Be Like the Wildflowers: Return to the Core of Who You Are, Rest, Digest, Bloom

By Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT 

How can we emerge from this year?   Let’s just say it.  It’s been a crazy year.  Uncertainty and quickly changing circumstances have dominated our lives.  Situations and events that tear at the heart have happened with greater frequency.  Even the most balanced and steady among us have felt stress, anxiety, loss, and grief.  I’ve been thinking about how wildflowers have some answers for us.  

Every year wildflowers return to the core of who they are, allowing their brilliance and show-stopping displays to whither and return to the earth as compost.  I’m not suggesting that you turn yourself into compost right now, but prioritizing some time to be with yourself in quiet reflection is a great alternative.  Turn off the news.  Shut down the electronics.  Let nature be a therapeutic balm for your senses.  Breathe.  Courageously know yourself.  

One of our students has a ritual of watching the sun rise over the Wisconsin River.  It’s his contemplative time of day.  Rituals of connecting to nature, the cycles of the day or season, and faith are all powerful ways to return to the core of who you are.  

Breathing deeply is also another way of returning to Self, that part of you that is unchanging.  Self is that center that is unchanged by the drama all around.  And the quickest way to return to that core is via the breath.  Even 12 deep breaths can lead you home.    

Wildflowers rest.  In all my years of teaching yoga, teaching teachers, mentoring students, and working with clients on therapeutic practices, I’ve never seen a time where people have been so in need of deep rejuvenating rest.  The chronic stress and anxieties of this last year drain our systems.  We can become like wildflowers without any food, water, or sunshine.  

Movement practices like gentle breath-infused yoga postures, Tai Chi, embodiment, Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) or any movement done in a meditative way are all wonderful ways to slow down and provide nourishment in the form of circulation to muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, fascia, organs, glands, the brain, and entire nervous system.  It is just like giving a wildflower some oak leaf mulch, warm spring rain and a good dose of sunshine.  Even if you are extremely attracted to a hard driving workout, it’s supportive of your immunity to do a gentle practice at least once a week to rest and rejuvenate.  

Guided relaxation and meditation also help with deep rest.  Even 5 – 10 minutes of relaxing music with legs up on an ottoman or chair or up the wall will signal to your body to do its “rest and digest” function.  This is particularly helpful to our immune system and can support the work of your Covid-19 vaccine.  

Wildflowers digest food, water, and sunshine to emerge in the spring.  We too need nutritious food, water, and light to digest the experiences of this last year.  There are many ways to digest what has happened.  Loss and grief and coping with change looks different for each person.  Prioritizing some time for what helps you is a good start.  As we emerge, we risk jumping back on hamster wheels that are not really our own.  Find what really nourishes you and helps you process what happened this last year.  Some people meditate, some journal, some take counsel in a good friend, some pray, and others return to activities that help them feel like they are contributing to the greater good.  It is enormously helpful to have a process that helps you feel like you are digesting your own individual experience to reflect on what’s been lost, what remains and what feels more important than ever before. 

And that brings us to blooming.  Without fail, the wildflowers return each spring.  From delicate, almost Victorian-like preciousness to bold and strong displays, they return.  They have used the gift of returning to their core, resting, and digesting to emerge once again.    

The lessons for us as we emerge are perhaps simple.  Be like the wildflowers:

  • Return to the core of who you are for at least 5 minutes each day.  Take in nature through the senses.  Breathe deeply.  Turn off the drama of the world for some time every day.   
  • Prioritize some rest in a way that helps your body achieve its most optimal immunity.  We all need that right now.  In fact, the entire world is banking on every human building immunity.  Schedule your restful self-care.  
  • Digest and process the experiences of this last year in a way that suits you.  Reflect on what has been lost, what remains and what feels more important than ever before.  And set your sights to that light of inspiration.  
  • As the time comes, bloom!  Don’t feel any need to rush the process of emerging.  Let what is meant to manifest in your life do so.  Honor the cycle that we are in right now as it is likely to be different with some small and large changes.    

May your mind-body practice (and vaccine) support you like soil, food, water, and sunshine nourishes those wildflowers. 

Non-Attachment Through Yoga Practice: Freedom, Peace, Courage

What have you had to give up an attachment to this year?

