your stress response is your superpower!

This is the third part of our exploration of the physiology of stress. You can read the first part (exploring the brain) here, and the second part (diving into the polyvagal response) here. Our final entry will explore physical ways to work with the stress response.

a small boy wearing a superhero costume raises his arm toward the sky, looking toward the sun. He is wearing a yellow shirt, red glasses, and a black cape.
happy kid play superhero , boy power concept

When heaven is about to confer a great responsibility on any man, it will exercise his mind with suffering, subject his sinews and bones to hard work, expose his body to hunger, put him to poverty, place obstacles in the paths of his deeds, so as to stimulate his mind, harden his nature, and improve wherever he is incompetent. -Meng Tzu,China,3rd Cent. BCE 

As a whole, our culture tends to characterize stress as something that is inherently harmful and should be reduced, avoided, or managed in some way. We’re given messages that it is toxic; that it makes us sick, causes heart disease, depression, addiction, and ages us more quickly. 

A 1998 study asked thirty thousand adults in the United States how much stress they experienced in the last  year. They were also asked, ‘Do you believe stress is harmful to your health?’ Eight years later, the researchers used public records to determine how many of the participants had died. As you might expect, high levels of stress increased the risk of death by 41%. However— that risk only applied to people who also believed that stress was harming their health.  People who reported high levels of stress but who did not view their stress as harmful were not more likely to die! In fact, they had the lowest risk of anyone in the study, even those who reported experiencing very little stress. The researchers concluded that it wasn’t stress alone that was killing people; it was the combination of stress and the belief that stress is harmful. They estimated that during the eight years during which they conducted this study, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely simply because they believed that stress was harming their health. As Dr. Kelly McGonigal (in her excellent book “The Upside of Stress”— I think everyone should read this book) says, according to statistics from the CDC, that would make “believing stress is bad for you” the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the US, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide. 

So, your mindset matters– and, as Dr. Alia Crum and her colleagues demonstrated in a series of studies, it goes both ways. Here’s a little background: you’ve probably heard about cortisol, right? Released as a function of your sympathetic nervous system, it helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves your body’s ability to utilize that energy. It also suppresses some functions like digestion, reproduction, and health (which is why it gets all the bad press). Its partner is DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is also released as part of the stress response. DHEA is a neurosteroid that helps your brain grow stronger from stressful events– it speeds up wound repair and enhances your immune system’s function. Higher levels of DHEA have been linked to reduced risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, and all the other things that make us think “stress is terrible for us.” We need both of these hormones, but the ratio of your cortisol to your DHEA is important– this is called your growth index. The growth index is associated with better focus, superior problem-solving skills, and fewer post-traumatic stress symptoms after the event. It predicts resilience in extreme circumstances. If you’re going to have stress or a traumatic event, you want a high growth index.

Dr. Crum’s study was simple. She subjected participants to a stressful mock job interview and measured their growth index afterward. All of the subjects had heightened stress hormones. However, one group of participants had a higher growth index. The difference? Those participants were shown a three-minute video about the positive nature of stress. That’s right– just a three minute video was enough to change the biological reality of the stressful event for them. They did not suffer the negative effects of stress in the same way the others did.

This is pretty great news, isn’t it? If we can learn, and remember that our stress response is designed to help us to handle life’s challenges, then we may actually benefit from the adverse situation. We can call this a challenge response– and it is your superpower.

So, let’s do a little superhero training. Can you remember a time where you felt some acute stress? It could be an incident in traffic, or a problem at work, or even a scary moment in a movie.

  • Can you remember what your body felt like in that moment? What sensations did you notice?
  • Did your pulse or breath rate change?
  • Did you feel hot or sweaty?
  • Did you feel like you suddenly had more energy?
  • Did you feel motivated to protect, or defend?

How does it feel to rethink these symptoms of stress? Instead of seeing our stress symptoms as signs that we’re not handling it well, can you see them as signs that our body is trying to help you to cope?

Let’s do a quick recap. Remember the triune brain model? We’ve got three layers to our brain: reptilian, mammalian, and human. When we are presented with a stressful trigger, our “lid flips” and the higher brain is no longer available to help us. Instead, our bodies are being run by our autonomic nervous system as our polyvagal response takes over. Once we’ve reframed our relationship to stress to understand that it can actually be beneficial, our bodies can behave differently during stress, and we’ll be healthier and more resilient. In other words, we can use our big smart human brain (when it’s available to us) to affect our animal responses.

In the final post of our series, we’ll look at this from another angle. Instead of the brain helping the body (a top-down approach to managing stress), we’ll look at how we can use our amazing animal body to move through the physical effects of stress. I think you’re going to like it. In the meantime, let’s get that superhero mindset in place. Why not check out this great TED talk from Dr. Kelly McGonigal, or purchase her book here? I can’t wait to hear what you think.

Click here to read the final article in this series and learn three practical ways to help you move through the stress response.

you & your wandering mind

photo of William James, public domain

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.” -philosopher and psychologist William James

What does it mean to agree to attend to experience? We have choice around what we will pay attention to; how we pay attention will shape our experience.

