With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many people are feeling anxious about family gatherings. This year, it’s not just dealing with Uncle Joe’s casual racism, encountering siblings with whom grudges linger, or worrying about serving a dry turkey. We’re at a place in the pandemic where we are gathering more, but COVID and the fear of COVID are still very much alive and well. In fact, a recent survey found that 75% of families plan to not have extended family over for the holidays. Our anxiety is especially peaked when dealing with unvaccinated relatives.

One remarkable antidote to anxiety is compassion. It’s hard for your brain to be anxious and kind simultaneously, so by purposefully directing your thoughts and feelings towards kindness, you short-circuit the fear brain’s dialogue and thus feel less anxious.

Here’s a simple breath-based practice to spark compassion. 

Start by noticing your breath as it flows in and out. Try to feel the sensations of the breath as it passes through your nostrils. 

Next, focus on the feeling of the in-breath. Allow each in-breath to be for you. The breath delivers oxygen to your cells, which is essential for their function. So, you are being physically nourished. But also add a feeling of emotional nurturance. Think about a quality that would support you in this moment: strength, health, sanity, calm, whatever calls to you. And, with each breath in, add a little mantra, “May I feel calm” or “May I feel more grounded.” Continue for a least a minute, but longer if you are feeling especially anxious.

Then, switch your attention to notice your exhales, feeling the flow of air out your nose. Bring to mind someone to whom you’d like to send some well-wishes. It could be someone whose company you enjoy or someone you’re worried about being with, like the racist uncle or the judgmental in-laws. Think of what quality would serve them at this time, and create a mantra to accompany your exhales, “May you feel peaceful” or “May you be healthy.” “May you keep your comments to yourself.” (Oh wait, not that last one 😉). With each out-breath, send compassion.

As you breathe, you’ll notice your mind jumping back to un-compassionate thoughts, especially if you’ve selected a difficult person as a recipient. This happens. It’s okay. When you notice your fear brain taking over, just acknowledge it and shift back to the breath and the compassion mantra.

One good thing about this practice is that you can do it anytime you start to feel those holiday jitters, and it will always steer you back to feeling more comfortable in your own skin and appreciative of the opportunities you have to be with your loved ones…even those who are a bit of a handful. 

Happy Thanksgiving!  I appreciate you!

I just returned from a lovely week on the Big Island. It took me some time to shift gears and settle into a non-rushed, non-goal-oriented approach to my days. In fact, it wasn’t until the third day that I made it to the beach for my morning yoga practice. That changed everything.

I love to situate myself at the water’s edge, which is constantly shifting with the tides and waves. Sometimes the waves don’t quite reach my toes. Other times, with bigger waves, I can find myself nearly thigh deep in water, or toppled over onto my now-sandy butt.

With time, the undulation of the waves begins to influence how I move, and I pace my poses with the comings and goings of the temperate, salty water. For example, I might wave forward into plank as the water rushes in, and then regress back into down dog split as the wave returns to sea. I invite the energy of the ocean to move me, and thereby begin to sync up with the pulse of Nature. I lose track of time and get lost in the dance of my body with the ocean.

Psychologists talk about the “flow state” when you are completely absorbed in what you are doing. As you become immersed in the activity at hand, be it riding a bike, baking some muffins, or playing the piano, the stories of the ego fade from your mind. You are simply present, doing what you’re doing.

Flow states are most always described as enjoyable. People report feeling happy and fulfilled when they are in flow. Neuroscience research has shown that there is an increase in dopamine activity (one of your brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters) when people are experiencing flow.

The spontaneity of flow also evokes your creativity, and you’re more likely to experience “ah-ha” moments of insight when you are in flow. Further, flow builds your attention, as your concentration hones in to focus on just what’s happening in the here and now.

Yoga is a practice that continues to coax me into flow, such that flow erupts more often in other daily activities like gardening, cooking and teaching. This month I will do my best to transport some of the ocean’s teachings of flow to you through our group practices. I’ll also bring the theme of flow into our Fall Yoga and Mindfulness Retreat (details below). Come move, breathe, and learn to awaken your own capacity to flow.

