The Power of Yoga Nidrā (+ a chance to win a free individualized practice!)

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The moment I experienced Yoga Nidrā with one of my first yoga teachers, Stephane Sisson, I was in love. She led us through a powerful meditation during śavāsana, corpse pose, at the end of class and I felt like I was transported to another place and time. The relaxation and ease I felt when I emerged from the meditation was nothing like I had ever experienced. 

Yoga is the Sanskrit word for union or yoke. I think of Yoga as a means of coming home to ourselves to the place of wholeness and divinity that is our essence. That essence is always there, however it can be covered by the experiences we have in life, pleasant and unpleasant, that make us forget that we are unbroken, undamaged and absolutely perfect. 

Nidrā is the Sanskrit word for sleep. The Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad describes 4 states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, deep sleep and turiya. Turiya isn’t really a state of consciousness but an all encompassing experience of awareness that envelops and pervades the other states. 

In the Bhagavad Gītā, one of the core texts on Yoga, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna in Chapter 2, Verse 69: What all beings consider as day is the night of ignorance for the wise, and what all creatures see as night is the day for the introspective sage.

What I have learned about these states of consciousness from my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, has radically changed the way I look at my mind. In her teachings on the Bhagavad Gītā she explains that most people are dreaming the majority of the time and are rarely truly “awake.” 

I found this to be true in my own experience. When I am going about my day, if I pause and check in I am typically not present to what is in front of me. I am walking, but thinking about the errand I have to do later. I am eating and replaying a conversation I had yesterday. Dreaming is another way to see how I am not awake to each moment. Similar to my dreams at night I am living in a fantasy of what might happen if I say this or how that conversation could have gone if I had done that. The majority of my “waking” life is actually spent dreaming. 

The wise Kṛṣṇa describes in the 69th verse considers the day as the night of ignorance. If most of my “waking” life is actually spent dreaming I am not present to the life I am living, which means I am ignorant of what is happening! 

Deep sleep, on the other hand, is when everything comes to rest. Our thoughts, personalities, the fears and dreams we have all fade into nothingness. If you can catch it there is a moment right after you wake up from a deep sleep where you might not be aware of the sense of identity because it hasn’t come fully back online yet as you emerge from the deep sleep state. 

Kṛṣṇa continues, saying what all creatures see as night is day for the introspective sage. Deep sleep is a complete absorption within yourself. The majority of us do not have a memory of being in deep sleep because memory doesn’t exist there. It is this unconscious, yet usually very restful experience. According to Kṛṣṇa these sages can experience this absorption while awake. So the “night” of being unconscious in deep sleep is the sage’s “day” of being completely awake and present to their direct experience.

Yoga Nidrā is an ancient meditation that supports psychological, physical and spiritual healing by training the mind to become awake to the present moment through a systematic approach to the states of consciousness. We use these different states of consciousness to work with the physical body, mind, subtle body, breath, heart and awareness itself in order to reconnect and return to our fundamental sense of wholeness. This is the big picture approach to Yoga Nidrā: to become the wise sage who is absolutely awake! 

However there are many doorways into this powerful practice if becoming a sage isn’t on your list of life goals!  

  1. For some people it can be a source of sleep support. If you have insomnia, Yoga Nidrā may help. One of the common challenges of insomnia is actually a dream challenge if we look at it from the states of consciousness. For some people they have difficulty getting to sleep and deep sleep because of the consistent “dreams” of the what if stories (i.e. what if this happens tomorrow? What will happen if I say this?). 
  2. If you have experienced trauma, Yoga Nidrā can be supportive for your nervous system as it can activate the ventral vagal response that is associated with the parasympathetic part of the nervous system supporting rest and digestion. Trauma can impact the body’s ability to deeply rest because of hyper vigilance and increased levels of cortisol, which can also impact the body’s ability to digest sufficiently. The practice incorporates mindfulness and breathing practices that can help settle the system.
  3. Yoga Nidrā can also establish an embodied sense of safety and well-being, which can support resilience in the face of inevitable challenges. 
  4. Once a sense of ease, groundedness, security or love is established (there are countless words to describe this state and these might not be the right words for you) the practice can proceed into intentional dreaming where we invite different experiences or images in to process challenges or blocks we face. 
  5. Yoga Nidrā can also cultivate mindfulness as you practice watching your experience from the standpoint of awareness itself to observe the dreams of the mind. As you practice mindfulness in this relaxed state it can support you in “waking” life when you notice you have become lost in the dreams of past or future. 
  6. Yoga Nidrā has also been studied in decreasing stress, anxiety, pain, hypertension, insomnia, migraines, sympathetic arousal (fight or flight), guilt, hyperactivity, inattentiveness, muscle tension, and increasing reaction and anticipation time in athletes and hormonal balance in people experiencing menstrual irregularities. You can read more about the research studies here

Are you ready to try it? Here are a few guidelines to prepare you for the guided practice at the end of this blog. 

The first aspect to explore is what one of my Yoga Nidrā teachers, Dr. Richard Miller, calls the inner resource. This can be a person, place or being where you feel safe, whole, supported or seen. It can be a person who you are close with or someone who inspires you but you don’t know personally. It can be a place in nature, your kitchen or an imaginary place you create. It can be an animal you love or a spiritual figure. Once you determine who or what your inner resource is tune into the embodied experience of being in this place or with this being. Does it feel relaxing? Soothing? Warm? Where do those sensations live? Is it a full body experience? A softening of your belly? A smile? A quieting of the mind? 