The Buddha said,

All experience is preceded by mind, 
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind, 
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind, 
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind, 
And happiness follows,
Like a never-departing shadow.

The Dhammapada, translated by Gil Fronsdale

Our brains and bodies are responsible for taking in the raw information around us and turning it into meaning.The Buddha’s teachings tell us that we can shape this experience based on the state of our mind; that happiness is ours if we speak and act with “a peaceful mind.”

So how do we get there? Sit down and try to be peaceful? If only it were that easy. The truth is, it’s almost that easy– or, it is at least very simple.

Our brains, left to their own devices, operate in the “default network.” This is the state of mind we find ourselves in when we are daydreaming, ruminating, or otherwise holding together our life’s narrative. It’s what happens when we realize we’ve been reading a book and have no idea what it says, or when we are listening to someone speak but our minds are “a million miles away.” This default network is incredibly important to us– we need it to plan, or set goals, or organize our lives. It is, however, the opposite of mindfulness– and if it’s the only way we’re experiencing the world, we may be causing ourselves some suffering.

A 2010 study might help us to understand why we want to cultivate our sense of presence. Researchers texted participants the following three questions:

  • “How are you feeling right now?”
  • “What are you doing right now?
  • “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

The data revealed the following facts:

  • People’s minds wander frequently, regardless of what they are doing. And, interestingly, “the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered and had almost no impact on the pleasantness of the topics to which their minds wandered.” In other ways, you can be doing something that you really enjoy, and at the same time be caught up in an unpleasant train of thought (has this ever happened to you?)
  • People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.
  • Finally, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.

People are less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are not.

The researchers concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

What can we do with this information? We can train our minds not to wander. Luckily, our brains are highly trainable. The concept of neuroplasticity tells us that we can create new connections in our brain to shape the way that we see the world and respond to it. One of the ways to do this is through basic mindfulness meditation. This is is a simple form of retraining the mind to be aware of what is happening in the present moment.

You can try this for yourself right now. If you lift your eyes from this screen and look around, what do you see? What do your eyes take in? Can you hear any sounds? Are there any smells? Can you feel yourself breathe? Take a moment or two to notice, and then see if you can feel for yourself how you feel mentally and physically. Did your mental or felt experience in your body change at all? Meditation– brain training– is a simple way to increase the joy and satisfaction you feel in your life. Even a few minutes a day of teaching your mind not to wander can make a significant difference.

Mind Full v. Mindful
(Image via Heidi Forbes Öste, Flickr)

But should we never think about what is not happening now? Let’s take another look at William James’ quote. “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” When you are worrying about the future or mindlessly flicking through Instagram, what are you agreeing to attend to? The wandering mind misses the joy of being truly present with life itself.

There are times, though, where we need to agree to attend to a future-based task– planning, strategizing, or even dreaming about the future in a creative way. When we do, we can bring the same mindful awareness to the task– and our meditation training will also make us better focused to do that work!

Mindfulness doesn’t ask that we ignore or push away our problems, or disregard the larger issues that affect our communities. Remember the second two takeaways from the 2010 study? We are happier when our minds are not wandering, and what we are thinking is a better predictor than what we are doing. We can find joy– the Buddha’s “peaceful mind”– when we are present with difficult situations, simply by bringing our attention to what we are experiencing in that moment. It’s okay to have a bad mood, or to notice that your mind has been wandering and you’re sad. Learn to notice what’s happening, and you may even feel a tiny bit better.

Your experience is what you agree to attend to. Cultivating present-moment awareness may improve your experience. If you experience regular anxiety or depression, your wandering mind may be partially to blame. You may find these techniques to be very helpful– I know that I have. But reading about them isn’t enough. In order to make them work, you have to put them into practice and do them regularly (even a few minutes a day). I recommend either of these two free resources:

  • The healthyminds program: https://tryhealthyminds.org is now offering their app for free, thanks to some generous donors. This program was started by Dr. Richard Davison, a neuroscience and meditation pioneer.
  • Tergar Meditation Community: https://learning.tergar.org offers free online meditation training and can connect you to a virtual meditation community near you.

Looking for more Laura? Guided meditation and accessible yoga practices are available for $10/month.

it’s just your polyvagal pandemic response

This is part 2 of our series on working with the physiology of stress. You can read part one here.

In my last post, we learned about the triune brain model and how each layer is responsible for different mental and physical functions. We learned that when we are faced with more stress than we can handle, we “flip our lid,” meaning that we are operating from our lower brain. At that point we are no longer able to regulate our emotions or think rationally– we’re outside of our window of capacity.

Clearly, the story doesn’t end there, because if it did, I would not be able to write this article and you wouldn’t be able to read it. We’d all be running with the wolves, or something. Instead, here we are, sometimes-rational human beings interacting via the internet. To understand how this all works, we’re going to talk about polyvagal theory*, which is simpler than it sounds, but will make you sound smart when you discuss it with your friends.

First, we need to understand just a little bit more about the autonomic nervous system. This system regulates your body and its functions according to whatever is happening in your environment. The vagus nerve (check out the cool image) communicates between the brain and the body. It goes both ways– information from the brain tells the body what to do, and the body sends information back to the brain.