For years, I learned (and taught) abdominal hollowing techniques to create a supportive core. With abdominal hollowing, you contract your front belly muscles (rectus abdominus and transverse abdominus) to draw the belly in towards the spine. I first got a hint of there being another option while I was on a cruise a few years ago. Incredibly, the ship had a deep pool that allowed one of the evening shows to be a high diving act. I was struck when noticing that the lead diver was very thick in the midsection. He wasn’t fat, but his body wasn’t long and lithe like most swimmers. Also, I noticed that just before he would take these death-defying leaps he would breathe in and expand his midsection, rather than hollow it out. It was the exact opposite of what I would think you’d do to set your core for a big jump. It wasn’t until last year that I came across an article that described exactly what he was doing: abdominal bracing.

Research comparing abdominal hollowing vs. abdominal bracing suggests that sucking in the gut with strong abdominal engagement can actually decrease core stabilization. The act of hollowing creates an oblique position of the diaphragm and pelvic floor, increases lumbar lordosis (the archiness of your lumbar spine) and stresses the psoas.

In abdominal bracing, you start by inhaling to engage the diaphragm, which pushes down into the abdominal cavity. You then counter the downward diaphragmatic pressure by lifting the pelvic floor, and then add a moderate contraction of the entire abdominal wall, including front belly, side belly and low back. The key muscles of the abdominal wall are the obliques, transverse abdominus, rectus abdominis, spinal erectors and lats.

Together these actions create Intra Abdominal Pressure that acts like an air-filled mattress to stabilize your lower back.

I’ve been amazed by how beneficial abdominal bracing has been in reducing my own back pain caused by a lumbar herniation. It’s helped me heal and feel stronger in bending, stooping, and lifting. My back also feels happier in yoga poses that put a load on the low back.

As those of you in my yoga classes this year have noticed, I have been frequently cueing abdominal bracing. For those of you who haven’t had a taste of it yet or would like to practice more, I’m including a link here to a Zoom class that will teach you how to engage and feel your abdominal brace.

So many of us deal with chronic low back pain and are familiar with the mood and thinking disturbances it can cause. Abdominal bracing has been a real revelation to me, and so different than what I have used in the past, that I felt it warranted a feature in this newsletter.

Here’s to your healthy and happy back.

The trial and verdict of the murder of George Floyd has stirred up our collective emotions around racism and fairness. For too long, we white folks have taken the more comfortable road of avoidance, which has allowed the perpetuation of violence and discrimination against our friends of color. I understand. It’s uncomfortable facing the truth of white supremacy, and our role in it. The anti-racist books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched this year often leave me angry, sad, distraught, overwhelmed, at a loss, ashamed, and guilty. Avoidance is undoubtedly a more comfortable path.

But then I think, “if just reading about these injustices leaves me feeling this upset, what could it possibly be like for the victims? How do they cope with a past, a present and a foreseeable future full of discrimination?”

I also recognize that in my pursuit of a peaceful life for myself, I am becoming less tolerant of things that cause distress. White privilege gives me the option of ignoring the pain caused by racism, as I can put down the anti-racist work I’m doing any time that I feel unwilling to bear the discomfort it evokes. The victims of discrimination don’t have that luxury.

In order to face hard truths, of any variety, those of aging, loss, uncertainty, poor health, etc., we need to get better at dealing with difficult emotions. The next Applied Mindfulness will explore being with emotions that we’d rather not feel.

When you’re less vexed by challenging emotions, then you’re able to face difficult situations with greater skill and compassion. When you’re lost in struggle, compassion for yourself and others seems to be nowhere in sight. This mindful work will help in not only reducing your own pain, but set you up to be able to be an agent of helping alleviate the pain of others.

Let’s lean into this together.

I have been struck in several recent conversations by how clever our minds are at deceiving us, warping reality to fit our preconceived notions of what kind of people we believe ourselves to be. These cognitive distortions are dangerous when it comes to the spread of COVID.

On one hand, people feel they are behaving responsibly and claim they are doing a great job of following safety protocols to reduce their risk of contracting or transmitting COVID. However, in the next moment, they report on recent outings that are clearly contrary to the safety protocols. More importantly, they seem not to notice the dissociation. Our egos are so good at rationalizing any potential slip-ups to keep us feeling righteous. But, in doing so, they put us, our loved ones and others at risk.

