You really “should” read this blog

Recently I have added a list of triggering “shoulds”, (specifically Byron Katie’s list of Universal Beliefs) to my yoga therapy intake form. I will admit it seems a bit unusual amid the medical history and lists of symptoms and problems. I find, however, that stress and/ or trauma is nearly always on this problem list. In order to work with stress and trauma, we need to understand our own triggers. Many of these triggers are not physical events or activities but emotional and mental beliefs.

With the growth of social media and the constant advances in consumer marketing, it seems like there are more and more “shoulds” in our life everyday from political opinions to life-hacking solutions. However, “Shoulds” have always been around. They are the basis of morality instilled deeply in us as children and throughout our lives. They are the answer to the toddler’s question, “But, why do I have to do it that way?” and take root when we are forced to protect ourselves from what we see as a threat. Overtime some of these beliefs turn from moral guidance into rules and imperatives, conscious or subconscious scripts for living our lives – not unlike yogic samskaras. When they do, we can become stuck – not only mentally, but physically as well. At this point, they belong on the problem list.

I find that individuals who carry a lot of “shoulds” tend to take on a physical energy and posture of “never enough”. They literally get stuck when trying to inhale. Other individuals are more stuck in what you should not do. They fall into a cycle of shame and guilt when they don’t live up to their own expectations, or in fear, blame and control when others consistently fall short. Eventually they find it difficult to exhale and “let it go”.

Whether we are aware of our beliefs or they are just beneath our consciousness imprinted from childhood or past karma, there is a point where some beliefs exist in stark conflict with our current reality. Over time this conflict begins to surface as stress and cumulative stress can often result in physical symptoms similar to trauma. It really doesn’t matter whether you are “shoulding” yourself or others or being “should” upon, the anxiety is yours to deal with.

The key to moving beyond your triggering beliefs is awareness. Awareness comes from listening to your self-talk and that of others and raising a flag each time you hear the word “should”. Reviewing the Byron Katie List was a jump-starter to awareness for me and has helped me pinpoint a guiding philosophy unique for each patient at this moment in their lives. Working with the list, you can highlight the beliefs that ring true to you and then go back through the list and place a star next to the ones that you know are the source of repetitive stress. You may also choose to reflect on a recent conflict while looking at the list and notice which beliefs might have been triggers in that particular conflict. Fill in the blanks or tweak the language to make it specific for your situation. For example, an easy trigger for me is “kids should respect their parents”. I believe this is true and it is a good idea for me to bring this belief into my household, but it is in direct conflict with my day-to-day existence. Extrapolating from Byron Katie’s Work, I ask myself “What does it feel like to think this thought?” The answer for me is easy – “FRUSTRATING!” It also makes me think I am not a good parent (which I SHOULD be) or maybe even that my child is evil or BAD (which he/she SHOULDN”T be). I might then ask myself “What would it feel like to not have this thought or belief?” Depending on the circumstance, I would feel more relaxed, maybe even slightly amused by the complete irreverence of my children. For fun, I might even take it one step further and turn it around “I should be more respectful of my children”.

On our paths as yogis, we are learning to check in with ourselves daily, to prioritize our needs and wants, and to set guiding intentions for how we want to manifest. We can use our list of “shoulds” as part of this process, just as we reflect upon samskaras as a guide to recognizing our sankalpa. Once you are aware of the thoughts, they will begin to lose a little of their power and, naturally, a little of the stress will drop away. However, there are numerous techniques available to use the beliefs on the list actively in your growth and recovery.

One method is to take each “should” or belief and ask ourselves the following 3 questions:

Is this belief true?

Is it in line with my current intentions / goals? Can I visualize this belief in action as helpful in some specific way?

Is it possible that it is true but not for me or for this moment in my life?

Another helpful “should-buster” technique I find helpful comes from a blog by Dana Mitra. She suggests you ask yourself these questions:

“Whose should is it?

Is it Mine?

Where did I get it?

Does it come from my inner critic or my inner mentor?

Like beliefs, not all “shoulds” are bad, but all are worthy of examination. By bringing awareness to our personal list, we find new energy and empower ourselves to reframe our approach to stress and trauma in our lives. We find that “we are enough” and begin to shed light on those thoughts and beliefs we can choose to let go of, at least for now.

What is my Yoga personality?

