stores up life’s most difficult moments and stresses.

“The body keeps the score.” Bessel A van der Kolk

Our senses (what we hear, see, smell, taste and feel) provide input to the brain through sensory pathways or nerves. All that we perceive is processed through the brain. The brain is then involved in little or large reactions that are physical, physiological, mental and emotional.

Our day-to-day life stresses may not create a very big reaction because we build up experience and resilience. “Been there, done that, got it!” Grief is different. The physical, physiological, mental and emotional reactions are larger and often unrelenting for a longer period of time.

It is a difficult journey. It’s hard to discharge and unwind. The body runs on “reaction overdrive.” You might experience body tension and pain, headaches, sleeplessness, fatigue, mental fog, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, depression, anger and overwhelming sadness. There are a few key tools that may help you.

  • Yoga or any type of gentle movement or exercise can ease some of the symptoms. It provides a discharge for what builds up and gets lodged in the tissues. It can help you feel as if you are present in your body and a little more grounded.
  • Breath practices may help soothe and tune the nervous system and help you feel grounded, stable and a little more peaceful and calm. Breathing is also a mood stabilizer. It’s invisible and can be used anywhere and at any time.
  • Creating space for meditation, reflection, inquiry or prayer can be helpful. Most people need more solitude for a period of time. I have adapted a meditation that I learned from one of my mentors. The inquiry is simple: What has been lost? What remains? What is changing as a result of this loss? This inquiry changes over time and provides a way to measure how you are processing all that is a part of this journey.
  • Sound or music or chanting can be calming to the nervous system. It also settles the mind. Use something that speaks deeply to you. It might be relaxing music, a spiritual song, or a chant.

Every grief journey is different. No two people will experience and process the same grief experience in the same way. It’s an important time to take it on your terms. Watch for increasing moments of clarity and peace. That will be a sure sign that you are finding your way.

GroundingThroughGriefShortSequence

Free

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into treesThe winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

-John Muir

Free yourself from winter hibernation +

Free yourself from cold weather tension and stagnancy +

Free time to be outside, breathe, move and participate +

Free outdoor yoga classes in the best ‘green spaces’ of Central Wisconsin =

Better physical and mental health!

Your outdoor ‘green space’ yoga practice invites you to reconnect with the earth, stretch to the sky, inhale fresh oxygen and exhale the doldrums of winter.

Sip in the sweet benefits of outdoor yoga:

  • Be a Kid Again – stretch on the ground and look up at the sky
  • Practice Concentration – foster one-point-concentration as life happens around you
  • Hone Your Proprioception – that advanced sense of your body in space that helps you with stability, balance and movement
  • Plug in to the Totality of the Experience – be one with the beauty as well as the bugs
  • Engage Your 5 Senses and Be Inspired

For a personal practice, rolling out your mat on your patio, in the grass or beside your favorite water provides a familiar space to take 10-15 minutes to breathe and stretch into your favorite postures.

Group classes in ‘green space’ invites you to find balance with/between your heightened five senses and the ease of tranquility and calm.

The grass that tickles your hand, the birdsong that makes you look into the trees and the bug that wants to join you on your mat also provide you the opportunity to stop, breathe, observe and be present.

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, author of ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ shares, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything.  In the beginners mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Be free, be curious, be open to your beginners mind this summer.

Learn about all the Outdoor Yoga Classes 5 Koshas will be sharing this summer HERE, pre-register for classes: HERE.

Evolve!

Cakra-s as a Map for Energy, Personality, Potential & Transformation

As we navigate the journey of life, there are times of re-evaluating our priorities and values, our challenges and their impact on our relationships, our goals, and how we derive the most meaning in life.  Most of us have a deep calling to continue to evolve, to grow and to reach our fullest potential.  The cakra model, derived from the ancient teachings of yoga, provides a roadmap for esoteric anatomy, energy, personality and spiritual consciousness.

Cakra means “wheels” or whirling vortices that take in, process and organize energy.  In Western medicine, the cakra-s might be viewed as the nerve plexus in the physical body.  In Western psychology, cakra-s might be viewed as a map to the development of the personality and self-actualization.  In yoga, cakra-s are a model for human potential and spiritual consciousness.

“Cakra-s are a map of our disposition or character (svabhava) and a path to actualizing svarupa (true or essential self).”