Our ability to perceive threat is called neuroception. Neuroception is a subconscious process. It “reads” other people and situations to let us know whether or not we are safe. However, we are all very different, and what feels safe to one person may not feel safe to someone else. For example, someone with a history of trauma will be more likely to feel unsafe than someone who has not had that type of experience.

Depending on the information received, our nervous system operates one of three different switches in order to prepare our body for a potential threat.

Henry Vandyke Carter and one more author – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body (See “Book” section below) Bartleby.comGray’s AnatomyPlate 793

The first switch is our fight-or-flight response, part of the dorsal vagal complex and the sympathetic nervous system– you can think of this as your nervous system’s fire alarm. If this system perceives that you are in danger, it sounds the alarm and triggers adrenaline release. The sympathetic nervous system has got your back. At the first sign of a problem, it is ready to pump you up for the big fight, or get you out of there pronto. While it’s active, your body suspends its everyday activities (digestion, reproduction, etc)– you can check out the infographic below to see a few more of the functions of this system.

The second switch is the ventral vagal complex, which is tied to the parasympathetic nervous system. We sometimes call this the rest-and-digest system or the feed-and-breed system. The ventral vagal complex is like an all clear signal that lets your body resume regular biological functions that were put on hold during the metaphorical fight-or-flight “fire.” It also allows us to be social, engage with others, and self-regulate. When our ventral vagal complex is online, we are back inside our window of capacity again, able to engage with others and feel comfortable and happy.

Finally, we have a third switch. This is also a part of the dorsal vagal complex, but it’s a very old (evolutionarily speaking) part. In an extreme case of danger, or if fight-or-flight fails, this third switch triggers the freeze or feign death response. While the first switch speeds us up, this third switch slows us down so much that we can actually pass out completely. Again, please remember that this is a completely involuntary response– the individual has no control over the experience, and no control over what is happening while the response is triggered. This is why many trauma survivors remember being unable to move, fight, or do anything at all during the traumatic event. They could not.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, this is all well and good for someone who’s experiencing a traumatic or dangerous event. But what does it have to do with me? Remember that neuroception is an individual process. Your sense of danger may be triggered for many different reasons– even what seems on the surface to be everyday stress. Anything that threatens your well-being– a close call with a traffic accident, fear of losing a job –can feel dangerous to your nervous system, causing a minor fight-or-flight state. Social danger (difficulty with friendships, co-workers, etc) is a threat to your well-being because we are designed to live with and support other human beings.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re prehistoric humans. You and I are out hunting and gathering, when suddenly we see a predator– let’s make it a tiger. Immediately, our neuroception triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Our blood pressure rises, the heart rate increases, and we can feel adrenaline in our bodies. I might not be able to communicate with you in that moment because I am so overwhelmed with the immediate, primal danger. My body turns off non-essential functions– insulin activity, digestion, the immune response.

We begin to back away from the tiger– and we run back to our camp. We could also have fought the tiger (our muscles were primed and ready), but I wasn’t willing to go that far even in my pretend story. Hours later, you and I are back at our cave, laughing and joking together about our escape from the tiger. Our ventral vagal system is back online, and our parasympathetic nervous system is running the show again.

Now, let’s pretend that we are modern humans living in the time of a pandemic. Perhaps you have lost your job and don’t know where you will get the money for groceries, or the mortgage. You are worried about your health and your loved ones. Your neuroception has fired the alarm switch– your sympathetic nervous system is screaming at you to get out of danger– but you don’t have a way to do that, so you are literally stuck in the dorsal vagal response. You’re jittery, on edge, you can’t sit down and relax. After a while (weeks?), your body might begin to trigger the “freeze” switch– you are depressed, tired, numb. Either way, your body isn’t able to resume its normal, healthy functions. This is what many of us are living through right now.

Even pre-pandemic, most people I know were already dealing with the effects of a stress response that they didn’t know how to resolve. If we take a look at the graph showing the functions of the sympathetic nervous system, you might start to worry about the long-term effects of living in a fight-or-flight or freeze response.

The really, really great news is that all of this is a natural biological process and we can work with it. We can learn to harness the energy of this stress response to help us to be more productive and connect authentically with others. There is even evidence to suggest that even having some understanding of how your stress response works will help you to mitigate some of the potentially negative effects of stress. How about that? You’re healthier just for reading this post.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how reframing our response to stress can help us to benefit from it.Then, we’ll learn some simple strategies to move through the fight-or-flight or freeze response, and how you can learn to return to your window of capacity. In the meantime, if you are experiencing any of these effects, try to remember that it’s totally normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a polyvagal human being! If you can, get up and move a little bit– take a walk if you’re able, toss a ball in the air (or with another human, or a dog). It’ll be a great start to moving back toward your ventral vagal, rest-and-digest system.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the polyvagal response, you might enjoy this video– it’s an informative and entertaining look at your nervous system response.

*Polyvgal theory is the work of Dr. Stephen Porges. You can read more about him and his research here.

this is your brain on pandemic

Should I reorganize that closet or start a new career? Screw it, I’m going to eat these oatmeal creme pies.