Some of the attachments may be more superficial, some more deeply difficult. Your list might be long. Family rituals, friend gatherings, travel, work, school life with in-person contact, in-person volunteer work, shared interest with others in hobbies, sports or causes, in-person entertainment. You may be suffering with those most deeply difficult changes, such as death of someone you love, loss of a relationship that was important to you or major changes in relationships due to the stresses of this time.

We are all living with the reality of our many attachments. The pandemic is like a big mirror, reflecting our attachments and aversions. While this pandemic, in its size and scope, is new for all of us, suffering with attachments and aversions is not. The ancient philosophical teachings of yoga describe these concepts and offer suggestions for managing attachment and aversion.

We can move through life tethered to our identification with things, ideas, opinions, and self-concept. But if we walk courageously willing to examine our identifications, we can experience the fruits of freedom, peace, and courage. Let’s explore these concepts and their relationship to loosening the grip of attachments or aversions.

Freedom

Non-attachment or vairagya “is an ability to remain centered, without being knocked off balance and impelled to behave in ways we may later regret.” It “is the ability to reside in a space without the compulsion to act; it gives us the freedom to choose how to respond,” according to Roy and Charlton in Embodying the Yoga Sutra: Support, Direction, Space.

The pandemic has created a space to explore what we really do not miss. It has also created a deeper understanding of what is most meaningful, what our hearts yearn for.

There is freedom in understanding how we used to spend our time and energy and how we want to spend our time and energy going forward. Observing and exploring attachments and aversions helps us peel back the layers to see our own true nature and to live more fully from that place. As we loosen the grip of things, repetitive patterns of thinking and emotional reactivity patterns, we open ourselves to being more selfless, to serving others and our communities.

Peace

When we can observe our attachments and aversions without acting on them, we suddenly have a newfound sense of peace. An introspective mindset helps us see the desires, discomforts and motivations that are underneath what we cling to and what we avoid. If we are hooked by attachments, we are also accumulating a lot of maintenance work. If we act less on attachments, energy is freed up for what gives our lives meaning.

You can’t live through an election cycle without some awareness that we are all tethered to our opinions. Social media and group-think amplifies this attachment. Instead of really studying an issue and trying to understand it at a deeper level, there is the tendency to quickly like or dislike or tweet about it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and winner of the National Book Award, said recently in a Washington Post article, “If I’m honest with you, I feel like the need to have an opinion on everything corrupts thinking.”

Peace can wash over us when we dedicate our thinking and talking and writing time to what really matters to us and where we feel we can effect change. Non-attachment doesn’t mean not caring or absolving oneself of responsibility to others and the community. Discerning how to act to effect change is a very individual experience. Snarky tweets and Facebook outrage are typically just amplifying and broadcasting our attachments, while the quiet work of the peaceful warrior is one of steady actions toward goals that will make a difference.

“Detachment is not indifference. It is the prerequisite for effective involvement. Often what we think is best for others is distorted by our attachments to our opinions. We want others to be happy in the way we think they should be happy. It is only when we want nothing for ourselves that we are able to see clearly into others needs and understand how to serve them.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

Courage

We can be pushed around by our aversions, letting them define us, perhaps even limiting our openness to new and enlightening experiences and to love without expectations. I often think of parenting in those first few years of childhood as the ultimate act of being able to let go of attachments and aversions to love and serve another human being without expectation.

Non-attachment or vairagya is an active process, a tending to the smudges on the mirror so that peace and love are more well-established than fear, selfishness, and attachment.

Problem-solving is an important skill anytime but maybe even more so during a pandemic. The less attached we are to our ideas, or the way we’ve always done things, or the way we thought things would be, the more skillful and less anxious we can be in working out solutions. Openness invites the presence of creativity and problem-solving.

Methods to Work with Attachment and Aversion in Yoga Practice – On & Off the Mat

Yoga practice can create a space for working with our attachments and aversions. It provides a space to explore what is, and to strengthen our ability to observe and change attachments and aversions that keep us from peace, freedom and living a courageous life.

