Thursday, July 29, 2010

5 Ways to Find Your Balance

The yoga class I attended yesterday included a number of balances, from simple tree pose to a "floating" ardha chandrasana. I am not certain why, but I was struggling to find a steady balance on one side. I had arrived feeling flustered because the camp bus was late, and I walked into class after it had already begun. So, my mind was spinning and worrying as we worked our way into the flow. I had to struggle to make my gaze steady, and I was starting to beat myself up in my head for the wobbling on my left leg. Then I had a realization: This is really the whole point of balancing poses, if not yoga itself! The point is simply to be with yourself, no matter where you are at that moment. Later, I thought a lot about balance, and how we try to find it in our lives. So, my little list of 5 Ways to Find Your Balance certainly applies to asana, but I see this as a metaphor for the bigger picture, too.
1. Take a Risk. Balancing requires a leap of faith. We must trust in our one leg to steady us, as the other takes flight. We test our limits so we know what we are capable of achieving.
2. Find Your Focus. We keep our eyes on a steady object. This allows concentration of the mind, and minimizes distractions that would throw us off our goal.
3. Loosen Up. Balancing on one leg requires strength, but we also need to relax. If every muscle is clenched, we're actually more likely to fall over. The micromovements and tiny adjustments are part of the pose, and we can't flow with the breeze unless we let go of a little bit of control.
4. Embrace the Falling. Give yourself a break! Balancing is hard, and we will fall. A lot. Some days, it seems impossible to find the stillness. Instead of the inner name-calling, try laughing and recognizing that the effort is as important as the result.
5. If You Fall, Get Back Up Again! This one is the most important. Persevere. Don't call it a failed attempt and give up, when the next try may lead to success. Or maybe it won't, but if not today, maybe next week.
Balancing poses require extra effort. But when everything comes together, these poses steady our minds and help us attune to our intentions. Balancing on the mat can help us focus our commitments off the mat, which, I've heard said, is where the real yoga is practiced!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Assumptions

I've started reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's book on mindfulness, "Wherever You Go There You Are." He often ends a chapter with an exercise to try on your own. The one I read today asked that I truly see the people around me, rather than just my thoughts or judgements about them. I was struck by how difficult that may be immediately after I read it, and watched someone leave their Starbucks cup in the middle of the parking lot when there was a garbage can nearby. I was full of judgements and negative opinions right then!
This exercise seemed to be easier for me with strangers. I have formulated opinions about my regular patients, and all day today I had to remind myself to come back to the present moment and see them as they are, rather than my conceptualization of them. With a stranger, I have no past to color my thoughts, so I only have to watch out for my judgements. It was disconcerting to find out how often I made assumptions about people based on their appearance. I had always thought of myself as an open-minded (and hearted) individual, but I was pretty much pointing and labeling in my mind all day!
I was also on the receiving end of presumptive ideas today. As a psychiatrist, I try to present something of a "blank slate" to patients. They don't know a lot of details about my life or me as a person, this allows them to paint me into whatever role they need to for their treatment. Two patients I've seen for a while now made broad assumptions about me based on my appearance. One was discussing her weight and stated that clearly I had never had weight issues. While I've never had serious weight problems, I was 10-15 pounds overweight for a decade. Another woman assumed I spend a lot of time lifting weights, when it's all yoga, baby. I know a lot of my patients assume I live the perfect healthy life, and that I never struggle the way they do, but that simply isn't true. And I can't assume the person who left their coffee cup in the parking lot is an evil soul who hates the earth... When I jump to these conclusions, I see through the distortion of my thoughts and judgements, rather than seeing a person for who they truly are.
I am thankful for this exercise, and plan to continue to watch my thoughts. Mindfulness is a constant redirecting of the mind, for me at least. I tend to leap to the future, regret the past, and forget to enjoy the sunshine while I'm sitting in it. However, I never thought of it as applying to perceptions of people around me. I know I can't stop my mind from jumping from thought to thought, and I know my judging doesn't make me a terrible person. I can recognize the judgements and gently, kindly, bring myself back to the present. Only in this moment can I fully live, and that goes for everyone around me, too.