Next contemplate a saṅkalpa, or intention. What do you hope for in this practice? To rest soundly through the night? To love and accept yourself? To feel at peace within yourself? Once you have a saṅkalpa put it in simple clear words as if it is already true. Instead of, “I will rest soundly,” say, “I rest soundly.” If you have a negative saṅkalpa (i.e. I don’t feel anxiety anymore) try naming what you want to feel instead (i.e. I am calm, grounded and can allow my emotions to move through me). You can have a different saṅkalpa every time you do a Yoga Nidrā practice or you can have the same intention for days, weeks, months or years. 

Give yourself an hour for the practice and an additional 15 minutes for journaling or drawing to integrate the wisdom your body/mind/heart may share with you. You can listen to my newest Yoga Nidrā here or there are shorter versions here.

Did you know Seed Yoga Therapy has a YouTube channel with guided meditations? Subscribe to make sure you receive each new monthly meditation or video sharing on some aspect of Yoga Therapy, mental health and resilience! As a bonus I will also be giving away one free individualized Yoga Nidrā practice in April as a thank you to everyone who subscribes! A tailored Yoga Nidrā practice can focus on physical challenges such as chronic pain, injury recovery or fibromyalgia. It can address emotional challenges such as insomnia, trauma, anxiety, depression or learning to love the body you live in. A Yoga Nidrā practice can also be useful during transitions like changing jobs, moving, or starting a business so you can align with your highest intentions for this next journey. In order to enter, subscribe to my channel here and fill out this form. I’ll announce the winner on April 17, 2024!

Befriending the Brilliant Body (Part 2)

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In Befriending Your Brilliant Body Part 1 I shared how the body is the gateway to everything we experience in our lives: physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically, relationally and spiritually. I also shared some practices to become or return to a state of friendliness with the body. 

In Befriending Your Brilliant Body Part 2 we will go a little deeper, especially for those who have embodiment practices, are physically active, feel connected to their bodies or are kinesthetic learners. As I fall into all of these categories I find that learning to befriend and fully inhabit the body is a lifelong journey. 

If you are a mover why did you start a physical practice (whether it is yoga, running, swimming, tennis, etc.)? For myself I wanted something. I had insomnia and I thought yoga might help me sleep. Lucky for me it worked, and I became more and more dedicated to the practice through the years because I found it kept giving me what I wanted. I felt stronger, more capable, aware of my body and mind, and it was fun! Through feeling stronger in my body I took up running, which led to 5Ks, 10Ks, ½ marathons, a marathon and triathlons. I liked challenging my body and mind and enjoyed having a goal that I was striving for. Yet as I reflect on my experience with physical movement sometimes I was befriending the body and a lot of times I wasn’t.

When I first came to yoga there was a sense of innocence and curiosity. I had no idea what I was doing nor was I in a place to compare myself to anyone because I practiced by myself in my bedroom learning from a book. As I became more physically active and more engaged with active communities there creeped in a desire to manipulate the body. I strived for certain poses because I wanted my body to contort into shapes I thought were “advanced,” and I pushed myself to the point of injury. I lost some of the sheer awe of moving and being in my body to a place of trying to force it to an ascetic, pace or perceived ideal in comparison to other bodies. 

Even though I could say I was “in my body” I wasn’t actually honoring the body. I have come full circle to only doing yoga by myself in my bedroom where there is no one else watching or no one to watch. Sometimes I lie on my mat and simply feel my body. Sometimes I do movements. They might look like yoga āsanas but many times they don’t. The Sanskrit word for “seat” is āsana, and it refers to the different poses, or “seats,” we do in yoga. Currently, walking and hiking are more appealing than running, biking or swimming and allowing the body to go through these phases of wanting different kinds of movement can be a way to respect the body’s desires. If I was training for a race I “had” to run a certain amount of miles each week. I was listening to a training plan more than my body. Now I train for treks in the Himalayas, but there is a different quality to the training. I do have some mileage goals each week, but there is also a looser grip to the goals. If I start my cycle I take a break from strenuous activity to honor the work my body is doing to shed the uterine lining. If I have a lot of energy I go a little faster and enjoy the hills. If I am feeling lower energy I might choose a flatter or shorter route. This is not about competition anymore (even with myself), but more of an opportunity to honor the body, which can and does include challenging it! Competition isn’t bad or wrong. It can fuel excitement, fun and doing things that seemed impossible, and I experienced all of these in my physical pursuits. However, I also noticed a marked increase in manipulation of the body to look and act in ways it may not want or even be capable of.