Like me, I’m sure you’e seen a lot of suggestions about how to best handle the maelstrom of emotions that come from living through a pandemic. Grief, fear, anger, depression, boredom, guilt– these are all legitimate ways to feel, and certainly there are no wrong emotions. We’re all up against something most of us have never experienced, especially on this kind of scale.

I’ve got friends who are baking compulsively, others who are binge-watching the tiger show, some who are rage-posting, others who are praying, meditating, doing yoga, training their bodies like they’re competing for the Ms. Quarantine World Title– and, of course, plenty of people in my line of work are racing to get their businesses online. Some people are reaching out to everyone they know, and others are hibernating, marinating in their own emotions. Some of us are judging wildly and others are sewing face masks like it’s a full-time job. I don’t think there’s any right way to be handling this– how can there be, when we are all so different, and have no training for this sort of thing (except for trauma survivors, who may be feeling relatively calm)?

If you only read this far or remember one thing, let it be this: right now, many of us don’t have a lot of rational control over what we are doing, saying and feeling, which means that we don’t need to get caught up in other people’s reactions. We can also cut ourselves some slack and give ourselves a little space to have whatever reactions we need to.

Understanding the physiology of stress is really helpful so that you can 1) recognize that it’s a healthy and normal biological reaction and 2) learn how to use this reaction to your benefit so that you can function a little more normally again, even when we’re not sure what normal is. This series of articles is going to give you some basic information about our brain, body, and nervous system, and how it responds to stress. Then, we’ll look at why “trying to calm down” isn’t going to cut it, and what you can do to work with your body to move back into a more regulated state.

What’s Going on in Your Brain? (Hint: You’re Not Crazy, it’s Totally Normal)

So, let’s take a look at the three layers of our brain (the “triune brain model,” if you like fancy names). I promise, this is relevant.

Reptilian Brain: Brain Stem/Cerebellum: The reptilian or “lower” brain is the part of our brain that evolved first. It is concerned primarily with survival; it works in an instinctive and reflexive way, and control the fight-flight-freeze response. This part of our brain also controls involuntary processes like sleep, digestion, circulation, breathing, heartbeat, and sexuality. 

Mammalian Brain: Subcortical Region, Limbic Brain/Midbrain: The mammalian brain is responsible for the primary center of emotions. It includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. This is where we find arousal, attachment, motivation, behavior, memory, sense of smell, and our feelings about the world. 

The Human Brain (Neocortex): This part of the brain is the most recent one to evolve. It constitutes 5/6 of the brain and is our rational mind, responsible for higher cognitive functions like language, communication, logical thought, and voluntary movement. This is the last part of our brain to mature as we develop. 

Dr. Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain and “Flipping Our Lid”

So, we can think of the brain as having an upstairs and a downstairs. Downstairs is the reptilian, primitive part of the brain, which reacts instinctually. The Upstairs Brain controls higher-level thinking— imagining, planning, decision-making. When the Upstairs Brain is working properly, we can regulate our emotions, think before we react, have empathy and morality. 


Dr. Siegel explains the science of “flipping your lid”

If we use our hand as a model, folding the thumb inside a fist, the hidden thumb represents the Downstairs Brain and the fingers wrapping over it are the Upstairs Brain. When we are calm and regulated, we can be upset, but still have rational thoughts about our feelings, as long as the Upstairs Brain is still in contact with the Downstairs Brain. If we get very upset– or if we are presented with more than we can handle, or what you might think of as operating outside of our window of tolerance— we “flip our lid:” the fingers come off the thumb and the Downstairs Brain is on its own and we react emotionally or in a more primal way. 

At this point, our higher-functioning brain is not able to do anything helpful– we are operating outside of our window of tolerance.

Your Window of Tolerance

The “window of tolerance” is your magic zone where you are able to cope with life’s challenges. When we are inside the window of tolerance, we still feel stress and pressure, but we’re able to think critically and creatively about ways to manage those challenges. Some of us have a naturally bigger window of tolerance, and we can handle most things pretty well. For others, it doesn’t take much to throw us off-balance. For most people, I would speculate that the fears that come with a pandemic are large enough to at least push us toward the edge of our window.

So, let’s put some things together: when we are not inside our window of tolerance, we don’t have access to our human brain. What does the human brain do for us? It regulates emotions, it handles complex reasoning tasks, it connects us to other human beings with feelings of empathy.

This is why it doesn’t work AT ALL when someone tells us to “calm down.” First, we don’t have access to the part of our brain that regulates emotion or is able to think rationally. Second, we’re not able to feel that connection to the other human being who is trying to help us. We’re in our downstairs brain, our lid is flipped, and we’re outside our window of tolerance.

While we can’t override this primal reaction, we can learn to recognize that it’s happening and learn to work with it. In the next article, we’ll take a quick spin through polyvagal theory (I promise it’s way more fun than it sounds), and then we’re ready to start learning just how we can work with our stress response, befriending our primal instincts to get back into our window of tolerance. That’s right– instead of watching the show about the tigers, you can learn to ride your own inner tiger to greater mental health. And isn’t that way cooler, anyway?

