2019 is on the Horizon – Can you SEE it?

As each year closes, we face the urge to toss out undesired habits, start fresh and to move in new directions.  Maybe you look forward to this “turning point” or maybe you are a bit hesitant after many years of  watching January’s enthusiasm fizzle out as you fall back into the trenches of old habits by February.  In fact, research has shown that about fifty percent of us make resolutions, however fewer than 10% of these keep them for more a few months.   Whether you call it “resolution”, a  “goal” or the more yogic term of “intention”, the process of follow-through and sustained change is very difficult for all.  Scientific research suggests that one tool, Visualization, may provide the key to success.

Psychological research teaches us that in order for a resolution to be successful, it must be specific, measureable and attainable.  Add the elements of relevance and time and you have created a SMART goal.  But, as you may have experienced, even these well-crafted goals fail.  One of the reasons for this is that our goals are often related to changes in lifestyle and personality which are entrenched in what yoga calls “samskaras“.  In Indian and Yogic philosophy,  “samskaras are the mental impressions left by all thoughts, actions and intents that an individual has ever experienced”(yogapedia).   Do you ever have circular thoughts or an old story that is preventing you from realizing your dream?  This is samskara in action.  Meditation and other yogic tools work because they seek to dip beneath the conscious mind and get us in touch with our hidden expectations and unconscious ideas.

Meditation, especially practices such as Yoga Nidra, rely on the individuals ability to focus on and cultivate body sensations rather than thoughts.  One is asked to focus on how the body feels when our goals, or sankalpa, are fully manifested.   These techniques seek to convert the brain waves into a more relaxed and suggestible state similar to that of hypnosis.  Visualization techniques go a few steps further.  Several studies have shown that the brain does not differentiate between a real and an visualized memory.  We can, therefore, lesson the anxiety of a new challenge by creating a memory of that experience through visualization.  In addition, research  shows that visualizing a physical activity stimulates the brain in much the same way as actually performing the activity.  This may be especially true if the activity is an unfamiliar or if fear and anxiety are associated with it.

Proponents of Visualization put much faith in the concept of the philosophical Law of Attraction.  Many have questioned this principle which states that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts, people can bring positive or negative experiences into their life (wikipedia).  However, knowledge of how the brain processes visual information may provide some scientific evidence to support how visualization helps one to attract what they want into their life.  Our brain relies on a network of neurons called the reticular activating system (RAS) to filter out what IS, and IS NOT important visually.  Since 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual, the RAS is critical.  Without it, we could  become desensitized and confused by the vast amount of information we receive every day.  Visualization techniques help “program” the RAS much the way Facebook feeds us information based on our search history and demonstrated interests.  Visualization is the lens through which we begin to see and describe our world.

With 2019 on the horizon, can you really SEE yourself acting in a way which cultivates the changes you wish to manifest in your life?  Close your eyes, relax and try to see and imagine how it looks and feels for you to live the life that you long for.  The more often you repeat this process, the stronger the path you are forging.  Good luck and I hope to see you on the mat in the coming year!

Need a little guidance?  Join us January 13th 2-5 for Creating a Vision for 2019:  Vision Board and Yoga Workshop with Melissa & Jules from Julesguide.

 

Solving the Unsolveable: 4 Steps in a Path to Healing & Preventing Chronic Pain

Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn’t you – all of the expectations, all of the beliefs – and becoming who you are.

– Rachel Naomi Remen

Over the last 30 years I have gradually gotten myself into the business of chronic pain.  I developed this niche not by claiming it but, rather, through following my interests and passion for all teachings and related to the mind-body connection.  I first studied Psychology, and then Yoga, followed by Ayurveda, Meditation, Mindfulness and Buddhism.  Every path led to the same place with different words. While I was developing my own model of approaching my patient’s complaints from what we used to refer to collectively as a “holistic” or “alternative” point of view, the scientific theory of pain was evolving as well.  Currently, there is substantial evidence to prove that pain is not simply a physical or neurological reaction to a stimulus, but a process  involving an individual’s culture, their environment, their past and present experience and their perception along with the original stimulus.