  • If physical postures are part of your yoga practice, explore new postures or change up how you do a posture. Use a contra-lateral adaptation, add chanting, or adapt the breath to cultivate openness and curiosity over habitual ways of moving.
  • Start a regular breathing practice if you don’t already have one. Even 5 minutes a day can be life-affirming. Pranayama cultivates focus, energy, and patience – all qualities that help us stay steady through life’s ups and downs. Pranayama also helps reset the reactivity dial every day.
  • Meditate on attachments and aversions. What are the underlying motivations or intentions for those attachments and aversions? Reflect on true sources of happiness. Whenever we can turn from self-serving to selfless, we orient more toward the deeper callings of the heart.
  • Meditate on loss. Examine it. Give it space. Understand the depth of the loss and what attachments and aversions are wrapped up in that loss. Explore what remains as a connection that endures through time. Meditate on what is coming out of that loss. Ask yourself if you can experience your life with all the richness and difficulties and remain open and in awe? As you process the loss, turn your mind in meditation to objects of attention that symbolize what you are trying to cultivate moving forward.
  • Off the mat, try to put a space between what happens to you and how you react to it. Consciously take 3 or more deep breaths, keeping your mind focused on the sound, physical sensation, and length of the breath. Be present with where and what you’re experiencing. Is it an attachment to a certain way of reacting? Are you feeling like you want to run from what you’re experiencing? Any disturbing emotion such as anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear provides an invitation to understand what’s underneath the push or pull for us.
  • When you complain about the way things used to be in the “before times,” or rail against new routines in the “now times,” or feel the attachment to the “after times,” take a few moments to identify what you are clinging to and what you want to run from. What is a ‘feel-good moment’ that you miss and what is the deeper suffering that relates to loss of connection? If we can identify the foundation of the suffering, we can be more effective in a course of action.

“Wisdom is the ability to rise above perceptions that are clouded by biased self-interest to discern the meaning concealed in a fact or event,” says Reverend Jaganath Carrera in Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

We all have our attachments and aversions. They are the smudges and fog on the mirror that obscure clarity. These wonderfully human imperfections invite us to transform and live more authentically. Through the practice of non-attachment, we can let the big mirror of the pandemic help us see where we were, where we are now, and how much we want a deeper connection to freedom, peace and courage for the future.

Yoga for Focus & Attention as the Season Changes

Autumn brings a distraction, more so this year as we navigate the change along with the pandemic and all its twists, turns and complexities.  Have you noticed how your mind and thoughts run around like squirrels gathering and burying acorns?

Squirrel!

It is the season of the squirrel.  Summer has said its last goodbye for the year.  The crispness and color of fall is upon us.  With the season change comes distraction, cognitive fog with fewer hours of daylight and maybe even this year, an accompanying worry about what is next as we are still actively in a pandemic.

The nature of the mind is to have runaway thoughts.   Fortunately, the ancient yogis devised techniques for harnessing thoughts to create focus and improve attention.  At our disposable are simple but effective tools and techniques.

Tips for Yoga Practice for Focus & Attention during Seasonal Changes

  • Infuse yoga postures with the breath.  Each part of a movement is accompanied and powered by a phase of the breath.

  • Do yoga postures with contra-lateral adaptations
  • Adapt the breath in yoga postures to lift energy or calm, depending on what you need.  If you need to focus and lift energy, use a short retention after inhale.  If you need to focus and calm down, extend exhale progressively as you do a posture.
  • Do breathing practices (pranayama), especially with nostril valving such as Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing)
  • Use meditative techniques such as fixing your attention to an image of light in your heart and mind or using a mantra (a word or phrase that is supportive for you).  A supportive mantra at this time of year is Om Jyotir Aham (invoking light within).

When to Get Help

As the season changes, it’s important to work with your health care provider if you get significant symptoms of seasonal affective disorder that deeply impact your life such as having trouble functioning at work or home, difficulty in your personal relationships, or you have significant feelings of depression and hopelessness or anxiety.

Resources

If you are interested in using yoga techniques to help with seasonal changes, contact a Yoga Therapist as they are trained in tailoring techniques for your unique manifestation of seasonal changes as well as other health conditions you may have.

For other writing on yoga and seasonal changes, see past blogs on fatigue and general yoga practice tips for seasonal changes.

Intention

As you move toward the winter solstice, use your yoga practice to support and nourish your focus and attention.  Use your practice to gently harness your attention to do what must be done and cultivate light to burn off any cognitive fog that clouds your day.