This is part one of our series on the physiology of stress and how to work with it. Click here to read part 2.

Students: How To Make Any Yoga Class More Accessible

person rolling green gym mat
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

It’s summer! If you’re traveling this year, you may be leaving your favorite classes and teachers behind. If you’re intimidated by the thought of of finding a yoga class while you’re on the road, I’ve got some guidelines for you. Sometimes it can be a challenge to find a class or a teacher that feels like a good fit, but with the right mindset and a willingness to experiment, you might enjoy the exploration of a “yoga field trip.” Here are a few thoughts on how to make any yoga experience more accessible for you:

Introduce Yourself and Set Boundaries: This sounds dramatic, but it’s pretty simple. Meet the teacher and introduce yourself. Let her know that you may be modifying the practice  to accommodate your body. That’s plenty of information– you don’t need to be more specific if you don’t want to. This is your chance to let the teacher know in a friendly way that you know what you need to do to take care of yourself. If you prefer not to be touched (I always prefer not to be assisted or adjusted by a yoga teacher that doesn’t know me or my body, and with whom I have not yet established trust), then just let them know that you prefer not to receive any adjustments if that’s something that is offered in that class.

Be Confident!  When you walk into class, you’ve got that whole “I’m in a new place” vibe to work with. You may be the person in class who looks different, or who doesn’t have the same type of yoga outfit as the other students. Maybe it feels like you’re the new kid in the class and you don’t fit in. Before you have a major high school anxiety attack, take a deep breath and remember that you are there to take care of yourself. Your yoga mat is your refuge (even if it’s a rental), and you can take your practice with you wherever you go. If it’s not awkward, you might introduce yourself to someone and ask a question or two about the class. Or close your eyes and meditate. Or do a little Savasana. Or do whatever you want, because you’re awesome and your yoga looks like what it looks like for you!

Grab Your Props. Take a look around and grab any props you know you like.  I always take a blanket and two blocks, if available– the blanket is great to support under the hips for seated poses if that helps your body. Blocks will bring the floor closer to you when needed. If you know you like a bolster under the knees during Savasana, grab one, or double up your blankets if there aren’t bolsters available. Oh, and a blanket folded over two blocks works pretty well if props are limited!

Move at Your Own Speed. This can be a tough one. It may be that your body does not want to move as quickly as the class tempo does. If you can get a feel for patterns in the sequence, you may be able to omit steps so that you can land in some of the same poses at the same time. For example, if the class is powering through chaturanga, up-dog, down-dog, you can skip right to down dog to be ready for the next standing pose. Or, omit down dog and wait in table (hands-and-knees) for the next transition. If you’re feeling like you just can’t keep up, take a resting pose and breathe for a while– the tempo of class may change, and you’ll be able to participate more then.

Modify Where Needed, But Keep An Open Mind. Hopefully you have some ideas about what works well in your body by this point in your yoga practice. If down dog doesn’t work for your shoulders, chill out in a hands-and-knees position. Maybe a traditional “chaturanga/up-dog/down-dog” vinyasa doesn’t work for you. You can sub out whatever movement works for you: cat and cow, knees-down chaturanga, locust pose, or spend some time in forearm plank. There may be some poses your body can’t do (that’s pretty typical). If the teacher doesn’t offer an alternative or modification, you are free to do something that feels right to you instead. For example, if Bird of Paradise is offered and it’s just not working, then do tree pose instead, or another pose that was taught earlier that feels appropriate to you.

At the same time, this is an opportunity to try something different and perhaps explore a different style of practice. Ideally, this teacher has a specific sequence that’s designed to create an experience for the class. My recommendation is to make the class accessible for yourself, but to do what you can to participate.

From time to time, everyone (even a yoga teacher) has the experience of not being able to do something that others seem to do easily. It’s not for nothing that Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Every one of us has our own practice. We can’t know anything about the other students, their bodies, their lives, or their experiences with yoga. If you get caught up in comparison or judgment, notice that it’s happened, and practice the internal skills of yoga: feel your body, notice your breath. Return to the embodied experience of your yoga practice. In this way, we become more aware of our habitual internal narratives and repetitive mental patterns, and grow more skillful at working with them.

Whatever your experience in the class, at the end, you’ll know yourself and your body better than you did before. If you find that the experience was really not right for you, I like to imagine myself writing a review. What were the highlights? What did you not enjoy as much? Was there anything unique or different about the practice space, or the community? What will you look for next time?

I hope you enjoy your yoga travels and find joy in the experience!

A Plea for Clarity in Class Descriptions

Imagine you are a prospective yoga student. Looking at class schedules online, you see a lot of “vinyasa” yoga, and you wonder what it is.  The descriptions say that the poses that “flow” together with breath and that all levels are welcome. This isn’t much information to go on, so you decide to go take a class and see for yourself. It turns out that you love the class, the teacher is great, you can do most of the poses pretty well, and you think, “Great! Now I know that I like vinyasa yoga.”

The following week, you decide to attend a vinyasa yoga class at a different studio. This time, you find yourself completely lost. The class moves really quickly, there are poses that you don’t know how to do, and the teacher is hard to hear over the music. You feel confused at best: which of these classes was “real” vinyasa yoga?