– From Gary Kraftsow, author of Yoga for Transformation

Consider your spine or the space in front of the spine as the central power line or central channel of your body.  Starting at the base of the spine is the 1st energetic area, one associated with the qualities of stability and strength and the earth element.  The following chart provides more detail about the cakra-s, their approximate location, the main associated personality quality and the associated element:

 

Approximate

Location

Personality Quality Associated Element
Cakra 1 Base of spine Stability Earth
Cakra 2 Center of the lower pelvis Enthusiasm Water
Cakra 3 Between navel and back waistline Empowerment Fire
Cakra 4 Center of the chest Love Air
Cakra 5   Center of throat space Expression Ether
Cakra 6   Center of the space of the brain Discernment

All Elements

Intelligence

Cakra 7    Crown of the head Inspiration

Universal Consciousness

The good news for our journey through life is that we can evolve.  Within the ancient teachings are tools, methods, and practices for working with each cakra.

The heart of cakra practice is pranayama (breathing practices), chanting, and meditation.  These are the most potent yoga tools for working with prana and for seeing and transforming our challenges and maximizing our potential. It’s hard to “down dog” your way into a better attitude or a more positive relationship with people you love.

While asana (yoga postures) may be integrated into cakra practice, the purpose is to create circulation in certain areas of the body, stimulate the flow of prana (life force) through the central channel, prepare the breath for pranayama (breathing practices), and prepare the body and mind for meditation.  In other words, you “down dog” yourself into getting ready for the inner practices of yoga that have the most potential to transform obstacles and maximize potential.

A potent form of cakra meditation is bhuta suddhi.  It is an ancient technique of cakra meditation that includes sustained focus on the elements.  The goals of this type of meditation are to purify the elements, encourage the flow of prana (life force) through the central power line of the body and transform our samskaras (deep patterns and grooves).

Changing patterns of how we see ourselves and interact with others and developing a spiritual consciousness about all that we need to navigate in this human existence is evolution, the end result of cakra practice.

The Radiance of Your Inner Light

We are light.  Within us is a light, very much like the Sun, that is unchanging and brilliant.  This is one of the fundamental teachings in yoga philosophy.  The darkness of the winter creates an inward movement of our attention that creates opportunities to experience our inner life and radiance.

As we move into this time of the return of the Sun, here are 5 different ways to awaken the light within your heart:

  1. Move – Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Sweep your arms wide and up on INHALE in a sun-like movement.  Lower your arms in a sun-like movement on EXHALE.  Repeat 6 times.
  2. Breathe – Close your eyes. Sense the center space of the chest.  As you INHALE, try to feel an expansiveness in the chest.  As you EXHALE, hug the navel inward.  Do 12 full deep breaths.
  3. Use Sound – Use the seed mantra of the 4th or heart cakra (energetic center), YAM. Focus on the center of the chest.  Inhale, then sound the word, YAM, on Exhale. This sound creates vibration in the center of the chest. Repeat 6 times.
  4. Visualize – Focus your attention on the center of the chest, the cave of the heart. Visualize light, perhaps a beautiful sunrise, the light of a flickering candle, a lighted star atop a Christmas tree, sunset, or the light of the full moon that we’ll see this Christmas Day.  Spend 5 minutes focused on that light.  Feel as if the light grows more expansive within and around you.  If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to visualization of light.
  5. Be Present – Linger longer with the good that comes your way through friends, family, pets, nature, and faith.

 

Yoga Stress Busters for the Holidays

3 Quick and Easy Yoga Tips for Energy, Calm and Clarity for the Holiday Season

Tis the season to get really stressed out!  We tend to compress a year’s worth of entertaining, professional networking, cooking, baking, connecting with family and friends, extra school activities for kids, family traditions, shopping, and decorating all in one month.  It’s a lot of activity and mental clutter akin to snow on the windshield.

All of this activity happens at a time of year when the lack of light in northern latitudes creates a loss of physical energy and mental clarity for many people.  Yoga can be individualized and adapted to meet your needs whether it is energy, mental clarity, or calming influences.

Here are 3 quick yoga tools to help you moderate your energy and stress during the holidays:

  1. Breathe – Take 5 minutes to breathe deeply. As you inhale, try to feel your chest and belly expanding.  As you exhale, pull the belly inward.  Deep, smooth breathing is one of the quickest ways to shift distraction, fatigue, anxiety, stress, and the tendency to overindulge.  It’s the invisible game changer and it can be adapted to what you need at any given moment.  You can do it in bed before you get up, at your desk, standing in line, at a Christmas concert, or in bed at night.