All pain, acute or chronic, is real but not all pain is true in a mathematical sense (a + b ≠ c).  In recognizing this, we can let go of the need to find a solution to the problem.  In fact, these efforts to determine the how and why and whose to blame often create a self-perpetuating pain cycle and impede the natural processes of healing.  Below I offer you 4 steps to help you move through acute pain directly (without initiating the cycle) or to free you from the grip of the chronic pain cycle.  I believe these steps to be effective in most to all cases however the amount of time to progress through the steps is highly variable.  In the case of acute pain, you may move through these steps in a matter of hours; in cases of chronic pain, it may take weeks, months or years.

  1.  Release Ownership:  stop referring to the discomfort you feel as “my pain” or, especially “my painful…injured…weak…bad…etc. body part”.  This is the most important first step to releasing the assigning of blame and responsibility for a solution.  In the truest sense, claiming pain as your own will ensure that the burden is yours to carry.  Attaching a negative adjective to body part will give your pain a home.  In truth, pain is dynamic and changing and healing is systemic.
  2. See it for what it is:  The word pain is so loaded.  What is “pain” and how is it perceived in the body?  “Pain” is the mental recognition of a negative sensation.  What would happen if you remove this word from your vocabulary?  Describe your sensation in every way you can, other than the word “pain”.  Give it a size, a shape, a pulse, a movement, a temperature, a weight, a texture, a taste, a smell, etc.  Next, describe another place of your choice in the body (maybe the opposite side, left/right, front/back).  Finally, check in with your the original place once again and note any changes in the sensation.  Even if the discomfort has intensified, you will recognize that your discomfort is not static or intractable.  This practice can take the form of a Body Scan or Body Sensing Meditation if you like.
  3. Accept It / Neutralize It.  This is usually the most difficult step and it may take time.  You don’t have to be happy about the presence of discomfort and irritability in your body, but you don’t have to run away from it either.  As you begin to describe the pain for what it is, you will begin to notice the hold it has on you and your life.    It may be the lack of control, the frustration of not knowing what is happening to your body, the inability to continue the activities which make you fuel your passion for life, the feeling of being “less than” or the guilt of not being able to fulfill your responsibilities.  On the other hand, you may recognize that you are somewhat attached to this presence.  It brings you love, nurturing and attention, it gets you out of doing things you don’t enjoy or that take up your time.  With persistent pain, there is often the relative comfort of living with pain compared to the fear of starting over without it.  When you begin to ask yourself, what can I accept and “what am I afraid to feel?”, you give yourself permission to feel the sensation or the emotion  (for more on this, see Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach).  In feeling the sensation or the emotion directly without negative connotations, resistance, or aversion, you free this connection in the cycle of pain.
  4. Take Positive Action with Compassion:  When you make it to this last step, you have so many options to move forward.  You are no longer trying to solve the problem, you are simply moving forward regardless of the condition in whatever way you feel safe and ready with a gentleness towards yourself and your body.  In the case of acute pain, you have the detachment to treat the condition directly and appropriately for what it is – you have described the sensations and you know which you will tolerate and which you will not.  In cases of persistent pain, the options include, but are not limited to: meditation, yoga, physical therapy, psychotherapy, nutritional support, medication.    Describe a “positive” version of yourself, one that you can remember with all your senses,  (“I am…”), and move slowly and steadily towards it with each breath and each decision.

Please feel free to comment on  your experience with pain or your path to recovery, to inquire for more resources or guidance, or to find out how to book a session with Melissa at Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy.

Moving from the Inside, Out – Experiencing Anatomy through Movement

Next time your yoga teacher asks you to “rest” in that Down Dog for just a few more breaths, look around you – no two Down Dogs are quite the same.

Excepting severe injury, genetic anomaly or deformity, we all have the same muscles pulling on the same bones to create the hip and shoulder flexion needed to assume the Downward Dog position.  What then, makes one person’s movement so different from another?  Or what makes the same movement different when done with a different orientation to gravity with a different point of contact (think of Half-Forward Fold, Staff Pose, Boat Pose or Legs-up-Wall, Half Handstand), or at a different speed (Iyengar vs. Power Vinyasa)?  The quality of our movement is determined by the various forces created by a muscle across a joint.  How a body part moves in response to these forces is different in each body and depends on a variety of factors.