So, you are fully committed to practicing Yoga at home. You have your equipment, you have set aside time and carefully considered your goals and intentions. You have experimented with different teachers and different practices. You are beginning to feel the energetic and emotional benefits of Yoga in addition to the physical ones. Now, it is time to figure out what yoga practice is therapeutic for you and your needs. You may find it interesting to learn that the answer to this question is seldom the type of yoga you LIKE the most. When we begin to look at Yoga as a tool for health and well-being, we can rely on the guidance of Ayurveda, the “sister science” to Yoga. One of the key principles of Ayurveda is the idea that “like attracts like”. This means that a person will be attracted towards the very thing that has the greatest potential to create imbalance.

photo credit: Ekhartyoga.com

The first step towards this knowledge is to determine your pakriti, or baseline dosha. There are 3 doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each dosha is made up of 2 of the 5 universal elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. There are many online tests that will give you a good idea of what elements and qualities drive you. You can also spend a little time reviewing your “type” online and reviewing the strengths and the symptoms of imbalance expected for each dosha. Everyone has a little bit of each of the 3 which make up their basic nature. Most are predominantly a combination of 2 doshas (Pitta-Vata, for example) and some, rarely, are all 3, or Tri-doshic.

Vata is made of the elements of air and space. It is, therefore, light, dry, diffuse, cool and contains the energy of movement – motivated, quick, and agile.

Pitta is made up of fire and water. It is, therefore, hot, steady, sharp and contains the energy of transformation – digestion and assimilation.

Kapha is made up of water and earth. It is, therefore, wet, warm, stable, slow-to-move and it contains the energy of cohesion – bringing things (or people) together.

There is no set prescription of poses for each dosha, but rather an attitude towards practice that will acknowledge your tendencies and assist in bringing you into balance rather than accelerating you towards imbalance.

Vatas, for example, are creative, talkative and energetic when in balance. They may be drawn towards practices with a lot of pose changes and rapid movement, such as sun salutations and power vinyasa classes. However, when this is their primary practice, they are likely to become erratic, depleted of energy and less-focused. A balancing practice for Vatas should be slower, grounded and intentional. This includes, but is not limited to, restorative practices. They can still enjoy a vinyasa flow but may want to keep their eyes downward and focus on exhalations, and lower body strength. Their mantra for yoga is “Slow Down!”.

Pittas, at their best, are passionate and strong, quick to learn and love challenge and change. They are, however easily over-heated so a strong hot yoga practice may bring out their competitive, judgmental and reactive nature. A balancing practice for Pittas will include many seated and prone poses especially twists and forward folding. They can still enjoy strong standing or backbending poses, like Chair or Upward Bow with shorter “holds” or from a well-supported position. Their mantra for practice is “Chill Out!”

Many Kaphas love yoga because their bodies (and minds) are relaxed and content to rest and stretch in a pose as long as possible. They are also drawn to the community aspects of Yoga as well as the sensual smells and sounds often found in a yoga studio. However, Kaphas can be sedentary and heavy in mind and body. A light vinyasa practice with little to no “holds”or rests moving towards deep backbends and inversions (especially early in the morning) will help their warm and loving potential to shine all day long. For Kaphas, the mantra is “Keep it moving!”.

Because we, and everything around us, are all made up of all 5 elements, our imbalances are not always this straightforward. We tend to take on the qualities of the elements in our environment (including our clients, friends, food, climate, etc). In Ayurveda, we also rely on balancing gunas (or qualities). When you feel heavy and dull (qualities of Earth), you opt for a light and mobile practice. If you feel light-headed and diffuse (qualities of space and air) you try to move in a way which is grounded and focused. During the heat of the day or in the midst of summer, you avoid poses that easily burn you out and opt for more stable, cooling poses. There are 10 guna pairs (20 qualities) to guide our practice and lifestyle choices: Hot/Cold, Dense/Liquid, Soft/Hard, Stable/Mobile, Gross/Subtle, Smooth/Rough; Cloudy/Clear, Dull/Sharp, Oily/Dry, Heavy/Light.

One of the things I love best about following Ayurvedic guidance is that you are never doing the “wrong” or unhealthy thing. You are merely doing what you are naturally drawn towards. Knowing the qualities around why you “like” one season, pose, practice or food over another helps you to recognize when you need balance. In seeking improved health and well-being, you do not give up what you love; you simply add in some of the elements you need to keep your strengths supported and balanced.

