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).

Finding calm through chaos

Kālī Temple

I recently returned from an incredible yātrā (sacred pilgrimage) in India with my teacher and saṅgha where we visited temples dedicated to Śiva and the five elements. One of the countless things I love about India is the immersion into the senses.

The sights of Devī and Śiva were mesmerizing. When I am in a temple I am always reminded of something we teacher told me. Not only am I looking at them they are also looking at me. Being in the presence of these deities that are dressed in dazzling colors and being worshiped with milk, honey and water is enrapturing. There is so much to see it is impossible for me to take it all in. The sounds of the bells, chants and crowds making their way through the temple complex anchor me. The smells of incense, sweat, smoke and flowers keep my awareness in the present moment. The taste of the prasad (offerings) where the food offered to the deity becomes the food we eat, which then becomes us feels like an integration of our experience. The feeling of bodies working in unison, and sometimes opposition, to get that moment with the deity fuels my longing for the reason so many of us are there, to be liberated. The heat reminds me of the power of transformation that comes with being in these sacred places.

Being in India and having the opportunity to visit these temples is a privilege I don’t take lightly. As I learn from my teacher these experiences are wonderful, but the real question is how do they impact our daily lives? It is one thing to have mystical experiences, but how can we use these experiences to go deeper into ourselves and process?

When I returned home my little meditation room felt more alive and potent after being in places where worship has continued for thousands of years. I felt more connected to my senses here and more devoted to the sweet altar that holds my prayers, intentions, sufferings, joys and longings. The loudness stoked my inner silence. The near constant movement strengthened my ability to be still. Sometimes by going out into the world more expansively I can come home to myself more deeply. By going into chaos I can find an even more profound calm.

We don’t need to travel across the world or go to temples to experience this though. We can use our senses in our daily lives to anchor us anytime and anywhere. Notice a sound you hear right now. I hear my heater. One of the temples we went to was dedicated to the space element, the element that holds all the other elements. Can you tune into the space that holds what you hear? Notice a thought you are aware of. Can you observe the space around that thought? Become aware of one of your struggles. Can you also become aware of the space that holds that struggle? When you reflect on the space in and around whatever you are experiencing what happens in your body? In your breath? In your mind?

What helps you access calm in chaos?

Gaṅgā’s Grace

Gomukh, the source of the Gaṅgā

As I sit early this morning awake from jetlag I am contemplating how to put into words the last few weeks. 

I travelled to India with my teacher and sangha where we followed the beloved Ganges River (Gaṅgā Devi) from Haridwar to Her source at the glacier of Gomukh. 

We trekked 36 km from Gangotri to the glacier following the hum and power of Gaṅgā and the incredible stillness and quiet of the snow-capped mountains. 

We got to witness Gaṅgā in many forms and colors. Polluted, brown and gently flowing to green and expansive to blue, joyful and pristine. We bathed in Her waters and worshipped and revered Her as the source of everything. 

I offer this poem as a tribute to my time with Gaṅgā and my teacher who made it possible. 

Gaṅgā’s voice is calling me closer and closer.
Come to me my beloved.
Let me show you how to flow.
Watch my effervescence and joy knowing I am you. 
Immerse yourself in Me. 
Dissolve into Me. 
Trust my powerful rapids and my deep stillness.
Surrender to Me. 

Guru’s voice encouraging me. 
“Let’s go to Gomukh,” she says with wide eyes and a glorious grin. 
Let’s trek where the sadhus have gone before us. 
Gaṅgā is calling us back to Her source.
Let’s climb straight to Heaven.

Bring it on!
Each step filled with joy and gratitude
Around each corner a new wonder to behold
Ganga’s hum a constant companion
Śiva standing in loving awareness 
Birch trees and flowers welcoming us to higher elevations
Boulders challenging us to stay present
Embracing each moment, breath, waterfall, cloud, star and snowflake with amazement. 
Am I really here?  

There She is. 
Sitting next to Her bubbling exuberance.
Bringing Her precious icy water to my face.
She nourishes me as I drink Her water through all my senses.
The sound of Your voice is forever in my head and heart.
The taste of your immaculate water is forever on my tongue.
The sight of your delightful flow I now see in every moment of my life.
The smell of the crisp, cold air surrounds me like a whiff of Your perfume.
Your touch that blesses this body penetrates into my cells. 

Thank you for calling me.
Thank you for your grace in allowing me to come.
Thank you for the bruises and blisters that remind me I was with You.
Thank you for showing me You are me and I am You.

Befriending the Nervous System

Photo from Unsplash

How does one befriend their nervous system, and what exactly is the nervous system?

Let’s start by defining what the nervous system is and how it works. The central nervous system (CNS) includes your brain and spinal cord. The peripheral nervous system (PNS) consists of two branches: the somatic nervous system (SNS) and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The somatic nervous system facilitates our voluntary movements. When my fingers do the typing on the keyboard my brain is working with the somatic nervous system to facilitate that movement, and I am conscious and in control of it. The autonomic nervous system facilitates the aspects of ourselves that are out of our voluntary control. 

Within the ANS are the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions. The sympathetic nervous system activates the fight and flight response. It also helps us wake up in the morning, motivates us to show up even when we don’t want to and brings excitement and passion to our lives. The parasympathetic has two different branches, according to the polyvagal theory. The ventral vagal state corresponds to experiences of connection, safety, peace, openness or receptivity. The dorsal vagal state corresponds to experiences of shutting down, numbing, dissociation or freezing. The vastly complex and incredible nervous system controls and regulates everything we do, from how we think, move, digest, feel, relate, sleep and so on. There is nothing we do that isn’t impacted by our nervous system. 