A more subtle way to contemplate the body is around emotions, which also live in the body. Emotional words like happy, sad, angry and afraid are just labels, and we have certain sensations (and typically thoughts) that arise giving us information that a particular emotion is present. When I feel happy I know I am happy because I am smiling, my chest is open and my belly is soft. I know I am angry when my mouth tightens, my shoulders contract inward and my breath gets faster. When I am experiencing an emotion I don’t like I have difficulty allowing that emotion and I try to control, fix or change it. The same way I have manipulated my body in running and yoga I also do in my emotional states. When I experience fear I try to soothe myself so I don’t feel it anymore, I rationalize there is nothing to be afraid of or I blame someone else and get angry (which can feel safer than being afraid). What I am learning with my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, in The Renegade Method is a radically empowering way to allow things to unfold in the body instead of trying to control them. What emotion are you noticing right now as you read this? We are typically feeling something, but it may be quiet. See if you can identify the word(s) you use to name that emotional state. Peaceful? Nervous? Lethargic? Disappointed? Joyful? Pissed off? Need more suggestions? Check out this emotions and sensations chart to help you identify the emotion and/or sensation in the body. Once you have named the emotion, see if you can determine what your body is saying. How do you know that emotion is present? If you say because of the thoughts can you bring curiosity to see if you can FEEL the experience of those thoughts? What do thoughts of anger FEEL like in your body and how do they differ from shameful or hopeful thoughts? 

If you have identified the sensations of an emotion can you drop the stories about the emotions (i.e. this is a good emotion and should stay or this is a terrible emotion and I should figure out how to get rid of it, etc.) and describe the sensations? Do you feel tightness in your chest? Tingling in your stomach? Lightness in your shoulders? Tears welling up behind your eyes? Soft and relaxed belly? Instead of trying to control or manipulate the sensations can you allow them to be for a few moments? What happens when you allow the wave of sensations to move through the body? What happens when you try to control the waves? 

Photo from Unsplash

Emotions can be looked at as waves that come and go. Sometimes they are big tsunamis and other times they are gently lapping. No matter what kind of wave I want from the ocean, the ocean will continue to create waves in relation to the wind, tides and underwater phenomena that are impacting the water. We are our own ocean where different information that comes into our senses will cause different kinds of waves. If we can learn how to ride the waves as they come and go we can move through them with a little more ease. 

Finally, pausing is such a powerful tool for returning to the body. I find the mind is often moving at a much faster pace than the body and the mind can leave the body behind. Many times my mind is thinking about something 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days or 5 years from the moment I am in, which makes it hard to be present to the body. A practice my teacher gave me years ago is to pause in transitions. When I finish my meal I take five breaths to return to the present moment where the body lives. I feel the chair underneath me, my feet on the floor, the satiation in my belly and my breath moving in and out. I do this when I finish with a client or come home from an errand. Any and every transition can be a reminder to return home to the body and to the present moment. I have found this practice to be incredibly impactful and a transformative tool for slowing down my mind, being connected to my body more often, listening to what my body is telling me and being able to do more of what I want in my life because I move into the next activity with intention rather than an all too familiar state of rushing, lack presence and multi-tasking. 

In summary, here are some additional practices to explore in continuing the lifelong adventure of befriending the brilliant body:

  1. Innocence. Can you approach movement from a place of curiosity rather than an agenda of what your body should or shouldn’t do? Meet each practice fresh because your body is different every day.
  2. Let the body lead. How would you move if your mind directed? How would you move if your body directed? Can the mind take a break to allow the body to lead? 
  3. Emotions are sensations. When you are having an emotion can you get under the label to understand the bodily sensations? 
  4. Ride the wave. Once you identify the sensations of an emotion can you allow the emotion to run its course without trying to change it? Here is a guided meditation on riding the waves of emotions. If the emotions become overwhelming some of the practice in Befriending the Brilliant Body Part 1 can be helpful. 
  5. Pause. Whenever you finish something (i.e. a meeting, an email, taking a shower, cleaning the kitchen, watching a show, etc.) pause for 5 breaths. Notice how your breath feels moving in and out of the body. Become aware of the sensations in your body. Notice what your mind is doing. Step back and observe the thoughts and emotions present. After 5 breaths, move with intention to your next activity. 

These are just a few ways I explore befriending the body. How do you befriend your body? How has your befriending journey changed through the years? I’d love to be inspired by your own body kindness practices as we are all learning together!

Winter Solstice Prayer

May you love your darkness so fully you honor the magnitude of your light.

May you dive into your own depths in order to know your heights.

May you go deeply inward to expand in unfathomable ways.

May you be so grounded you fly. 

May you know your inherent stillness that your actions are filled with grace. 

May you relish in your quiet that can be an anchor in the chaos of the world. 

May the hurts you have endured allow you to expand your compassion for all beings. 

May you relish the body that holds your heart, mind and spirit.

May you adore the parts that feel broken so they can lead you to your inherent wholeness.

Befriending the Brilliant Body (Part 1)

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What do you notice in your body right now? I notice a small urge to pee and then an immediate pushing away of the sensation because I’m “doing something.” How often do you do this in your daily life? I often ignore or push away the body’s signals prioritizing what the mind is doing instead.

Since this blog is about befriending the brilliant body I have taken care of my body’s needs and I am now sitting more comfortably and able to focus my attention on writing since my body doesn’t have to talk or yell at me. 

When you look at your body what do you see? Something too big or too small? Something too hairy or not hairy enough? I generally notice what I don’t like about my body first and tend to take for granted the incredible resilience of it. My teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, often reminds me to acknowledge the sheer amazement of having a body. Notice the body is being breathed without you thinking about it at all. Reflect on the digestive system that is dutifully processing your food into energy right now. Contemplate your pineal gland emitting melatonin tonight to help you go to sleep and the adrenals releasing cortisol to wake you up tomorrow morning. When I take a step back and look at the body in this way I am struck with awe. 