 

Flexibility is Relative

The only difference between flexible and inflexible people is that they have to go further to get to the same place. ~ Aadil Palkhivala, founder Purna Yoga

When it comes to performance in yoga, relative flexibility is the factor that most readily comes to mind.  If you have ample length in your hamstrings, you will easily be able to press your heels to the floor with straight knees when your hips rise and you fold into that 90 degree angle at the hip.  However, this is only half the battle.  What remains of the pose is the 180 degree flexion at the shoulder allowing for a well-balanced and centered spine. If you are blessed with open and long hamstrings, you are also likely to hyper-extend your shoulders and collapse the shoulder blades into retraction or downward rotation as you push your heels down.  What follows is a potential injury to the shoulder and a loss in the sense of balance in the pose.  It is a common misconception that yoga is easier or even better suited for those who are more flexible.    According to the principles of Length-Tension, muscles which are too short will pull harder on a structure, muscles which are too-long will not be able to pull effectively. Flexibility is, therefore, important for both mobility and strength – there is such a thing as too much flexibility.  In fact, individuals who tend to hyper-extend their joints tend to lack adequate proprioception  or kinesthesia (the internal sensing of movement and positioning of the joints).

Muscle Recruitment – Building the YOUR Quality Team

Postures should be stable and comfortable. ~Patanjali, Yoga Sutra 2.46

In order for our Downward-Facing Dog pose to be both stable and comfortable, we need more than flexibility – we need strength.  The strength to balance a yoga posture is often very different from the strength we identify in other recreational activities.  Rather than shortening a muscle to move a weight, muscle strength in yoga is usually static & stabilizing (isometric) and / or lengthening and controlling the pull of gravity into a position (eccentric) and the weight is that of our own body coupled with gravity.  Quality for this type of movement is derived from muscles working in teams to align, stabilize and open a joint simultaneously.   To build a balanced posture, we often need to recruit muscles on the opposite side of the body from the muscle we are stretching (antagonists) as well as muscles which perform the same action as that of the posture and, often, additional aligning actions (synergists).  As with a work team, recruiting everyone in the area all at the same time leaves us with all “effort” and no “ease”.  Individuals who tend to be more flexible can gain stability in their vulnerable joints from enlisting the help of the synergist muscles.  In our example of sunken Down Dog, these are muscles which flex the knee (Gastrocnemius), flex the spine (Abdominals) and extend and retract the shoulders  (the rhomboids and the long head of the triceps).  On the other hand, individuals who are looking to gain flexibility can recruit antagonist muscles to perform reciprocol inhibition – a reflexive decrease in the tone in one muscle when the opposing muscle is activated.  In the example of our stiff, squared or rounded Down Dog, these are the muscles which extend the knee (Quadraceps), flex the hip (Iliopsoas, Tensor Fascia Latae and Rectus Femoris) and flex, protract and upwardly rotate the shoulders (Serratus Anterior, upper Pecs and Anterior Deltoid).

Why easier is sometimes better for all levels

Simplicity is a prerequisite for reliability ~ Edsger Dijkstra

Sometimes, regardless of the appropriate cueing, an individual is just not able to assume this triangle shape or is unable to maintain the safe positioning of the hips and shoulders.  It is helpful in these cases to reduce the degrees of difficulty (anatomically, Degrees of Freedom).  Softening in the knees or even releasing them to the floor (often called Puppy Dog Pose) frees the hamstrings to allow for a deepening in the hips, a lengthening of the spine and a softening in the shoulders.  Likewise, we can keep our legs strong without worrying about potential instability in the shoulders, elbows or wrists by performing this pose with the forearms to the floor (as in Dolphin Pose).  By decreasing the degrees of freedom, it is now possible to work on flexibility or stability in a similar manner as that suggested above.  One reason for this is that we have shortened the lever arm and therefore the overall resistance to overcome.  The other reason for this is that many of our hip, knee, shoulder and arm muscles are multi-joint muscles controlling movement at two or more joints.  When the hips are flexed and the knees are extended the hamstrings are subject to passive insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a muscle which crosses two joints to be stretched enough so as to allow for full range of motion in both joints at the same time.  Shoulder flexion coupled with elbow extension weakens the long head of the triceps as it is subject to active insufficiency – the limiting of the ability of a 2-joint muscle to shorten sufficiently so as to allow for action in both joints.  When limited by active insufficiency, we can decrease the degrees of freedom or we can call upon synergists to stabilize one joint while the muscle works on the other.  Both passive and active insufficiency play out in Boat Pose as we attempt to maintain or increase hip flexion while straightening the knees.  A soft bend in the knee will shorten the hamstrings at the knee allowing length enough as they cross the hip for a forward pelvic tilt as well as an increase in the ability for the rectus femoris to pull the thighs up towards the abdomen.