In one such conversation a friend shared with me her and her family’s diligence in wearing masks and social distancing, while also reporting being bewildered by the fact that several members of her immediate and extended family had contracted COVID. I had witnessed on social media multiple instances of potential exposures, so was less surprised than she.

What makes us feel so invincible? Why is it so hard for us to change our behavior to fit the need of the hour?

Habit, for sure. We’re used to spending time with friends and family without masks. The tradition of gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas are long-standing and, for some, unquestionably required events.

But, I think these cognitive distortions are bigger culprits in putting us at risk. We think, “just this one get-together, “just with this one other family,” “just this one short weekend get-away,” or “I’m sure this person has been safe like me and is fine to spend time with indoors.” We rationalize anything that is potentially risky, and distort ourselves into believing that we’re being safe. And, COVID flourishes .

I was frustrated this morning reading about a gay circuit party happening in Puerto Vallarta this weekend for NYE. With the Puerto Vallarta hospitals at 100% capacity and cases rising across the US, who would think it a good idea to fly to a huge dance party with hundreds of strangers without social-distancing protocols? It could be another super-spreader event like the Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

Was this newsletter meant to cheer you up and help you feel more hopeful for 2021? Well, I’m not doing a good job of that. But, hopefully it invites you to be mindful of how your mind is also playing tricks on you. This is a human brain problem, not something specific to a subgroup of careless, thoughtless people.

What are you rationalizing as safe? What are you ignoring to feel okay about your activities? What distortions are tricking you into feeling like you’re being a good global citizen?

I know it’s easy to judge the actions of others, like the anti-maskers and the Rona ravers. But, more helpful is to see the seeds of their behaviors that are also in you. Instead of us vs. them; try a more accurate, we.

I’ll be exploring mindful ways of coping with COVID in two workshops coming this month (details below). I look forward to seeing you all soon in 2021.

May You Be Safe. May You Find Peace.

Every fall one of my students, Ashley, always dreads having to give a presentation to the parents of her incoming elementary school students. Leading up to the presentations she feels her chest tighten and her breath shorten. Sometimes it feels like she can’t take a breath, and that makes her even more anxious. She worries that her nervousness will make a bad impression on the parents.

Ashley’s breathing difficulties are common among people who are stressed and anxious. Anxious breaths tend to be fast and constrained to the upper lungs. Scientists have shown that this fast, shallow breathing triggers mechanisms within the amygdala, your brain’s threat monitor, similar to those triggered by anxiety.

Ashley studied with me to learn how to use mindfullness and controlled breathing to calm her anxieties. She shared the results of her practice with me:

“This year was my most successful presentation, in large part due to mindfulness and controlled breathing. Every time I felt a wave of nervousness I noted, “Nervousness is here,” and practiced controlled breathing. It calmed me down. I did this several times in the hours leading up to the presentation and experienced a wave of calm each time. Once the presentation began, I felt more at ease than I ever had before. When I felt nervous during the presentation, I would take a slow breath, and it calmed me. Since I was calmer, I was more confident answering questions and talking with parents. In the past, I would drive home feeling embarrassed. This year I drove home feeling proud.”

This month, I will offer a special workshop where you will learn breathing techniques that help calm your nerves so that you’ll feel more at easy and are able to sleep better (details below). This is a great tool to have in your mindful toolbox, and something you can easily share with your friends and family. I hope you’ll join us.

In the meantime, “It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

The trial and verdict of the murder of George Floyd has stirred up our collective emotions around racism and fairness. For too long, we white folks have taken the more comfortable road of avoidance, which has allowed the perpetuation of violence and discrimination against our friends of color. I understand. It’s uncomfortable facing the truth of white supremacy, and our role in it. The anti-racist books I’ve read and documentaries I’ve watched this year often leave me angry, sad, distraught, overwhelmed, at a loss, ashamed, and guilty. Avoidance is undoubtedly a more comfortable path.

But then I think, “if just reading about these injustices leaves me feeling this upset, what could it possibly be like for the victims? How do they cope with a past, a present and a foreseeable future full of discrimination?”

I also recognize that in my pursuit of a peaceful life for myself, I am becoming less tolerant of things that cause distress. White privilege gives me the option of ignoring the pain caused by racism, as I can put down the anti-racist work I’m doing any time that I feel unwilling to bear the discomfort it evokes. The victims of discrimination don’t have that luxury.