As my yoga therapy teacher, Molly Lannon Kenny, taught me, “the body is the gateway.” The body is a vehicle we can see, move and manipulate in ways we don’t have access to other parts of ourselves. It is what holds our energy, minds, emotions, thoughts, spirit and consciousness. Everything comes from the body and it is how we experience life. What a gift it is to have a body! 

At the same time bodies experience trauma, media that demonizes, fetishizes, creates unrealistic images of what bodies “should” like, and the head is oftentimes more valued than the feeling body. If the body has been hurt, terrorized by ableism, sizeism, racism, ignored and it is safer to be in the mind why befriend the body at all? 

Since everything happens in the body I have found, personally and professionally, that the only way to heal is through the body. If there was a need to disconnect from the body the healing comes through reconnection. If you have learned to hate your body the healing comes from returning to the love you were born with. No one is born hating their bodies or being dissociated from it. It is learned through the pain and trauma of surviving things that may not have been survivable if they were truly felt at the time. 

The tool of resorting to the mind and intellect is a wonderful survival skill, and can be effective in cultivating logic and practicality. This can also can come with the consequences of not knowing what the body is feeling, physically or emotionally, being caught off guard by the body’s needs or not being able to connect as easily to yourself or others. We can lose the opportunity to experience the full range of a human experience when we lose connection to the body, and it can feel like living in a monotone world rather than one with the full spectrum of colors. 

Photo from Unsplash

Here are some ways to begin the process of befriending the brilliant body.  

  1. Start with gratitude: The intellect can be an easier doorway to begin with for some people. Contemplate how incredible it is that you can see the colors in front of you or hear the sounds in your environment. When you move from one room to the next have gratitude for the body’s ability to take you from one place to another. Start a daily gratitude practice for your body.
  2. Explore the periphery: If the thought of moving towards and in the body is scary start at the periphery, which can be easier to connect with than the core. Bring your hands together and feel your palms touching each other. Are they warm or cool? Soft or calloused? Do the fingers feel different from the palms?
  3. Discover pleasure: If you brought your hands together, notice how they want to be touched. Do you want to rub your hands together vigorously or have light touch exploring the surface? Do your hands want to be massaged or do they want to rest in stillness? If you haven’t explored pleasure through self touch, not knowing what you like is normal. You might find it easier to know what you don’t like. As you explore pleasure when you find something is a “no” stop and inquire why you didn’t like that, which will give you clues into what you do like. 
  4. Joyful movement: Do you run because you should? Do you dance because you want to? Do you walk because it is “good” for you? Do you go to the gym because it is fun? Reflect on the movement activities you do and how you approach them. There are movements your body may love and there are movements you might be forcing on the body in the name of “health.” What if you moved because there was desire vs. moving from a place of “should”?
  5. Tune into the breath:  Bring your awareness to your nostrils. Can you feel the breath moving in and out? Can you feel the breath moving the chest? Can you feel the sides of the torso moving with the breath? Is the belly moving with the breath? By bringing the breath into the abdomen you can invite more space for your experience, both physically and emotionally, while activating the rest and digest part of your parasympathetic nervous system. If you want to try a guided practice you can explore diaphragmatic breathing here
  6. Body scan. A body scan can support you become aware of your body from a compassionate and mindful perspective, where the purpose is to objectively notice what is happening in the body without trying to fix or change anything. There is nothing wrong with what you find. If you can’t feel some areas, notice that. If other areas are loud, notice that. If a body scan feels too intimidating you can always start with your hands, which are amazing parts of your body to bring into your awareness!

Befriending your body means going at the body’s pace. If something feels overwhelming or too intense back off and do a little at a time. Sometimes going slow is the fastest way to healing, and if we override the body’s pace it can make the process more painful for the body, mind and heart. The body is wise in its capacity to take care of you, just like the nervous system, and you can learn how to honor it, listen, give it what it needs and take care of it as a small gesture of gratitude for the ways it takes care of you everyday.

If you are looking for additional support in healing the body-mind sign up for a free 20-minute yoga therapy consultation to see if working together may be a useful addition for your healing journey. In yoga therapy the embodiment practices are tailored specifically to you while listening and honoring the pace of your unique body and nervous system so you can feel at home within yourself.

In the next blog I will share more resources for befriending the brilliant body for those who have established embodiment practices or are kinesthetic learners who take in information through the body because empowered embodiment is a lifelong process.

Am I there yet?

I recently came home from a yātrā, or pilgrimage, that started over a year ago to Char Dham. Char means 4 and dham means religious destination in Hindi. These four places of spiritual significance located at high altitudes in the Himalayas are Yamunōtrī, where the river Yamunā begins, Gaṅgōtrī, where the Ganges begins, Kedāranāth, a powerful Śiva temple, and Badrināth, a beautiful Viṣṇu temple. It is said that one attains liberation if they make it to all the dhams. 

We began this year’s yātrā with a 32k trek to Kedāranāth, which was a strenuous and crowded hike with many yātrīs, horses, tea shops and the sounds of people chanting “Hari Hari Mahadev” and horse porters telling us to move to the side so we wouldn’t get trampled by horses carrying people, siding or rebar up the mountain. 

In comparison to last year’s trek to Gomukh, which was quiet and spacious, this trek was loud, chaotic, busy and intense. 