Stick figure graphics by Sequence Wiz, www.sequencewiz.com.

Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT is a Certified Viniyoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist and Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist with 5 Koshas Yoga and Wellness Center and River Flow Yoga Teacher Training School in Wausau WI. Mary offers individualized Yoga Therapy in person and online.  She teaches therapeutic and wellness yoga classes, mini-retreats, workshops, webinars and yoga teacher training (200 hr. Yoga Teacher Training | 300 hr. Advanced Yoga Teacher Training for RYT-500). 

How to Reduce Stress with Yoga

The stress from the COVID-19 pandemic is as unprecedented as the the public health regulations and recommendations needed to control it. There’s stress around the fear of getting infected. There’s stress around making a living as the economy contracts. Parents are stressed about their children keeping up with their education.  There’s stress in the uncertainty about how long this will last.

Especially amidst this coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to set aside time for yourself to reduce stress levels and process what’s happening for you and your family, even if only for a couple minutes. If you’re looking for a way find some inner peace and balance, yoga reduces stress with simple and accessible tools.

A Holistic Approach to Stress Relief

The pressure can build up, and a sense of discomfort can make us turn to habitual discomfort relievers – checking social media, turning on your favorite reality TV show or heading to the junk food cabinet. We have all been there in the last several months.  These temporary pressure relievers are unable to offer lasting stress relief. Yoga is a holistic approach to stress relief that synchronizes your body and mind to help you come back to your center so that you can mindfully do the best you can in these circumstances.

Research has shown that regularly practicing yoga can help to reduce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, lower blood pressure, and increase blood flow.

Stress-Relieving Yoga Tools

When it comes to yoga for stress relief, it’s all about awareness, holding attention, and breathing. Start with awareness of where you are beginning (body, mind, emotions). Hold attention on the breath or the coordination between the breath and the movement. By focusing on breathing, you will have more conscious respiratory rhythm, which helps you tune your nervous system. Incorporating meditation (again, holding attention in one place) into your routine will help you become more mindful of the world around you and, more importantly, yourself.

When you focus your attention on one specific aspect like breathing, you temporarily offload the stressors of the world around you to gain new perspectives and regulate your autonomic nervous system

Table to Child’s Pose (Cakravakasana)

Use this posture to connect to your breathing and to stretch your low back. To get into Child’s Pose, start with a tabletop on your hands and knees. Place your knees hip-distance apart and your hands below your shoulders. On an exhale, hug in belly muscles. Lower your forearms to the floor and slowly move your hips toward your heels as you lower your head and chest toward the floor.  Repeat the posture several times and then rest in the Child’s Pose for six full deep breaths.

Cranky Knees? Sit on a chair and fold chest toward thighs on an exhalation.

Morning: Make inhalation and exhalation equal in length to energize. Progressively make the inhale and exhale longer.

Evening: Focus on progressively lengthening your exhale to calm and relax.

Eagle Pose

Pauline Zweck, RYT-200 pictured above in Eagle Pose

Balancing poses require deep concentration, which makes them effective for stress relief. All your energy is focused on staying upright, keeping you in the moment and helping you forget about the stressors around you. Eagle Pose is also a great posture for relieving stress in the upper back and shoulders. If you’re having trouble balancing, try staring at a fixed object or spot in the room. Choose something that’s pleasing or calming to you.

To get into Eagle Pose, begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart and your shoulders down and back. Making sure all your movements are slow and smooth, pick up your right leg and cross it over your left, standing on one foot. Imagine you are sitting on a chair that is not  there. Now, cross your left arm over the top of your right arm at the elbows, and bring the back of your hands together. Bend your elbows until your hands are in front of your face. Hold Eagle’s Pose for at least six full breaths before switching to the other side.

 

Holistic Stress Relief

Stress is not a new invention brought on by the coronavirus outbreak but it provides a learning opportunity. By learning to stay present amidst the storm of the pandemic, you will embed tools for a lifetime. Practicing yoga impacts every layer of who you are – physical, physiology, mind, character and heart. You can become a stronger, healthier person and relieve stress by regularly practicing simple and accessible yoga techniques, leading to an overall higher quality of life.