To energize:  Make your inhale and exhale equal in length.  Pause after the inhale for 2 to 3 seconds.  Example:  Inhale 6 seconds, pause for 3 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds.

To calm down:  Make your exhale at least 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhalation.  Example:  Inhale 4 seconds, exhale 6 seconds.

  1. Move – Do a favorite yoga posture, first with 6 repetitions in and out of the posture, then stay in the posture for 6 full deep breaths.

To energize:  Do Mountain Pose (Tadasana).  Stand with your feet hip distance apart.  On inhale, sweep your arms out to the sides and up as you raise your heels.  Pause for 2 – 3 seconds after the inhale. On exhale, lower your arms and heels at the same time.

To calm down:  Do Table to Child Pose (Cakravakasana).  Kneel in a table position, placing hands on the floor below the shoulders.  On exhale, lower forearms to the floor as you lower hips toward heels. On inhale, return to the table position.   Make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than inhale.

  1. Hit the Pause Button and Contemplate – Take a minute every hour or two where you just sit and do nothing. Put the electronics away.  Just observe and feel.  There are often a lot of society- and family-imposed thought patterns and obligations that creep in over the holidays.  Becoming a witness to your own thoughts is helpful.  Ask yourself what is most important for the holidays.  What events, social gatherings, rituals and obligations reflect your most deeply held values and priorities?  As you clarify and prioritize, it’s much easier to say “no” to what isn’t as important to you and your family and to say “yes” to what is deeply nourishing.

If you take time to move and breathe deeply as well as contemplate your highest priorities, it will be easier to stay grounded, be clear and calm, and act in integrity with what’s most important to you and your family.  Turn on the windshield wipers several times daily with these quick and easy yoga practices.

HolidayDe-StressSequence

Meditate for Better Health

So what exactly is meditation?  Meditation can mean different things to different people. To some, it is something weird or eerie that Buddhist monks do. To others, it is something they think they could never do because they don’t have the patience. To others, meditation is a life-changing experience that gives them mental clarity, less stress, and better physical health. Which of these will meditation be to you?

The good news is that meditation can be a life-changing experience for anyone. You don’t need any special skills, mental super powers, or inductions into secret societies. Meditation simply means mastery of the mind. We can all do that to some degree. Imagine a big, sweet, sticky cinnamon bun, dripping with frosting. It’s easy, right?  You were probably able to control your mind and bring that image into your awareness with a simple instruction. Unfortunately, we don’t focus on controlling our minds very much.  Our thoughts tend to run wild, causing chaos, lack of focus, fear, anxiety, and stress.

Imagine your internal dialogue any time during the day.  Our minds tend to fly from one thought to the next, thinking of problems, solutions, fears, things we are looking forward to, memories of the past, etc. The thoughts are like bubbles coming up through water, and as each one hits the surface, it is in our attention until the next one appears. This is a hugely inefficient and stressful way of thinking.

The goal of meditation is to wrestle control of these bubbling thoughts, and replace them with a fixed thought or series of thoughts, which calms the mind and reduces the internal chatter. In many ways this acts as brain rest, which allows the brain time to recharge and collect itself. It is better than sleep, since when we sleep our minds can be just as active, running rampant through our dreams.

Meditation has been scientifically shown to alter brain waves measured by electroencephalogram. It can reduce stress, and in turn, reduce stress-induced disease. In the world of ancient yoga, it was believed that meditation helped you approach a state of complete bliss without care or worry, completely at peace with yourself and the world. Yoga postures were designed to prepare the body for breathing exercises (pranayama), which were in turn designed to prepare the mind for meditation. So the whole premise behind yoga was that of preparation for more efficient meditation.

There are many types and styles of meditation. In one of the simpler methods, we select a pleasing image (such as the cinnamon bun), an object we associate with, or a memory.  We try to fix the mind on this object or place, and keep thinking about it. If the mind wanders off to the thoughts, we bring it back to this image, and keep doing that until the meditation session is over. Meditation sessions can be minutes or hours (even days) in duration, depending on your goal. There are definite health benefits to even a few minutes of meditation every day. Starting with a modest goal is very reasonable.

With a little practice, this process becomes easier and easier. It becomes possible to drop into meditation almost anywhere, even for a few moments, to help clear the mind and rejuvenate, or de-stress. There is nothing mystical about any of this, it is just a clearing of the mental bubbling.  Anyone who is capable of thinking is capable of doing it.