The trek started early in the morning and we walked joyfully for many kilometers. We crossed the Mandākinī River and the trail became steeper. Our guides told us it would be steep for the next 5 kilometers. We slowed down, but kept going one step at a time. 

As we saw people coming down there was an urge to ask, “how much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “When will it get easier?” 

I often tell my teacher, Dr. Kavitha Chinnaiyan, “I’m not there yet,” when she shares a teaching with me. I’m not beyond jealousy, rage or comparing myself to others. I haven’t transmuted wanting to be special and validated. I struggle to discern between my conditioning as a woman, American, white person and who I am authentically beyond all of those social and cultural identities that have shaped me. When I get stuck in these traps of Māyā, or delusion, I often want to ask when will this end? When will I arrive at some place where I can know the Truth of who I am? How much longer will it be until I can rest at some mountain peak where the hard work is over and I can reap the benefits of having “made it?” 

My teacher has to remind me often when I am stuck in trying to get somewhere, “the journey is from here to here.” There is no final destination where the work is done or there are no more hills to climb (physically, psychologically, emotionally or spiritually). The journey is this moment, this step, this breath. Nothing more and nothing less. It is helpful to have a goal, like finishing the Char Dham, but in some ways that is irrelevant. I can set my intention to climb to the top of Kedāranāth, but if that is my only fixation I will miss out on so many opportunities for growth, insight and beauty on the way. 

When I encounter people who have been where I want to go, like making it to the top of Kedāranāth or someone knowing their true sense of power, there is a longing to know that experience firsthand. There is an unknown experience I am longing for. In that longing though I leave the direct experience in hopes for something better. The truth is I don’t need to go to Kedāranāth to know Śiva. I don’t need to emulate anyone else to know freedom. Śiva is right here, right now and when I am truly authentic I am free.

I am learning in The Renegade Method™ that the mind pulls me into the past and future. How much longer? When will this end? How far have I already gone? Is it worth it? Should I turn back? Why am I doing this anyway? The body is present. Even when there is pain, altitude sickness, nausea and bone tiredness when I am present to the body it just is. There is nowhere to get to, nowhere to go. It is when the mind kicks in to try to manipulate the experience that I leave the presence of the body. The mind begins to fight with the direct experience instead of simply allowing it. Climbing a mountain in chaotic conditions at almost 12,000 feet of elevation is hard work, but when I fight that difficulty by wanting to just get it over with I miss the opportunity to be with it. 

When we got to the top and I saw the snow capped Himalayan range and the temple everything that came before melted away. I was exhausted but ecstatic. There was a sense of completion and a settling in my body. I was also grateful to be guided to a bed where I could lie down and take a nap! 

The trek reminded me that there are times I just want to get through things, whether it is grief, depression, trauma or a difficult physical endeavor. When I push to get through something I miss the opportunity to learn about the process. What can I learn about myself through doing something physically taxing? I can learn to stay present with my body instead of letting my mind run off into stories. I can learn to listen to my body, whether through giving it rest and nourishment or continuing to move forward one step at a time. What can I learn about myself by going through an emotional trek? I can learn about the beauty of grief because grief only happens when there is love. I can learn about staying with myself and caring for myself through a trauma instead of abandoning myself because I just want to get over it. I can learn to ask for help when depression arises because I can’t do everything on my own. 

In reality, we are all trekking our own mountains every day. Some of us are on some steep inclines. Others are on the smooth and steady descent. Some just reached the ecstatic peak. If we are only craving those peak summit experiences how much do we miss of the journey? 

The next time I want to know how much longer something will take I will remember my teacher’s words again and again. The journey is from here to here. I will remind myself to come back to my body and this present moment to see what I can learn about myself in this moment. I will ask myself what I am avoiding by wanting to get somewhere else? In that avoiding what I am missing out in learning about myself right now? Can I allow and enjoy the direct experience rather than the imaginary one I am hoping for in the future? What if instead of asking when am I going to get somewhere I can ask what can I learn and extract from this moment itself?

Moving Through Depression with Yoga Therapy FREE Workbook

I write this from the coziness of a coffee shop with the soft fabric of a sweater on my arms. As I watch the rain pour down into puddles on the sidewalk it reminds me fall is here, and now can be the time to resource the body/mind/heart for the darker, wetter and colder months ahead.

The play and exuberance of summer can be fun, but exhausting, while the rain and darkness can encourage a coming home to ourselves. As the bears prepare for hibernation we too can prepare for this quieter time of year. I find a fine balance between honoring the natural tendency to be more inward focused and when that can tip into depression. I currently feel my nervous system vacillating between wanting to keep doing and to be still and quiet. When I can honor the desire to be active, rather than telling myself I should be active, it can feel nourishing and unforced. At the same time when I allow myself to slow down when I need to it doesn’t get stuck in my body as depression. It is when I override and don’t listen to the brilliance of my nervous system I can get stuck in anxiety and/or depression. 

For many people living with depression it can’t simply be overcome by listening to the nervous system. However, by understanding and befriending the nervous system we can be more in alignment with our needs while also getting the additional support to navigate the serotonin dip that can happen less light. 

If you are prone to depression, whether seasonally, chronically or situationally, I created a free workbook to support you with tools to move with and through the experience of depression. 