Yoga + Mindfulness Tools for Conscious Eating & Embodied Well-Being

When we start to pay attention in an intentional and nonjudgmental way, as we do when we cultivate mindfulness, and thus bring ourselves back into the present moment, we are tapping into very deep natural resources of strength, creativity, balance and yes, wisdom – interior resources that me may never have realized we even possess.  Nothing has to change.  We don’t have to be different or “better.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn in the Foreward to ‘Mindful Eating’ by Jan Chozen Bays, MD

Are You Ready For A New Relationship to Food, Eating and Exercise?

Are you ready to inhabit your body from the inside out?  Are you ready to listen to your internal cues for what nourishes you?  Have you had enough of scales, diets and external sources of control?  Yoga and the mindfulness tools that are part of this ancient science can re-orient us to our own inner wisdom about what makes us feel well.

How Yoga Helps Conscious Eating

Yoga has a vast set of tools that can be helpful for cultivating conscious eating and emotional well-being around food, eating, exercise and body image.  Here are a few ways that yoga and mindfulness can help:

  • Breath-centered yoga postures done slowly and mindfully can create a feeling of groundedness and rootedness for inhabiting the body we have
  • Yoga posture practice and breathing practices help cultivate stability and strength in body, thoughts and emotions
  • Yoga postures, breathing practices and meditation help manage stress, a saboteur of a positive and healthy relationship to food, eating, body image and enjoyable forms of movement
  • Breathing, meditation and awareness exercises often improve our internal sense of hunger, fullness, thoughts and emotions that ultimately drive behaviors
  • A well-rounded yoga practice helps us continually dig into the well of our own deep wisdom around what helps our energy level, sleep, physical comfort, and emotional well-being

We live in a time where they are so many “shoulds” and “don’t’s” around food, weight and exercise.  The tools of yoga and mindfulness offer an intuitive, conscious and inner wisdom-based approach to food, eating, movement and relationship to oneself.

A Mindful Eating Exercise

As we move through this time of celebrations and resolutions, you might ask yourself, “What is it I really hunger for and how am I hungry for it?”  Here are 6 questions to guide you in your mindfulness around eating:

  1. Are my eyes hungry for this because of its beauty?
  2. Am I hungry for the smell of this food?
  3. Is my stomach feeling hunger or thirst for this food?
  4. Do I have a deep craving for this food at a cellular level and how is my body responding to this food that I craved?
  5. Is my mind running a script about this food, telling me the “shoulds” or “don’ts”?
  6. Is my heart craving this food because it’s soothing or nourishing to me, and what is the story about this food that attracts me to it?

Access Deep Inner Wisdom Through Holistic Yoga Practice

Slowing down the art of eating with simple mindfulness tools can help re-establish a deep inner connection to food and eating.  Moving, breathing, grounding, and reflecting through a holistic approach to yoga practice can help cultivate a sense of inhabiting the body.  By accessing deep inner wisdom, we become more fully aware of what helps us feel well at all levels of the Koshas – physical body, physiology, mind, intuition and heart.

Yoga for Fatigue as the Season Changes

Summer has said it’s last goodbye for the year.  The crispness and color of fall is upon us. With the season change comes the very real problem of fatigue for many who live in northern climes.  It’s one of the more overwhelming symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and a troubling symptom for many as the hours of daylight fade.

Fatigue can have different qualities.  It may feel physical (more muscular) or physiological (shortness of breath, no “mo-jo”, lethary) or cognitive (presenting as difficulty concentrating and processing information).  It can be mild at one end of the spectrum or bone-numbing and paralyzing at the other extreme.   A dandelion scattering its seeds is symbolic for the scattering of energy that comes with fatigue.

The ancient yogis devised models for understanding human energy and how to transform it.  We can use these ancient models for the fatigue that comes with the season, health conditions, treatments, grief, or other factors that cause fatigue.

Breath-centered postures, breathing practices and relaxation/meditative practices have the greatest potential to help us transform fatigue.  We can choose postures that build energy, adapt the breath in postures to awaken and nourish, or use breathing practices that feel awakening when we are tired or calm us when stress is depleting our energy reserves.  We can also use yoga to become more sensitive to when we need more energy-conserving practice like relaxation or meditation.