As an industry, we suffer from a lack of consistency in branding and we often do a poor job clearly explaining the class experience in our descriptions. While it’s wonderful that there are a variety of options available for students, it’s unfair that our students don’t know what they’re getting into. One of my colleagues pointed out recently that a clear class description is also the first step in informed consent– students have the right to know what they will be asked to do.

From a marketing perspective, it’s smart business, too. If I order macaroni and cheese at a restaurant, I have a reasonable expectation of what I’m going to get: macaroni and cheese. If there are other non-traditional ingredients, the menu will list them, so that green peppers or bacon, or vegan cheese won’t be a surprise when my meal arrives. An unpleasant surprise for the diner (or student) is unlikely to result in repeat business.

My vinyasa classes have changed over the past 7 years, but until recently, the description was exactly the same as it was for other vinyasa classes at my studio. My classes don’t include many chaturangas or traditional vinyasa movements. The pace is a little slower than some other vinyasa classes. I teach strength and mobility and de-emphasize flexibility, and include functional movements that aren’t part of the “traditional” yoga canon*. Sometimes, new students love my class– other times, it was clear they were looking for something different.

A few months ago, I had a student in class who was clearly used to (and possibly expecting) a different type of vinyasa class. I went home and re-titled the class (from “Vinyasa” to “Mindful Vinyasa”), with a clear explanation in the class description. I wasn’t sorry that I taught the class I did– I am clear on what I am teaching, why I am doing it, and what it has to offer to students– but I was aware that a lack of clarity and communication on my part could lead to some unfulfilled expectations.

There is one benefit to teachers or studio owners in having a vague class description– it leaves a lot of wiggle room for teachers to vary the class greatly, or to allow for frequent substitute teachers who may teach in a very different way. It deflects the responsibility, putting the onus on students if the experience is not what they’re looking for. Occasionally, I’ve heard a studio owner say that in a case like this, a student should learn to practice detachment– so it’s the yogi’s fault if the class isn’t to their liking(!).

As teachers, if we have our students’ best interests in mind, and we want these practices to be of maximum benefit, then we would do well to be transparent and clear in our class descriptions. Let’s help our students find the right teacher and class for their needs.

*”Traditional” being kind of a joke here, as most of these are 20th century inventions and not inherently special, spiritual, or otherwise transcendent. This needs its own blog post, but you might take a few minutes to read this piece by Mark Singleton for a little more context. 

 

 

 

 

Settling the Mind in Savasana: A Body Scan Technique

Recently I took a look at some different Savasana variations to help your body feel comfortable and relaxed for rest. When our bodies are supported and at ease, we give our minds a better opportunity to be calm and peaceful. Sometimes, even with the body in its most optimal position, our mind is still racing and we’re not able to truly relax. What’s a yogi to do?

This week, I’ll offer you a technique to work with the breath, body and mind to cultivate greater relaxation in Savasana (or any time you’d like to encourage the mind to settle). This is a variation on a body scan adapted from Reginald Ray’s excellent book on somatic meditation, The Awakening Body. “My” version of his technique is by no means intended to replace or replicate what he teaches (which is a much more nuanced and intricate process), but may work to help soothe body and mind.

  • Lie down in your comfortable Savasana. Begin by bringing your awareness to all of the places where your body is supported, resting on the earth. Imagine that gravity is rising to meet your body as your body sinks downward.  Feel those points of connection where the back body rests into the earth.
  • Now, bring your awareness to your feet and notice any places in your body where you feel tension, tightness or pain. As you inhale, recognize the tension, as though the breath could move into or occupy the tension itself. On the exhale, invite the tension to drain away into the earth through the heels (or whichever part of the body is supported on the earth, closest to the feet). You could stay with the feet for a little while, or move up to the ankles and calves.
  • Continue on in this way, gently noticing tension as you inhale and inviting it to drain away into the earth with an exhale. Move up the body bilaterally, so that you are working with both legs, hands, etc., at the same time.
  • In each body part, feel that the stress drains directly through the back of the body at whichever place is closest and supported on the earth. For example, at the chest, the tension moves through the shoulder blades and rinses away.
  • Be sensitive and kind, especially with areas where you know that you may hold tension, or that feel emotionally difficult. If you find tension that does not “want” to let go, it’s important to simply allow it to be as it is for now, and feel that you are resting with the tension. When it’s ready to leave, it will.
  • You may find that as you release tension in one area, you get a release in another part!
  • When reach the face and head, allowing tension to drain into the earth through the back of the head, you can continue the exercise by now allowing the whole body to breathe. Continue to lightly scan through the body, noticing where tension may be present and inviting the exhale to drain it away.
  • Before rising, take several full-body breaths to invigorate and enliven the body and mind. Trust that you did good work and that you can return to this practice at any time to continue to invite your tension to wash away.

Louis in Savasana.jpg

After Gym Class: Learning to Love Movement via Yoga

Malasana September 2018A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today.”  This is something that feels so obvious to me I was kind of surprised that it merited an article, but then again, I think way more about my traumatic life experiences (and other people’s) than is probably healthy, so I’m all over this topic.