Depression can impact the body, mind and heart through physical pain, lethargy, judgmental thoughts or a struggle to show up for yourself or your loved ones. In this workbook you will learn a holistic approach that addresses all of you.

In this workbook you will understand the role of the nervous system in depression and how to work directly with it and learn tools to work with self-criticism, perfectionism and self-hatred in order to nurture compassion, self-acceptance and kindness.

Along with the workbook there is a guided meditation you can use anytime and here are some other resources you can put into place now for your future self, who may thank you later: 

  1. Get a light therapy lamp, which can simulate sunshine to enhance mood, energy and sleep regulation. 
  2. See your doctor and get your vitamin D levels checked, as low levels can be associated with depression.
  3. Stick to the same times for eating and sleeping to support the balance of melatonin and cortisol levels, which can become out of balance with decreased sunlight as well as living with depression. 
  4. Get outside every day, even if only for a few minutes. Movement and being out in the elements can support the body’s natural resilience and can move stuck energy. 
  5. Honor the desire to slow down and be quiet. This can seem like a paradox from the previous point, but they both can help. Movement can encourage the system to not get stuck, and honoring the desire to be still can also be a way to allow the nervous system to go through the cycle of inertia, which is a natural and normal state of the nervous system. 
  6. If depression feels debilitating talk with a prescriber who can work with you to find a medication that can support you through this time of year. 
  7. Sign up for a Yoga Therapy program where we can work together to tailor tools directly to your experience of depression. 

May the darkness teach you the wisdom of stillness and quiet so you fully experience your brightness.

The Physiology of Trauma and Lifestyle

Trauma is something that happens to the body/mind/heart in which the nervous system can not process and digest. Trauma is unique and individual and two people can experience similar situations while one person will experience trauma symptoms and the other may not. Yet that same person may experience something else that will result in trauma. Trauma can be an isolated experience or something that happens chronically over an extended period of time. What I have learned through years of living, teaching, studying and practicing Yoga Therapy is that every single person has been traumatized, it is “just a matter of degree,” as my teacher says.  

When a trauma occurs the body releases cortisol, among many other hormones. Cortisol is the natural hormonal response to regulating stress. When trauma gets stuck in the body there can be elevated levels of cortisol for extended periods of time because the body is continually responding to stress. 

Ideally, around 6am the adrenals start to secrete cortisol, which helps us wake up in the morning, and cortisol continues to be active throughout the day. This hormone regulates the body so you can stay alert and energized, controls metabolism and digestion so you can easily and effectively digest your meals, suppresses inflammation, regulates blood pressure and blood sugar and supports the sleep-wake cycle.

After a trauma the body/mind/heart may continue to be stressed by triggers. These may include driving past an intersection where a collision happened or seeing a person who resembles someone who harmed you. With chronic trauma the triggers may be more pervasive. Cortisol may secrete before each meal if meal times were a place of trauma or someone knocking on the door to deliver a package may ignite a sense of danger. Depending on the trauma(s) and the individual responses the body can get stuck in a fight/flight or freeze response, which can keep the cortisol at moderately to extremely high levels because it is constantly trying to regulate the stress response that has gone into overdrive.

Why does this matter? When cortisol levels are high the body can lose some of its immunity protection, inflammation increases because the immune system is overtaxed, digestion can become impaired and sleep and menstrual cycles can be disrupted. There can be increased hypervigilance, or always being on alert, while blood pressure and blood sugar can also be high.

When cortisol is chronically elevated melatonin can also be impacted. In the evening, around 6pm, the pineal gland typically begins to secrete melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that has the opposite effect on the body than cortisol. It manages the sleep-wake cycle in preparing the body to wind down and rest, detoxifies and rejuvenates the body. It maintains the circadian rhythm of the body while also regulating menstrual cycles in female-bodied people. 

Ideally cortisol is active during the day when we need those functions of energy, digestion and managing stress while melatonin is active during the night so the body can rejuvenate, replenish and detoxify. When the cortisol and melatonin cycles are in alignment we can wake up feeling refreshed, have energy, sleep soundly, easily digest our food and have symptom free menstrual cycles.

When cortisol levels are high this can lead to lower levels of melatonin, which has been researched in people diagnosed with PTSD. Low melatonin can cause some of the same challenges as high cortisol including: disrupted sleep and menstrual cycles as well as high blood pressure. As cortisol levels rise the adrenals go into overdrive to continue secreting cortisol to maintain the body and nervous system’s ability to run or fight off threats. This can lead to inflammation in the body and the buildup of free radicals, which are unstable molecules that damage cells and are associated with disease and aging. With low levels of melatonin the body can not adequately detoxify and fight these free radicals during sleep.

When the hormones are not in alignment with the body’s natural rhythms is there any hope? Absolutely! 

If cortisol is overactive we can focus on supporting the body accessing the natural melatonin cycle. Cortisol is active during the day and when we eat. If we stay awake during the daytime hours and we eat only during daytime hours that in itself can support cortisol levels returning to their natural rhythm. Melatonin is active during the night when we are ideally resting or sleeping. If we sleep during the nighttime hours only and do not eat after 6pm that can shift our body/mind/heart into more alignment with the body’s natural healing processes and physiology. 

As you move towards aligning with the body’s natural circadian rhythms many notice a decrease in PTSD symptoms. People have reported sleeping better, less pain, less anxiety and depression and more energy. When the body is functioning more optimally specific treatments that target PTSD symptoms can be more effective. 