It’s all about your Contacts and Connections

Like a tree, you need to find your roots and then you can bend in the wind.                  ~ Angela Farmer, yogi

We can also change the area of focus and intention by changing the pose’s orientation to gravity and the individual’s point of contact with a supporting structure such as the floor, the wall or a prop.  In almost all modifications and alignment of Down Dog discussed thus far, both the upper extremities and the lower extremities are grounded and therefore all movement is closed-chained. Closed-chained exercise is excellent because it allows us to work multiple joints at the same time.  Most yoga poses, like functional activity,  contain some element of close-chain muscle work.  Along with the isometric and eccentric muscle work described above, this aspect of yoga exercise makes uniquely effective for healing, aligning and balancing the body.  Compare the experience in Down Dog to that of Half Forward Fold where the legs are in a closed-chain position and the shoulders and arms are now flexing in an open-chained movement or Staff Pose or Boat Pose with raised arms in which both the upper and lower extremities are working in an open-chain.  If the pose is essentially the same, 90 degree hip flexion and 180 degree shoulder flexion with extended knees and elbows, why are these experiences so different?

Experiential anatomyThe reason is that in open-chained movement, the point where the muscle begins, the origin, must stabilize in order to draw the end where the muscle attaches, the insertion, closer as it shortens. We will need to stabilize the torso through the acromian process of the scapula, the clavicle and the sternum so that the pecs major and anterior deltoids can can shorten and lift the humerus.   In closed-chain movement, where the insertion site is fixed, the origin and insertion often switch roles with the insertion pulling the origin closer.  In our example, the humerus is stabilized through the elbow and wrist in the full expression of Down Dog or through forearms in Dolphin Pose.  The muscles’ origins on the anterior chest and shoulder will, therefore, move toward the fixed arms.  Likewise, in Staff Pose, the quads are actively pulling the shins up to straighten the legs. In a closed-chain version like Forward Fold, the quads pull the thigh to a fixed shin.

 

The Weight of Gravity

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  ~ Stephen Hawking, physicist

As we change our relationship to gravity by doing Down Dog against the wall or by lifting into a Handstand with flexed hips or simply laying on or back with our Legs-Up-the-Wall we change the weight of gravity through our joints or the resistance needed for the muscle to overcome to assume the position.  Although strength can become more important with increased weight, flexibility and alignment remain critical, as to muscle function and quality of movement.  We can try, but we cannot power ourselves into a handstand or simply relax in a Down Dog against the wall without compromising our commitment to effort and ease as well as risking injury to the body.  When we conscientiously change our relationship to gravity, we change our area of focus and attention.  Rather than allowing our weaknesses to decide what we will get out of a pose, we adapt the pose to focus on our chosen intention.  For a person with very tight hamstrings, placing the hands against the wall in Down Dog can shift the resistance away from the neck and shoulders towards the hips and spine allowing for a direct experience of the full expression of the pose.  For those who are hyper-flexible, placing the hands against the wall can help create correct alignment and facilitate proprioception and kinesthesia for better joint stability.

Are you Built for Speed?