Book referenced: Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reunion

Next weekend is my 20 year high school reunion. I plan to attend, and have been in contact with some fellow classmates on Facebook. A lot of people are posting about the reunion, and how they wish they could change something about themselves or their lives beforehand. One friend said he needs to lose weight and get married, another said she wished she had taken better care of her skin, another is worrying about what to wear (ok, that's me).
I guess it's natural that a reunion would force us to take stock of our lives. We know we'll see people we knew back then, and I for one would like to prove that I'm not that same girl with the bad perm. But, I am satisfied with what I've accomplished in life, and don't feel I have any regrets about what I bring to the conversation. But what about my friends who are divorced, or unemployed, or are not satisfied with their appearance? I would like to think we are all going to this event to reconnect with old friends, to catch up and have fun, not to judge or look down on people to whom the years have not been kind. I would like to meet people where they are, but I'm sure there will be a lot of looking back. The people who were popular in high school will still be remembered that way, and those who were "losers" may be viewed through that lens, rather than for what they are today.
I don't see any value in regretting the past, and I certainly don't think it's useful to regret our present situation. Attending a reunion with something to prove also seems like the wrong approach. But can I show up as myself, as I am today, which only came about as a result of everything in my past? Can I feel confident but not condescending, and look for the positive in everyone else, even if they used to be a bully or a rival? I hope so. I have worked on opening my heart, and recognizing the divine in each of us. I understand this may be a challenging situation to stay in the moment, and not return to the roles I often assumed as a teenager. I am interested to see what comes up for me back in my old home town!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Be Present

I tried to start meditating a couple of years ago. I know it's supposed to be really good for me, and I had good intentions. I read a couple of books, and learned a lot about the process. Then I sat down and actually tried it. I discovered that my mind never shuts up. I thought about the dumbest stuff, and that led to other dumb stuff, then that led to Lady Gaga songs, and then I couldn't stand it anymore and got up off my zafu. I admit it, I gave up for a couple of years. In the meantime, I continued to do yoga, and we often do short meditations as part of class. Well, in the last several months I started to realize some peace during those times of sitting. When I went to the training session last week, we spent a lot more time meditating and I discovered that I can actually stand to sit now. I'm not sure when it started to happen, but I'm loving it. I have a goal of daily seated meditation for 20 minutes.
I am reading a fabulous book called The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope, and a great deal of the book discusses meditation. I wish I had read it a couple of years ago (although I don't think I would have been ready to "get" it). The author tells about someone new to meditation, and how they wiggle, get uncomfortable, and say they can't stand all the thoughts when all they are trying to get is quiet. He goes on to say that it is like that for everyone. Everyone! No one can fail at meditation, because the point isn't to have an empty mind, it's to be able to observe the thoughts and let them go, to not get attached to the worries and lists and Taylor Swift songs (can you tell who is in charge of the iPod at my house?). It felt so good to realize that my experience is actually the norm. I'm not a bad meditator, just a total novice.
I recommend meditation and other mindfulness practices to patients every day. I know I live too much in the past and future, thinking about what I've messed up and what I need to practice to do better later rather than enjoying this moment right now. I see this same pattern in many people with anxiety and depression. Meditation brings us to the present, and asks us to cultivate an internal "witness mind" that sees the swirling patterns of thoughts, and lets them go, realizing that those thoughts and worries, memories and fears, they are not our True Self. So, I plan to keep coming to my cushion every morning. Sometimes I practice focusing on my breath in and out of my nose, other times I need a mantra to give my mind something to latch onto. Either way, I feel better the rest of the day. I feel more grounded, focused, and Present. Isn't that the point?

Book referenced: The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living by Stephen Cope