Here are 5 ways to get started with yoga practice tools to transform fatigue:

  1. Awareness – track your fatigue level, stress level, work hours, leisure activities and lifestyle habits such as exercise and diet for 1 week to see if you notice any trends
  2. Asana – do a short practice of 1 – 3 postures to get going in the morning.  Lengthen your breath over 4 – 6 repetitions of the posture.  Standing postures are the most energizing but if your energy is really low, you may need to do something on your back or in a kneeling position.
  3. Breathe – when energy is low but you need to be present or productive, do 12 full deep breaths with Inhale = Exhale and a short 3 sec pause after Inhale.  An example is:  Inhale 6 sec, Pause for 3 sec after Inhale, Exhale 6 sec.
  4. Meditate – spend about 5 minutes visualizing light moving to every part of your body, especially the heart space, center of the head and hands and feet.
  5. Breath-infused Relaxation or Nap – systematically work through the body, sending a deep breath to each major part of the body (R arm, R leg, L leg, L arm, center of the head, center of the chest, belly, abdomen).  Do 1st round with 1 breath, 2nd round with 2 breaths, 3rd round with 3 breaths.  Continue until your body feels suspended in a deep state of relaxation and rejuvenation.  Spend 5 – 10 minutes in this rejuvenation.

Fatigue is often transformed more by a variety of short practice tools that are “do-able” and not too energy-consuming than a monster practice. As your reserve of energy improves, you may be able to exercise more or add stronger yoga practices or begin to work with breathing practices that build your energy reserves.  A yoga teacher or Yoga Therapist trained in the Vedic models of human energy can help you out.

It’s important to work with your health care provider if symptoms of fatigue feel overwhelming or are new without any discernible reason.  If you have trouble functioning at work, home or in your volunteer work, your personal relationships suffer, and you have significant feelings of depression as a result of the fatigue, it’s time to talk with your doctor.

As you move toward the winter solstice, use your yoga practice to support and nourish steady energy and to transform fatigue when it presents itself.

Transition and Transformation

Change in our life comes in many different ways.  Sometimes we plan for the change.  A retirement, career change or getting married are examples of things that we often consciously choose.  And then some changes blow in like a strong wind taking with it any sense of order and stability.

There are many teachings in the ancient tradition of yoga for transforming through life’s inevitable changes.   Some of the most profound and useful teachings on change come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  The teachings most helpful center on our relationship to attachment and aversion, understanding what causes suffering, how to free ourselves from suffering and staying centered in regular practice that is suitable for us as individuals.

Radical and deeply shocking changes may require the simplest yoga tools possible.  It may be a very basic but comforting posture infused with a long exhale.  It may be simply trying to extend your exhale to try to fall asleep.  It may be extending the breath in the morning as you first wake up to try to get more clear-headed to face the day.

Whether changes is radical or planned, yoga can be profoundly useful in helping us build our prana shakti or vitality so that we are strong and stable in body, physiology (especially our immune system) and mind.  We build prana shakti through postures and breath practice (pranayama).  We can then use our vitality to work with the more difficult aspects of change including thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that create suffering around the inevitable changes that life brings our way.

When unexpected visitors come to your door, welcome all knowing that you have the tools to be present, open and grounded.

Yoga for Cancer Treatment and Recovery

The ancient tools of yoga can help you feel your best through cancer treatment and assist in helping you reclaim your life after cancer.  Yoga can help with side effects from medically essential and life-giving treatments.  Yoga can be adapted to provide relief for nausea, fatigue, constipation, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, “chemo brain”, and neuropathy.  Feeling more like yourself after treatments is often a side benefit of developing a personal yoga practice.

Yoga for YOU

Yoga therapy uses therapeutic application of the tools of yoga to help you address issues that are especially problematic during treatment and post-treatment.  Based on your interest and need, simple practices are developed to help you address specific issues.  Yoga practice might include yoga postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, sound, meditation or other practices.  There is no “one-size-fits-all” yoga approach when it comes to the type of cancer, the treatment side effects or the recovery.  Let’s address a few common concerns.