Whether one moves slowly or with speed, the one who is a seeker will be a finder.    ~ Rumi, poet and Sufi master

Finally, consider the experience of a Vinyasa flow beginning in Mountain and moving through a Sun Salutation which includes rapid flows in and out of Down Dog compared to that of a static Iyengar practice or even a slowly-flowing ViniYoga class.  The practices feel different in many ways.  The faster flow can challenge our aerobic capacity and endurance while the static practice can challenge our strength as well as our flexibility.  Both practices challenge the mind-body connection in different ways.  Like people, certain muscles prefer one kind of movement to another.  A tonic muscle has slow-twitch fibers and tends to shorten and tighten when stressed whereas a phasic muscle has fast-twitch fibers and tends to lengthen and weaken when stressed.   Tonic muscles produce lower forces for longer without fatigue and are therefore very good for posture and stability.  Phasic muscles produces greater force but are very susceptible to fatigue.  When our bodies lose anatomical alignment, tonic postural muscles like the upper trapezius and levator scapulae as well as the hamstrings are stretched and respond by shortening and even locking in a muscle spasm.  Phasic muscles, like the gluteus maximus and medius, begin to weaken over time when rapidly stretched.  With proper alignment and recruitment of antagonists and synergists, movement both fast and slow can be achieved safely and with focused intention.

Moving Forward from the Inside-Out

The variety of tools available to teach or assume a pose is almost endless.  It is important to understand why you choose a certain tool over another and in what circumstances and for what bodies certain tools are most appropriate.

Sometimes the most important use of our tools is to empower the individual to learn more about the experience of their own body.   While we may often employ our tools in the “correction” of asana, it is important to use our tools to encourage the individual to feel what determines the quality of the pose for his or her intention.  This is the Awareness-Response factor.  It comes from the Nervous System and the Subtle Body (Chakras, Nadis, Koshas, Vayus).  When working with awareness, we cue a person to feel how one pose is different than another, to seek ease and to find improved breath.  We can use repetition, props, voice, music and many other tools to enhance awareness.  Learn more about the Awareness-Response Factor and about using your knowledge of anatomy to direct Prana and energy in Part II of this post, Moving from the Inside, Out:  Experiencing Energy through the Anatomy.

Moving from the Inside, Out:  Experiential Anatomy will be offered as a CE course at YogaFest NC on April 7th, 2018.

For more information on Continuing Education Opportunities, group classes and private sessions with Melissa, please visit Discover Yoga & Physical Therapy online.

Lineage – “Please, Tell Us About the Wall!”

In yoga terminology, lineage refers to the historical succession of knowledge passed from teacher to teacher. With the foundation of lineage, a disciple of yoga gains insight not only from his/her own teacher, but from all the teachers that came before. The result of lineage is instruction that is enriched by many perspectives and free from the influence of any one teacher’s ego.

Yoga Lineage is often depicted as a tree in which each teacher grows from the branch of his or her teacher across generations most leading back to one of a select few yogis born in the late 19th century.  These core teachers are, of course, tied to their own teachers who extend back to the 5th – 2nd Century BCE.  In my studio, I have a row of photos of the individuals who have, in some way, altered my path.  While it is not a tree, each one of these teachers have a tree of their own and several of them share a common lineage. There are a few people missing because, believe it or not, I do not know their name but they are not forgotten when I set my drishti (focused gaze) towards the wall.  Many of my students have asked, “Tell me about the people on the wall”.   I don’t know how interesting my story is, but I think it is important to tell, so here it is.

For me, it all started in 1990 when a young yogi named Ana entered my life and my home in Sierra Leone, West Africa while I was working as a Peace Corp Volunteer.  She spoke reverently of her master yogi teacher back in Gainesville, FL and when she left the Peace Corp (after only a few months), she gifted me a yoga guide written by her guru depicting his core beliefs and a physical practice to follow daily.  My diligent practice with this guide had less to do with the philosophy as with a lot of lonely days and nights and a soul-seeking mind.

Integral

When I returned to Western Society in 1991, I stumbled upon a tattered 20-year-old paperback book written by SatchidanandaIntegral Yoga Hatha.  Why a 24-year-old girl living on her own in San Francisco, CA might choose to carry around such a book reading it over and over again on the bus and during her lunch break, I don’t really know, but I did.  And I found a wonderful Integral Yoga Studio in the Mission and established a regular practice.  As a Christian, I remember being amazed that there were pictures of the Budha and Jesus on the walls of the studio room.  The Integral Yoga movement is dedicated to the philosophy “One Truth, Many Paths”.  This inclusiveness and holistic approach spoke deeply to me.