How does one befriend this conscious and unconscious, powerful and subtle, adaptive and ancient system within ourselves? One way is to get to know it. When you meet someone you are attracted to you might find yourself wanting to know more about them. What is their history? What do they like? What are their challenges? As a stranger becomes a friend you get to know them and understand how to be in relationship with each other. The nervous system is a friend who has been within you, maintaining your bodily functions, sending you cues of safety and danger, helping you plan and problem solve, and reach out and withdraw as needed. You might just not have known you have this friend living inside of you who always has your back!

In the same way we might get to know someone new we can get to know our nervous system. Everyone’s system is wired differently due to our unique physiology and life experiences, and the more we get to know our system the more we can learn how to be in a kind and loving relationship with it. We can learn what settles it into ease or what triggers it into feelings of danger. We can learn what it needs in a state of threat and how to nourish it. 

As you are reading this tune into your nervous system. What is your body feeling? Relaxed? Tense? Are your shoulders contracted? Is your belly moving with your breath? What are the thoughts and emotions you are aware of? Are you feeling at peace? Are you anxious? Is the mind active or quiet? Do you feel like you are in the ventral (connected, at peace or open), sympathetic (agitated, angry or jittery) or dorsal (shut down, numb or disconnected) state? Do you feel like you are experiencing a combination of states? This is the first step toward befriending the system through getting to know it. Through this connection we can work with it directly to resource it, understand the inherent resilience within it and build ways to become even better friends with it.

Learn more about Resourcing and Resilience: A Yoga Therapy Immersion where we explore Befriending the Nervous System in an embodied way.

Resourcing and Resilience

According to the dictionary resilience is defined as:

  1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
  2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

Resilience is the aspect of ourselves that bounces back when something pushes us down, supports our buoyancy in the face of adversity, and gives us flexibility. If I only have one or two ways to approach a struggle (i.e. work harder or shut down) those will work some of the time, but not always. Resilience is a toolbox we can add to, yet we are all born with resilience because we wouldn’t be here without it. Even the things we may characterize as “maladaptive” or “problematic” have times they are helpful and even necessary. For example, sometimes people feel numb after experiencing a trauma. Numbness is the body’s protective mechanism when situations or experiences are too much for the body/mind/heart to handle. Numbness helps the body survive. If numbness is the only mechanism to deal with stress and trauma will this have consequences? Yes. Prolonged numbness can lead to disconnection in relationships, physical injuries (due to not being able to feel the body) and confusion or disorientation when an emotion arises, but numbness is still a form of resilience.

Resilience can also be looked at as a resourcing anchor that keeps one steady and centered in the middle of a storm. These resources can be what you do to soothe yourself, whether that is driving in your car, listening to music, petting your dog, going to a place in nature or talking to a friend. Generally anchors are people, places or beings (i.e. animals or spiritual figures) that invoke a sense of connection, security, ease, peace, or love. 

Here are some questions to contemplate around your own resourcing and resilience:

  1. What helps me bounce back when something pushes me down?
  2. Where do I have flexibility in my responses to challenges?
  3. What are my resourcing anchors?

Sometimes these are all the same thing. For example, going for a walk in your favorite park after something stressful happens can support you rebounding from a challenge, it may be a different response than a pattern of yelling at someone and it may feel safe being surrounded by trees as a resourcing anchor.

There are misperceptions about what resilience is as well.  

Resilience is not:

  1. Never struggling
  2. Putting on a happy face
  3. Gritting your teeth and powering through
  4. Being emotionless
  5. Denying problems
  6. Being grateful for whatever happens
  7. Never needing help

Being resilient does not mean there will not continue to be stress and trauma in life. Whether it is illness, racism, losing a loved one or arguments with your partner, challenges are inevitable. It is how we navigate those challenges that can increase our ability to thrive instead of just surviving.  

We ALL have inherent resilience, even if it doesn’t always look or feel that way. Sometimes our strategies for surviving also cause us pain, yet at some point we needed, and may still need, those tools. Imagine working with a personal trainer who is supporting our body to be strong and flexible. In the same way we train our muscles we can also strengthen and bring adaptability to our resilience muscles. I may notice that I overuse my hamstrings but my quadriceps are underused. I can acknowledge my strong hamstrings while I might challenge myself to strengthen a part of my body that is underutilized. The same is true for resilience training. We acknowledge where we are already strong and we keep adding to the toolbox.

Gratitude Practice:

Take a moment to look at the resilience tools you have learned through your life and the resources you rely on. What would it feel like to offer gratitude for the ways you have supported yourself through the challenges and traumas you experienced? Acknowledge the ways those responses helped you navigate difficult experiences and survive. Acknowledge those people, places and/or beings where you can go for support. Resilience is not about struggling through something alone, but knowing where and who we can go to when we need help. Even if you have just one place or one person that can be enough. In this Harvard research study it shows that one strong adult relationship can be a contributing factor in a child’s resilience. We can also have strong relationships with pets, our faith, or a place in nature, and these can be just as powerful. What happens when you think about being grateful for the resilience and resources you already have? What happens when you offer gratitude to your anchor(s)? You might notice something in your body (i.e. a settling or warmth), your breath (i.e. deeper or more relaxed), and/or your mind (i.e. pleasant memories or happiness). It might feel tender and sweet to offer yourself gratitude for the ways you have learned to be resilient, and it also might feel hard or impossible. There is no right or wrong way to feel and if we can come to the practice with curiosity it opens us to the flexibility of resilience rather than expecting something to be a particular way. Your resilience and resourcing will be unique to you, and finding those ways to bolster and support your resilience is a powerful part of the journey.

Read more about the upcoming Resourcing and Resilience: A Yoga Therapy Immersion to go deeper.