In this approach our life becomes our medicine and eating and sleeping become a form of trauma treatment. We start from the basics and work from the inside out. From the inside we address balancing our hormones and aligning ourselves with nature. Wild animals do not experience PTSD and there are many reasons for this. One of them may be because their hormones are firing optimally so the cortisol can support them effectively to run, fight or freeze in the face of predators and melatonin can help them detoxify and rejuvenate from any hardships in their day while getting sufficient and adequate rest. Animals generally follow a routine, and this routine can be one of the reasons they don’t experience PTSD symptoms as well, even after going through life-threatening events on a regular basis. 

How does one begin to balance the cortisol and melatonin cycles?

  1. Create a routine and stick with it at least 80% of the time.
  2. Sleep at the same time every day. The ideal time to sleep for melatonin production is before 10pm.
  3. Wake at the same time every day. The ideal time to wake for cortisol production is before 6am. 
  4. Do not sleep during the day as this will activate melatonin production during the ideal time cortisol is being released. 
  5. Eat at the same time every day. 
  6. Do not eat after 6:30pm as cortisol is activated in digestion and after 6 is when cortisol is ideally reducing while melatonin is beginning to be released. 
  7. Do not snack throughout the day as that leads to more cortisol production. 
  8. Remove or drastically reduce sugar from your diet as it is inflammatory in nature. 

This is the inside out approach to balancing the internal landscape of the body, which will then support the work to address the specific triggers in PTSD. When the cortisol and melatonin are more balanced it is easier to work with the triggers that happen in daily life because your hormones are working with you instead of against you. Of course there are many ways to work with PTSD, and this is just one way. What I have found in my Yoga Therapy practice is when people can follow a routine the work and healing happen much faster and more efficiently. 

When I bring this up to clients in my practice there is commonly a feeling of overwhelm or uncertainty if this is possible. How does one start this process if their lifestyle is far from the recommendations?

  1. Ease in. Don’t try to do everything all at once because that will not be sustainable. I love the 10% rule. Try making a 10% change every couple weeks so it isn’t overwhelming to your system, which can backfire and cause even more cortisol to flood the system. This can also lead to a yo yo effect where you do it for a week or two and then give up, which is more stressful on the body than small, incremental changes that the body can integrate. What feels possible? Start there and add from there. 
  2. Begin with one thing. Focus on sleep first, and focus on one end of your sleep cycle. Go back to #1 and ease in. If you are currently sleeping from 12-8 go to bed at 11:45 for a few days to slowly acclimate your body to a different bed time. Do yoga nidra before bed as a way to settle your system and prepare for sleep instead of looking at screens. 
  3. Practice the recommendations fully for 3 months. Then you will be able to see the results of balancing your cycles, you will understand your baseline, and if you go through a bout of sleeping and eating irregularly you will know how to return to your baseline. 
  4. Find the balance of not beating yourself up but also not letting yourself off the hook. There will be times where you sleep in or you eat later than intended. Some of the common symptoms of trauma can be black and white thinking, impatience and being overly critical of the self. These are attempted survival skills that can be useful (through quick thinking or blaming ourselves because it was safer to internalize anger or rage than externalize it), but also can cause harm (through impulsivity, rebelliousness, self-sabotage and self-hatred). Ideally, if you follow this rhythm 80% of the time the melatonin and cortisol can bounce back because they aren’t chronically overtaxed. 
  5. Have an accountability partner. For many people it is easier to get to the gym if they have a friend waiting for them. Who is someone who will celebrate your wins and encourage you when it is hard? 
  6. Work with the triggers around eating and sleeping. For many people these times of the day came with traumatic experiences, which makes changing these patterns more difficult. Yoga Therapy or other forms of therapy can be beneficial to help you ease into the recommendations in a way that can feel more tolerable to your system. 

The physiology of the body is incredible and is always working to support and protect you. Even when the cortisol is high it is reacting to a stimulus of danger so it keeps firing to keep us alive, alert and ready to fight, run or freeze. Even if our logical brain knows there is no inherent danger in going to the grocery store or seeing a dog in a fenced yard the emotional and reptilian brain may be wired to potentially see those things as threats. When we can work directly with our physiology we can become attuned to our natural cycles, the rhythms of nature and have the ability to rewire our brains and our nervous systems to become more resilient, adaptable and able to process the happenings of life (beautiful, painful and everything in between) with more ease.

Musings from a Magical PNW Summer

May your mind be as clear as the still morning lake mirroring the reflection above perfectly.

May you experience the full depth of this human life.

May you enjoy the endless possibilities that the vast sky can hold.

May you be grounded like the old growth trees who have stood steady and tall for as long as our ancestors walked the earth. 

May you sing the unique melody that only you can sing. 

May you be nourished with an abundance of ways that feed your body, mind and heart. 

May you savor the fragrance and taste of each moment to anchor you into the here and now. 

May you be focused like the spotted owl hunting to feed her babies.

May you enjoy lounging in the sun like the pikas.

May you grow your roots deep like the Douglas Fir.

May you reach for the sun like the fireweed.

May be able to turn inward like the snail and explode outward like the starfish. 

May you be free like the turkey vulture riding the thermals higher and higher into unimaginable heights.