Exercise and movement are such a big part of my life now that it’s hard to reconcile my current lifestyle (a daily practice of gym, yoga, weightlifting, occasional awkward excursions into Jazzercise, jiu-jitsu, running, biking, you name it) with the first three decades of my life, in which exercise was something you did if you were required to, or if, as one of my ex-boyfriend’s mothers said to me, “You are getting fat. You need to make exercise” (there was a cultural difference, so I’d like to think I’ve let this go, but here I am writing about it on the Internet 20 years later, so probably not so much).

As a kid, I liked to play outside, but mostly I used that time to enjoy being alone, spending time with my dog, reading and daydreaming. When my friends forayed into group sports (softball, field hockey), I gave it a try, but really struggled. I literally did not understand how the games worked or what the rules were. There was no Google to look these things up, and although you might reasonably ask, “Why would you not just ask someone?” it didn’t feel that simple to me. If everyone else already understood this thing that I clearly was supposed to have learned somewhere or somehow, the best my introverted self could manage was to kind of pretend and hope it would all work out one way or another.  Don’t pass to me, I’d pray during the game.  Oh, they’re running that way– must be time to run with them down the field now. 

You can imagine, then, how much I did not enjoy gym class. I was a child of the 80’s, and all I knew of politics was that Ronald Reagan liked jellybeans and that he, in his infinite, grandfatherly wisdom, had decreed that we must complete the Herculean tasks of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. Pull-ups. Sit-ups. The Shuttle Run (ugh). The Mile. The Sit-and-Reach.  I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but the agony of the Physical Fitness Test is super fresh in my memory. Our gym teacher had big puffy brown hair and chewed gum as she noted, bored, on her clipboard, my subpar efforts. A quick romp through the Internet tells me that I am not the only child who remembers the tests with a lingering sense of shame and anxiety (“Sit and reach. I sat, I reached, I farted. Ruined 5th grade,” says one person.  You can read more of “The Sad, Sad Stories of the Presidential Fitness Test” here).

Middle school was no improvement. Some of us threw hard rubber balls across the gym. Others were hit with a stinging whack (guess which one I was!). It was only an hour or so, but that was nothing compared to the mandatory public shower afterward.  In order to earn a passing grade, we were required to walk into the communal shower area (open to the entire locker room), take off our towel, place it on the low wall, and twirl around once under the shower so that the teacher could see us do it. This had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with body shaming, anxiety and often bullying from older girls.

So yeah– gym class missed the mark for me. I know plenty of kids who enjoyed it– the naturally athletic ones, the ones whose bodies moved easily through space, who could kick or catch a ball or yell “Pass it to me!” with confidence. Extroverts thrived on the team experience– I shrank and wilted.

Let’s go to the Times article:

“People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later.

The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.”

-Gretchen Reynolds, How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

All of this is a long preamble to say– despite my struggles with gym class and the US Physical Education system, I have managed to find my way to being a reasonably healthy person who loves to exercise. I like to learn new movement skills and I’m relatively confident as an athlete, even if I’m not good at something (I’m pretty bad at most new things, FYI). Was it a miracle of some sort? Life coaching? Sheer willpower? Nope. It was yoga.

Yoga bridged the gap between the social anxiety, poor body image and low self-confidence that I felt as a human adult attempting exercise. I’ve taught yoga for several years now, and I think I have an understanding of why yoga managed to convert me into an active adult when other modalities failed: it teaches body awareness, creates confidence, and it’s essentially non-competitive.

One of the most crucial skills that I began to develop when I began doing yoga was proprioception*. This is simply the sense of where your body is in space.  Some of us don’t develop this terribly well, for many reasons, but luckily it is a skill that can be learned and taught. Chronic “klutzes” may find themselves moving gracefully! It’s pretty awesome.

Once we have a greater sense of where we are in the world, it’s natural that we start to feel stronger and more confident. As I continued to practice yoga, I built strength and found that I could actually enjoy moving my body through space in a deliberate way. I also found that I could appreciate what my body was able to do, and to find ways to nurture it so that it could work even better.

I often remind my students that one of the best things about the yoga practice is that we can stop anytime. This may sound a little silly, but for me it’s quite meaningful. If exercise has been challenging for you, committing to a 90 (or even 60) minute yoga practice may feel too overwhelming. Perhaps it’s not the physical challenge that scares you, but social anxiety. In that case, too, knowing that there is no pressure to compete or keep up, that there are very few rules to be memorized, no team to let down, and that nobody in the room has any expectations of you can be tremendously freeing. You really can stop at any time. You can sit down, or do a different pose, or you can try something on one side you didn’t do on another. You can roll up your mat and practice another day.

Having this freedom– to try something different, or to simply stop when we need to– has an interesting psychological effect. Because they don’t feel that they have to, often I find that students are eager to practice and even try things that might always have been outside of their comfort zone. The anxious students, gaining confidence in themselves and finding that they can be comfortable in an “exercise” environment, find themselves relaxing and engaging with fellow students.