In order to face hard truths, of any variety, those of aging, loss, uncertainty, poor health, etc., we need to get better at dealing with difficult emotions. The next Applied Mindfulness will explore being with emotions that we’d rather not feel.

When you’re less vexed by challenging emotions, then you’re able to face difficult situations with greater skill and compassion. When you’re lost in struggle, compassion for yourself and others seems to be nowhere in sight. This mindful work will help in not only reducing your own pain, but set you up to be able to be an agent of helping alleviate the pain of others.

Let’s lean into this together.

I was listening to a dharma talk by Sylvia Boorstein a couple of weeks ago, and she was telling the story of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer; it was pancreatic cancer. And her friend was asking Sylvia’s advice about how to handle what she was going through. 

Sylvia was reviewing the mindful approach of acceptance, even accepting things we don’t like. Sylvia suggested that if she had a hard time with acceptance, at least try not to be mad about the cancer. Then her friend replied, “Well, I am mad about it. I’m definitely feeling angry.” 

“Well then,” Sylvia continued, “try not to be mad about being mad.” But her friend added, “Well, I am mad about being so angry. I don’t want to be angry, so I’m upset with myself for being so angry. I noticed myself thinking, ‘why me? Why is this happening to me?’ It doesn’t seem fair, and that’s why I’m angry.”

Sylvia encouraged her friend to keep stepping back and accepting whatever was there, not simply the cancer, the treatments, the nausea, the hair loss, etc., but also the reactions like her anger and her frustration with her anger. 

On a subsequent call her friend said, “You know what? The other day as I was in one of my self-pitying ‘why me?’ riffs, when I suddenly thought, ‘why not me?’ Cancer happens to people. I’m a person. Cancer happens more to older people; I’m an older person. Why would I think that I should be one of the ones who gets off the hook? And, this thought of ‘why not me’ actually softened my resentment towards the cancer, and made me feel less angry about having my reactions about having cancer. It helped me to accept my humanity including this part of my humanity.”

I loved hearing this story. Acceptance is one of the most powerful tools we have in our mindful toolbox for reducing suffering and building peace. But, it’s hard. We are so conditioned to react aversely to something the ego deems as unpleasant or unwanted. Our minds are so good at creating the ideal of how the world should be, how others should behave, that it creates upset when the world doesn’t show up as we planned. And we have all heard that “why me?” in our own internal dialogues over things much less dire than pancreatic cancer.

Why not me? Yes, I’m human. Our humanity is a mix of pleasant and unpleasant. Of course, some challenging, unwanted experiences are sure to come my way. Why not me?

When I have tried practicing with “why not me” over the last couple of weeks, it quickly has softened my upset. It has also helped me shift my perspective from the ego that feels thrown off course by whatever ill wind happened to be blowing at the moment, to a place of appreciation that the painful circumstances that I am dealing with are so manageable compared to what many face. It puts me in a mindset of being able to handle the problem, rather than feeling victimized by it. 

Think of something that has been bothering you this week, or trace back in your mind to a moment when the “why me?” dialogue showed up. Retrospectively apply “why not me?” Explore. Maybe you’ll find appreciation for some of the smaller difficulties you’re facing, recognizing that it’s not pancreatic cancer.

It is not surprising to hear yoga teachers espouse the benefits of the practice. Sometimes, it feels like I’m a PR machine for yoga, reporting the latest research that shows how it helps eliminate stress or reduce bad habits, or deal with anxious thinking. Or, reminding students in class that this particular pose helps with digestion or remedies low back pain. Whatever it takes to get students into their practice, I’m happy to pass along. 

But my love of yoga and belief in it as a system of mind/body evolution doesn’t come from any research; instead, it comes from my first-hand experience with it. I feel like I owe a lot of my happiness and current place in life to yoga. Yoga has worked its transformational magic on me, and continues to do so. Yoga provided a means for developing insight into my habits of mind, and how those habits kept me stuck in fear. So much of my striving for success and accomplishment was simply a reflection of the fear of not being acceptable as I was, without a long list of impressive credentials to cushion my inherent flaws. Being at the top of the class, at the top of my field were just manifestations of insecurity. 