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.

Restorative Retreat

In need of a mini-retreat but no vacation in sight?  Take 40 minutes out of your day to try the following restorative sequence for a guided practice of intention, acceptance and gratitude. You will emerge refreshed and battle-ready.  Continue reading Restorative Retreat

Putting “Therapy” into Your Yoga

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.  ~BKS Iyengar

I am often asked “What is Yoga Therapy?” and “How is Therapeutic Yoga different from regular yoga and from Physical Therapy or other forms of traditional therapy?”.  First of all, let me say that not all Yoga is “therapeutic” and not all “yoga therapy” is therapeutic for every person.

At the core, Therapeutic Yoga begins with Awareness.  In this, it is very personal and, often, different for different people.  Whether taught privately or in a group, Therapeutic Yoga offers the individual student or client a series of tools to look at themselves and identify what it is he or she desires or needs less/more of.  These tools are usually taken from Yoga, from Ayurveda, from Physical Medicine, and contemporary Psychology.

In a regular class, the student takes positive actions (asana) towards “feeling good”.  In traditional therapy, a patient is relatively passive and the goal is to diagnose (“You are sick”), reduce symptoms and cure disease.  On the contrary, in Therapeutic Yoga, the client is “empowered” with physical, mental and emotional tools and the goal is to adapt and improve.  In some cases, the student will learn that it is not possible to improve the physical state (“The body is sick”) but that adaptations can be made to allow the mental or emotional state to  drastically improve.

“It is less helpful to know the cause of one’s stress than the state of mind when one is stressed”

While starting in the physical body, therapeutic yoga allows insight into the layers of the body, or the Koshas.  These layers are the Physical, the Emotional, the Energetic, the Social, the Intellectual and the Spiritual. The student begins to see how these layers overlap and intersect – how that “trapped” feeling in your neck, shoulders and upper back can be eased with the intention of “freedom” or “surrender” or maybe by becoming more physically grounded and aware of the alignment of the feet and the lower extremities or looking into our social / emotional and noting where he or she may feel stuck.

Once the student has the tools, he or she can put “therapy” into any yoga session.  What is more, the student is ready to put Yoga into his or her life and learn to adapt and improve “off the mat”.

PITTA – Embracing and Balancing the Heat of Summer

yogasweat

Sometimes it takes a meltdown to cool down.         ~Evinda Lepins

I’m hot, really hot.  Literally, I am actually HOT and wet, according to Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda, I am a PITTA, which means my body, mind and emotions are guided by the elements of heat and water.   Continue reading PITTA – Embracing and Balancing the Heat of Summer

Legs-up-the-Wall / Viparita Karani

Viparita Karaniphoto credit:  Carmen’s Canvas

It is not the load that breaks you down.  It is the way you carry it.    ~Lou Holtz

Legs-up-the-wall is my very favorite pose – so easy and so profound.   The beauty of this pose starts with the sanskrit name translated into “making action by turning things around”.    The list of ailments of the mind and body that are eased by this pose are endless and yet there is no effort, no prerequisite pose and very few contraindications – you simply find a way to turn yourself upside-down and find the flow.   It is a paradigm-shift. Continue reading Legs-up-the-Wall / Viparita Karani

Tadasana – Mountain Pose

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.  Nelson Mandela

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Here is where you may be thinking…”This is one pose I know – I can do this one!  All I need to do is stand at the front of my mat, right?”

Well, yes…and no.  Tadasana or Mountain pose comes from the ever-repeated “call to action” pose in Ashtanga yoga – Samastitihi (SA-MAS-TI-TI-HI) translated as “equal standing”.  There is a reason I am only showing my feet in the image above (and it is not because my husband thinks they are so pretty or because I love the purple polish on my toes).   Continue reading Tadasana – Mountain Pose

Sukasana – “Easy Pose”

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself”      Hermann Hesse

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This week’s pose is Sukasana or “Easy Pose”.  Don’t the name fool you, there are some tricks to getting this one right.  This pose is the beginning and the end of your practice.  Many students struggle to present themselves in this pose as the eager student sitting upright with their spine straight and their shoulders back.  The problem with sitting in this manner is Continue reading Sukasana – “Easy Pose”