Happy Guru Pūrṇimā

Yesterday I returned from a trip to the UK where I went on retreat with my beloved teacher and guru in Scotland and then took a road trip to the Highlands and a few days in London travelling with my mom. The picture above is from the top of Smoo Cave.

Today as I settle back into life in this time zone the full moon started this morning. This particular full moon is auspicious in that it honors the guru. Guru is a Sanskrit word that translates to “remover of darkness.”

As I travelled to the midnight sun where night and darkness were elusive I thought about the near constant companion of the sun as a symbol of the guru principle.

On retreat we worked intensively with The Renegade Method, which invites us to go towards the parts of ourselves that we may want to remain hidden in order to shine the light onto those aspects so they don’t continue to unconsciously run our lives. This is also a beautiful metaphor for the guru. They are the person, or people, who show you what is unconscious so you can wake up.

In my experience learning from a guru in order to remove the darkness we need to go towards it. The spiritual path is not all about sunshine, light and love. It is also about going directly and courageously towards what is hidden, repressed, suppressed and unconscious. The deeper I have gone into my own darkness, learned to love and embrace the parts of myself I want to avoid and learned to be radically honest about what is happening internally the more I have been able to access joy, gratitude, awe and true compassion.

It is a paradox in that the guru does in fact remove darkness, but they do that by bringing you into such deep intimacy with it it isn’t dark anymore. They show you how to surf and dive into the depths of your mind so there is no stone unturned and no place to hide. Like the midnight sun the guru keeps the lights on so everything is open, exposed, vulnerable and in the light. In the light of the guru’s rays I have learned to not fear or run from the darkness but to see it as one of my most beloved teachers.

RIP To My Best Friend

On Wednesday, May 24, my beloved sweet boy, Buddy, passed away at our home. These last 14 years brought many lessons from this bright, beautiful, cautious, hilarious, sweet and adorable being I had the absolute privilege to share my life with. 

Buddy taught me to let go of my agenda. The day he came into my life I had a plan. I was looking for a dog that did not shed, was great with people, didn’t bark too much and would be a dog I could bring into my yoga therapy practice. He was none of those things. I didn’t get what I was looking for, but I got exactly what I needed. 

He taught me about boundaries. Buddy was clear who he wanted and did not want in his space. We called him a cat dog because he knew his boundaries and who he trusted. It took a long time to get into his heart, but once you did he was all in. 

He showed me how to be all in. Whether he was running on the beach at the ocean, eating his meals or making sure we were aware of how awful the mailperson’s daily intrusion was he played, ate, protected and lived from a stance of being fully immersed in what he was doing. 

He showed me how to be present and savor what was in front of me. I sometimes let Buddy walk me. We could learn about one leaf’s smells for minutes or zig zag through the trail rather than walking a straight line because there might be something on the other side that we couldn’t miss. In these walks I learned to slow down and look at the rocks, the veins of the leaves, the buds of the flowers and the textures of the clouds more. 

He taught me to take breaks from technology. Buddy didn’t love the phone and when he would come into my lap for a snuggle it was such a gift to take that time to scratch his belly, kiss his forehead and feel his weight and warmth against my body. He always seemed to know when we were going to take his picture and would turn away. He wasn’t interested in being photographed. He was interested in being in the moment with his people. 

He showed me the beauty, honor and privilege it is to take care of a being as they come into this world and as they leave it. We met Bud when he was 1, full of energy, spunk, sass and sweetness. As he aged we got the opportunity to learn how to take care of an aging loved one. Our walks changed, slowed down and eventually turned into a little wandering and a little lying down at the park. We went from chasing anything that moved to moving anything he might run into as he lost his sight and hearing. From training for a marathon together to snuggling under blankets more. From puking in the car due to anxiety to excitement for the car because it took us to fun places. From bruising my legs by stomping on them from excitement to get out into the woods to beds and cushions in the car for extra support for his arthritic hips. From jumping up on the bed to ramps and being carried up and down. Every iteration of his life brought joy and sweetness. 

He helped me work on my needle phobia. Bud was diagnosed with diabetes 8 months ago and I never thought I would be able to give shots. Although my amazing partner gave most of the insulin shots my love and desire to keep him as happy and healthy as possible made me face my fear to do what I needed to do for him.

He taught me clarity. The day he died it was clear that morning that it was time. As we sat together for a few hours before the vet arrived all I could say to him was, “Thank you. I love you and I’m sorry if I could have done better and I didn’t.” After 14 years of being together it all boiled down to love and gratitude. 

He showed me that grief has the most beautiful highs and lows. After Buddy died the pain seared through my body. It still comes in waves, but we are also laughing and relishing our incredible life together. His first Halloween. The time he got lost on Whidbey Island. His fear of bridges. The sound of him snoring and dreaming. His eagle sounds at the vet. Playing with his best friend, Muffet. 

Grief and love.
Loving so intensely it hurts.
Grieving so fully it transforms to beauty.
Love and grief. 

As his ashes took flight in the wind at the ocean it reminded me of a metaphor my teacher shares. We are all these unique waves in the ocean, but we come from and return to the great sea of awareness. As Buddy’s wave returned to the vast ocean I sit with grief, love and gratitude that we had this time to swim together.

May you be free Bubbaloo and unbound to anything that wants to hold you back (including me).