Developing acceptance of yourself as you are, acceptance of others as they are, and acceptance of life as it is marks a true gift of yoga. Sure, it also makes us stronger and more flexible and more balanced, but those superficial benefits don’t have near the impact of acceptance on our overall sense of peace and contentment. Sure, it’s nice to ache less, to feel stronger and more able-bodied, but can feel sublime to simply be content with what is. 

As I continue to evolve, both internally and externally, through the practice, I have made an intention of sharing this practice with others, that they may also know the peace that acceptance affords. 

The tricky thing is, however, is that yoga is a practice, not simply a body of information that once you’ve been exposed to and understand manifests directly into your experience. You have to continuously use and develop the tools of awareness to cultivate insight into what is driving your thoughts, actions and words. In other words, it takes effort. It takes commitment. It takes time.

But, if you can take my word for it, effort and commitment and time that are SO worth it. I can’t imagine someone being disappointed that they decided to invest more energy in their yoga practice. How? Take more classes, is the easiest way. Start your own home practice is upping the ante, as it is making you the responsible driver of your yoga ship. Read yoga-related books and immerse your mind in the principles of the practice. Learn the yamas/niyamas (ethical guidelines on which the practice is framed) and practice them. 

If you want to reap the benefits, you have to apply the effort. I hope you will consider how you might increase your investment in your sanity and well-being through this peace-giving practice.

I am just back from a wonderful adventure through parts of New Zealand and Australia.  Throughout or trip, my husband and I kept noticing how friendly everyone seemed.  Granted, much of our exposure was to folks working in the service industry, as we interacted mostly with waiters, shop-keepers, and the like.  However, even the people doing airport security or driving public transportation were remarkably kind.  When have you last seen a TSA agent smile and joke with you?

We wondered about the source of this friendliness.  Steve thought it might be related to the absence of gun violence in NZ.  Though New Zealanders own a lot of guns, gun-related deaths are rare, especially compared to what we see in the US. I imagine that the high quality of living probably contributes to a more friendly demeanor among New Zealanders.  They have free health care, so no one is worried about going broke over medical bills.  I’ve read since returning that levels of racism are low in New Zealand.  The population is relatively small (5 million) and multi-cultural.  Though white people make up the majority, they come from a variety of backgrounds.  New Zealand is a relatively young country, so there is less a sense of established “us vs. them” groups. Its population is highly mobile, so they have the custom of meeting and integrating with new people.  New Zealand also has some of the lowest corruption rates in the world.  Another thing to keep in mind is that tourism is a big part of their economy, so the social norm of greeting strangers warmly has an economic benefit. Some propose that New Zealanders are friendly because the indigenous Maori are friendly.

Whatever the cause of this frenzy of friendliness, I was struck by its effects on me.  I have written before about my experience with homophobia, and the impact it has had on making me more socially withdrawn, as to avoid potential negative interactions with strangers who may be homophobic.  Normally, in new cities, I am more conservative in outing myself by holding Steve’s hand as we walk, or getting too close when sitting in restaurants.  I have an automatic spidey-sense scanning the environment for potential harm coming my way.  However, with all of the explicit friendliness offered to us, I felt more comfortable in my own skin.  I felt less socially withdrawn and more willing to engage strangers in conversations.  The experience of swimming in that sea of friendliness helped me see again how much my own projection of potential danger blocks me from connecting with others.

Friendliness begets friendliness.  This is a bit of a no-brainer, but yet still provides a powerful lesson in noticing our habits.  Past traumas can leave us stuck in a habit mode that does not reflect the truth of our current circumstances.  My past experiences with homophobes has left me gun-shy around strangers.  My fear brain highlights potential dangers, even when the likelihood of those dangers is small.  While I can appreciate how my fear brain is concerned for my survival, I must also recognize that it biases my view of others unfairly.  

Mindfulness helps us discover ourselves again and again, and grow through the practice of observation.  What past hurts are still driving how you interact with the world today?  What message is your fear brain sending?  How are you distorting the present moment by looking through the lens of past harms?  

With these insights, we can start to unstick ourselves from the places where we’re stuck.  Look below to discover opportunities to practice mindfulness to help your continued evolution.  It’s never too late.  We never stop growing.