Nausea

Nausea is a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment.  A therapeutic yoga practice might be very simple in the days following a treatment.  Prop your head and chest up with pillows or cushions in bed or on the couch.  Breathe in and out through the mouth, focusing on a long exhale.  On the inhale, direct your attention into the navel area.  On exhale, focus on directing your attention down through the pelvis, legs, feet and toes.  You might even try a quiet sound on the exhale such as “haaa”.  Some patients benefit from a curled tongue inhale and a long sighing exhale.

Anxiety Tool: The Calming Breath

Breathing techniques are especially helpful for many treatment symptoms.  Anxiety around the diagnosis or treatments is very common.  Here is a simple breathing technique to try to create some calm when thoughts and emotions are taking away your calm.

Sit upright in a chair or rest back on the couch or in bed.  Inhale with ease, pause for 2 – 3 seconds and exhale smoothly. Do this for 6 breaths.  Continue the same pattern and make your exhale 2 – 3 seconds longer than your inhale.  Do this for 12 breaths.  Then gradually allow your breath to settle back to normal.

Care and Tending of the Immune System

One of the most important self-care strategies for cancer treatment and recovery is caring for your immune system.  A tailored yoga practice does this by reducing stress, improving sleep and promoting better digestion.  Yoga, along with nutritious food, adequate sleep, regular exercise, social support and other therapies, promotes the optimal functioning of your immune system during and after treatment.

A Yoga Therapist or yoga teacher who specializes in cancer care can help you through different phases of treatment and recovery that may present different symptoms that keep you from feeling your best.  Seek out specialized help to feel your best and integrate all that’s happened to you.

Sweet Dreams: Yoga for Better Sleep & Daytime Energy

“When sleep escapes you and drowsiness and fuzzy thinking are your daytime companions, it’s time to evaluate what action you can take to improve sleep.  Mind-body practices, including yoga, can improve sleep and daytime energy.”  

The roots of sleeplessness may be related to age, stress, hormonal changes, pain, digestive distress, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, other health issues, treatments, medications, exercise (lack of or timing), diet, or lifestyle.  Yoga is especially helpful for reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, digestive distress and menopause that often make it difficult to fall asleep or interrupt sleep. In addition, yoga can be used to reduce daytime fatigue caused by poor sleep.

The tools of Yoga Therapy are skillfully applied based on the characteristics of sleeplessness and resulting fatigue.  Some people have trouble falling asleep.  Others wake in the middle of the night.  A common pattern that arises with age is early waking.  And some individuals sleep for 8 hours yet never feel rested and refreshed.

Yoga Therapy tools that may be used for sleeplessness include yoga postures, breath adaptation in the postures, breathing practices, guided relaxation, meditation, or sound.  The tools of yoga can be applied for your particular pattern of sleeplessness and might include:

  • Setting the stage for better sleep with exercise, nutrition and yoga techniques
  • Yoga techniques for falling asleep
  • What to do when you wake during the night
  • What to do if you experience waking early
  • Quick and easy techniques for dealing with daytime fatigue
  • Changing your relationship with your sleeplessness.

An important aspect of Yoga Therapy is to better understand what helps and what aggravates a particular condition.  Through newfound awareness, we can apply the highest value yoga tools in efficient and effective ways to improve your life.  Being able to fall asleep or having better daytime energy can drastically transform productivity and overall enjoyment of life.

One of the most common experiences of sleeplessness is not being able to fall asleep because of stress and repetitive negative or worrisome thoughts.  Some movement with adapted breathing may be helpful right before bed.

Try Apanasana (Gas-Relieving Pose) right before bed to relax, relieve any digestive distress and stretch your low back.  You can do it on your bed or on the floor.  Repeat the posture 6 times, lengthening your exhale every 2 repetitions.

Try Yogic Sheep Counting Method right before bed or if you wake during the night. Do the technique either in a seated position or relaxing on your back in bed:

Inhale 1 second, Exhale 1 second X1
Inhale 2 seconds, Exhale 2 seconds X1
Inhale 3 seconds, Exhale 3 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 4 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 5 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 6 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 7 seconds X1
Inhale 4 seconds, Exhale 8 seconds X1

Repeat this exercise for several rounds until you feel sleepy.

Whether you need better sleep, more sleep, or better energy during the day, your yoga toolbox has options for skillful action. You can learn how to use the tools for sweet dreams at night and vitality and clear thinking during the day.

Stick figures by Sequence Wiz

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.