The pressure to perform is off, and the joy of movement and play has returned. In this way, yoga has the potential to repair the damage caused by a poor educational approach to exercise (I’m looking at you, Presidential Physical Fitness Test). I have seen time and again that learning embodied awareness and cultivating an appreciation for movement and our body’s abilities leads not just to greater health and more functional movement, but to strength and confidence in the rest of our lives and in our relationships with others.

Of course, not all yoga classes are created equal. In order for to be truly empowering, a yoga class should include instruction on and time for inquiry (rather than merely imposing external alignment principles). Variations on poses should be taught and celebrated, and students encouraged to meet themselves where they are that day (teachers– we’ll take a look at how to create this kind of environment in an upcoming blog). Otherwise, yoga classes run the risk of simply recreating the same uncomfortable, inequitable experience so many of us lived through in that gym class.

 

*Yoga and meditation can also teach interoception (a sense of the internal state of the body– am I hungry, thirsty, tired?) and exteroception (a sense of what’s going on outside of the body). This means we have the potential to use and care for our bodies more skillfully, and to engage with the world around us in a more mindful, integrated way. 

Finding Ease in Savasana: Prop It Up!

At the end of every yoga class, we lie down in Savasana- yoga’s “corpse pose.” In this final pose, we practice letting go and letting be.  Trusting that we’ve done enough, we release any sense of effort and give ourselves over to rest. Neurologically, this is a chance for our nervous system to absorb and digest all of the new information we received throughout the practice.

Ideally, if the class is sequenced well, your body and mind are primed for rest, and this is a nurturing and relaxing experience. Many students really, really love this pose (we used to sell shirts at YogaFish that read, “I’m Just Here for the Savasana!”). Others (often, especially, newer students) find it challenging and would rather get up and leave than partake in mandatory adult nap time.

In order for the mind to really be able to rest, it’s helpful to make the body as comfortable as possible. If lying on the floor on a rubber mat isn’t your idea of a luxurious getaway, I’ve got some simple Savasana alternatives for you to explore that might help your body to feel more at ease. Most of these are pretty simple and will just require you grabbing an extra prop or two before practice.

Stonehenge SavasanaStonehenge is a favorite with several of my students. By placing a bolster on top of two blocks, you’re allowing your lower back to nestle into the floor more cozily. I find that sitting closer to the blocks (creating deeper hip flexion; that is, bringing knees closer to the face) feels better on my low back, but you are welcome to explore. Adding a blanket over the feet or the whole body can create a sense of comfort as well. 

 

 

Double Bolster SavasanaDouble Bolster Savasana is for the yogi that likes a bolster under the knees and wants to really snuggle in! Here the legs aren’t as high as in Stonehenge, but the second bolster under the calves and ankles provides a deep sense of fundamental support, signaling the primal brain that it’s okay to relax. A blanket or pillow under the head or neck is always great if you find that your head is tipped back; you want to feel that your forehead is the same distance from the ground as your chin.

A nice addition to this pose would be a folded blanket or sandbag over the hips. Adding a pleasant amount of weight here can feel good physically and creates a psychological sense of security.

 

Legs up the wall SavasanaLegs Up the Wall Savasana can be a real breath of fresh air if you want to take some weight off your legs. Here, Carol Dee has added a sandbag over the feet (your teacher can place this here for you).

If you’re adding a bolster or folded blanket under the hips here, try placing it about 6 inches away from the wall (setting a block between the bolster and the wall will keep it from moving and help you space it). This creates a mild inversion, which some folks really appreciate.

 

La-Z-Boy SavasanaLa-Z-Boy Recliner Savasana takes a little set-up, but may be well worth the effort! This is a favorite with prenatal students. It’s a great option for students who have difficulty lying flat on the ground. The chest is mildly elevated, but the spine remains fairly neutral.

The basic pose is simply two blocks (one on the high setting, furthest from the head; one on the medium setting, closer to the base of the spine) under a bolster. Here, Carol Dee has wound a rolled blanket around her ankles to gently hold them in place. I would love to add a folded blanket under each arm so that her elbows can relax more comfortably; an eye pillow would be the icing on the cake!

These are just a few options– why not have a little fun with it? Try out a different variation the next time you unroll your mat (psst–if you’re practicing at home, bed or couch pillows make great bolsters)!  In all of these variations, the common denominator is really giving the body as much support and comfort as possible. As you lie down, ask yourself “Is there anything I can do to make my body feel a little bit more supported?” If there’s an ache or a twinge you can’t quite figure out, please ask! Your teacher may be able to offer a suggestion that can allow you to rest more easily. Notice whether or not adding support to your body with a bolster, block, or even just a blanket over the body lends a little more serenity to your mind in Savasana.

Finally, please remember that Savasana, like any other yoga asana, is really an expression of your body and mind’s needs in that given moment. If for any reason you are unable to feel comfortable lying down or even closing your eyes, it is completely reasonable for you to sit quietly on your mat (perhaps in meditation) or to prop yourself against a wall.

In our next blog, I’ll include some techniques to encourage the mind to relax in Savasana. In the meantime, let’s hear from you! What are your favorite Savasana strategies? Are you a minimalist or do you bring your own eye pillows and lavender mist?