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Body Sense

I just got home from a week of training in LifeForce Yoga for Depression and Anxiety. The training was led by Amy Weintraub, and if you haven't checked out her book, Yoga for Depression, I would highly recommend it. I learned a lot from this experience, and I'm sure it will fuel a number of posts in the coming weeks. One of the most memorable experiences from the week was also one of the strangest for me. It was a therapeutic long hold of a bridge pose.
Bridge pose is a simple back bend, but it requires a lot of leg and spine strength, as well as flexibility in the psoas muscles. The psoas muscles reach from the rear of the body along the inside of the spine, through the hips, to attach to the top of the femur bone. They are involved in balance and stability, and are also thought to be a repository for emotional baggage such as past trauma, a lack of support in early development, and chronic everyday stress. The theory behind a therapeutic long hold is that the body will release tension without the mind having to get involved. This allows for opening without re-experiencing traumatic memories. However, this is not an exercise that should be done by anyone with PTSD or acute traumatic symptoms, it is simply too powerful.
I have to say I was extremely skeptical that this exercise would do anything other than test my endurance, because I don't love bridge pose. I was with a really great group of people, however, some of whom have done this before, and assured me it would be worth it. So, I dove right in. We held the pose without props, and with no idea how long the experience would last (we later found out it was about 13 minutes). The facilitator also told us we could push up to full wheel pose if we felt the need for more opening. I did go between the two poses a couple of times, and it really allowed me to take it to the next level. Amy and her staff also helped us stay grounded, telling us to stay present and not "zone out" in the pose.
People around me were in varying states of emotional release within 5 -8 minutes. Some people were sobbing, some were laughing, singing, chanting, or just trying to muscle through. In the first 5 minutes I had a flash of a childhood memory, not traumatic, as I fortunately had a pretty "normal" childhood. It was a moment I can best describe as feeling unheard. I don't know why that memory popped up, as I've honestly not thought about it in decades, but there was really no emotion attached to it, in the usual sense of the word. Then I really kind of lost myself in the sensation of my body in the pose. I felt extremely strong and free, and after a second full wheel, I started to cry. I have no idea why. There were no thoughts attached to it initially, but then I had a burst of insight about a dilemma I've been batting around in my mind for months now. When they told us we could release the pose, I didn't want to. When we finally came down, the facilitators led us in a really deep yoga nidra experience (literally "yogic sleep") which is a guided body sensing that relaxes the mind and body and allows you to connect to your deepest source. We did some processing, and some people were unable to let go, and ended up feeling angry and let down by the experience. But most of us had some form of emotional release, whether or not it resulted in any great revelations.
I do not think this is an exercise to be undertaken alone. First of all, I'm not sure it would work without a safe presence in the room to allow you to release. Secondly, I believe the processing afterwards is needed to really garner the benefits. However, it can really open the body and the mind for yogis wanting to get at their deeper core. Interestingly, my body felt really good afterwards. My legs weren't sore, my hips and lower back didn't ache, they felt magnificent, and still do. Amy told us that would be the case, but I honestly didn't believe that for a second. My main lesson from this was that the body is connected to the mind in ways we cannot see in an anatomy book, and not all emotional release needs to come from talking. I do not foresee using this technique with patients or students, but it was a revelation for me personally, and I'm very grateful for the insights I gained.

Here is a link to Amy Weintraub's LifeForce Yoga for Depression website: http://www.yogafordepression.com/index.html
Check out http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/472 for a description of bridge pose.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Law of Detachment

I have admitted in previous posts that I struggle with expectations, I become too attached to a particular outcome and lose sight of the journey. This has been a lifelong issue, as I have always been a planner. I like to know ahead of time what the schedule will be, who I will see, what I need to bring, then I tend to list it all in a notebook so I can refer to it as I'm going. I do believe I've gotten a bit "looser" with this tendency since I've started doing yoga, but I'm betting my husband would say I still have a ways to go.
I just finished reading The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra, and it has forced me to have another look at my attachment. This book has been on my list for a long time, but I finally got around to reading it after yet another yogi said I really needed to get this one in my head. Boy, he was right. The book is short, but very "spiritually dense" if you know what I mean. The whole thing is filled with passages I've highlighted, but the last 2 laws resonated the most with me.
The penultimate law is the law of detachment. This fits in perfectly with my little expectation and planning problem, as it states we must let go of our attachment to the outcome or result of every situation. In this book, he is relating it to "success," but this certainly applies to many other areas of life. Deepak Chopra explains that if we have only one way to reach any goal, or only one perfect result, we set ourselves up to miss other possibilities. What if there were other, more interesting ways to reach the same goal? What if we flowed with the universe, allowing it to guide us, instead of planning every inch of the way?
I read this and felt a light bulb go on in my brain. I'm hopeful this will be the light bulb that finally allows me to budge on this whole attachment thing, because I am telling you this tendency runs deep! I am trying to put this into practice, as I'm leaving Friday for a training program on Yoga for Depression. I am excited, but I have no idea where I'm going, who I'm going to meet, what the schedule will be, and what or where I will eat. I could probably find out a lot of these things if I compulsively checked the internet, quizzed every yogi I know, or called the course director, but I don't actually need to know these things. I know when my flight leaves, and where the shuttle will pick me up. I know roughly what I need to pack. I know I'm excited to learn something new and different and connect with other mental health professionals who are passionate about yoga and how it can help our patients. Beyond that, I am going to let go of my expectations, open my heart, and see what possibilities arise!

Book referenced: The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success - A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by Deepak Chopra