From here I moved erratically in my search, retreating often and meeting a few gurus face-to-face.  Unfortunately, none of them made the wall.

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In 2004, I entered the Teacher Training Program at The Hatha Yoga Center in Seattle, WA. Bob Smith & Ki McGraw were my teachers.  The two combined had a beautiful and complex lineage.  Rather than trying to agree on or consolidate a new approach in the teacher training, we benefited from the uniqueness and passion of each as an individual yogi on a path.  Sometimes it felt like the two were in conflict with each other and this became part of our study to learn where they meet up.  We were learning to find our own path with tools from so many different yogis in the Hatha Yoga tree.  I had no goals of becoming a yoga teacher.  I wanted only to experience what it was like to live as a yogi.

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After I finished the year-long program, Yoga was so deeply embedded in my soul, I had no choice but to practice, and teach.  I found myself inspired and motivated and, by-the-way, 6 months pregnant taking a prenatal ViniYoga class at a local studio.  My path was about to change and Yoga was just one part of this change.  In 2006, my teacher, Alison Eliason, brought me into the community of Discover Yoga and gave me an opportunity to teach.

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I had practiced ViniYoga before but I didn’t feel like it was enough for me.  I learned the basic principles so that I could use some ViniYoga flow in my class and make the students feel comfortable.   For myself, I craved alignment and strength.  In looking for an Iyengar studio, I found Aadil Palkhivala, the co-founder of Purna Yoga at Yoga Centers in Bellevue, WA.  In Purna Yoga I found all the precision of Iyengar Yoga with the heart of Integral Yoga plus lots of props!  I was challenged and with every class I was learning so much.

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By 2007, I had over 10 years of experience as a Physical Therapist and over 15 years practicing Yoga.  My father set me on my path toward Ginger Garner, founder of Professional Yoga Therapy (now Medical Therapeutic Yoga) with a newspaper clipping highlighting the “new” profession of Yoga Therapist.  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before!  The first time I met Ginger, I knew I was in the right place.  All of my prior education and training, my interest in Ayurveda and my passion for Yoga finally fell together in one practice and it was so much more than experiential.  I learned why not all types of yoga work for all people all the time and what each teaching path offers and when to call upon it.

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In 2009, I partnered with Alison to open Discover Yoga Therapy in Redmond, WA.  Just 2 years later, in 2011, my family and I moved to Hong Kong.  While in Hong Kong, I had the priveledge of meeting and learning from so many amazing teachers through the Evolution Asia Yoga conference but none changed my path so deeply as Hersha Chellaram.  Hersha’s own tree in most firmly grounded in Integral Yoga having grown up with Satchidananda.  With Hersha I became part of larger community of beautiful teachers all over the world who teach, practice and live yoga.  Never before have I witnessed a person who touched the lives of everyone she encounters so deeply – making yoga relevant and accessible to all people.

While I still do not feel like I have my own lineage tree, I am so proud to be part of this garden of teachers and I know that everything they have taught me finds its way into my teachings on a daily basis.  Next time we bow in Namaste as the class ends, give an extra six or seven nods to the wall.

Thanks for listening.

 

Moving Up to the Next Level: Progression in Yoga

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“Remember it is not how deep into a posture you go – what does matter is who you are when you get there”    ~Max Strom

My students ask me all the time, “Do you think I am ready to move up to the next yoga class level?” or “How do I know when it is the right time to try out a more advanced class?”  The truth is, there is no set algorhythm for determining readiness for progression in yoga.  We cannot look at variables such as years experience, body type, age and current ability and come up with the answer.  In this way, yoga is different from almost all other physical endeavors.  Continue reading Moving Up to the Next Level: Progression in Yoga

Moving Your Mind in 2017

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If we can make just 1% of the population meditative, the world will be a different place” ~Sadhguru

If you listed among your New Year’s resolutions the desire to learn how to meditate or to meditate more often, then you are certainly not alone.  With an ever-growing amount research and evidence stating that meditation is good for anything and everything from a healthy heart, to work productivity, to a better sex life, it is a wonder we don’t schedule the time to sit and breathe as readily as we plan to sit down to dinner.   Continue reading Moving Your Mind in 2017