yoga

The Challenge and Miracle of Self-Care

I don't know about your mind, but mine is super-busy and it is easy for me to get distracted – and this has only increased as I get older and as technology has become such a part of my daily life. You probably have heard the expression "monkey-mind", our thoughts constantly jumping from one thing to another.

In addition to my active thinking, I am often distracted by various body sensations – pain, fatigue, and more as the result of my stem cell transplant almost 15 years ago. And even without that, I remember when the recurring sore back or strep throat would occupy center stage in my attention.

I have had a daily yoga practice for decades – at this point the practice involves minimal moving and more breathing, chanting, gesture, and meditation. I am repeatedly surprised to see how hard it is for me to settle into my practice at the times I need it the most. I have a few tricks to help myself with this, but I know it is a common phenomenon. (Those tricks and the options besides yoga for a daily practice are for another time.)

But when I can connect my body and mind to my breath or sound, amazing things begin to happen. I will spare you the science of what occurs, but here are my direct experiences:

  • My body relaxes and tension begins to lessen or even disappear.
  • My relationship to my pain begins to change and and my anxiety or fear decreases.
  • My breath slows down.
  • My entire being feels like it is having a massage from the inside out.
  • My sense of my place in the universe comes into perspective and the size of my distractions seems to shrink.
  • My attitude towards myself and the world is reset so that I feel calm(er), kind(er), and more compassionate.

So even though my body and mind may resist getting to my yoga practice, I am always glad that I did. There is no single method or practice that is right for everyone, but yoga has definitely been right for me. I would love to hear what works for you.

 

 

 

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First!

 

If you are on an airplane in an emergency situation, you may not save yourself or help anyone else if you don't put your own oxygen mask on first. And the flight attendants remind us of this on every flight. But are we really listening? Do we know we have to take care of ourselves first or risk perishing?

This is true for us as teachers, healthcare professionals, therapists, and caregivers, even though most of us don't learn this in our training and educational programs. We are too often focused on having answers and solutions and on giving to and serving others. Just yesterday I was reminded by a friend the we can neglect self-care because of our work or involvement in almost any activity.

What I notice in myself is that it is all too easy to give and not to take the time I need to replenish myself. I find myself exploring how to choose the right amount of effort to expend and committing and then re-committing to make the time for self-care.

My colleague Jim Gordon, MD, the Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, always starts his lectures with the fact that the heart of good health starts with self-care. Contrary to popular opinions, self-care is not selfish. If we are depleted, we will eventually have nothing to offer anyone else. We are like the gas tank that is running on empty or the battery that is dead.

We must save the only life we can save*, our own! I write this blog first as a reminder to myself. Secondly I hope that those of you who know me will stop me if you see me charging ahead, full speed, heedless of my self-care. Please remind me to slow down, to take care of myself, and, perhaps, to do less. And, of course, to breathe!

Why Bother with a Personal Practice?

Any day is wonderful time to start or restart a personal daily practice or activity that helps us to connect and align body, mind, and spirit. A personal practice can take just a few minutes – it need not be long or elaborate. The practice might consist of focused breathing, yoga, guided imagery, prayer, or even dancing. The focus is being present with your attention directed toward the experience of this moment. In doing this, we can both explore and cultivate our intention(s) for both the near term and the future.

For me the technique of choice is yoga, which includes breath, movement, sound, and meditation – and not necessarily all of these elements in any practice. What technique might work for you?

And I remind myself, if I miss a practice on any particular day, be kind and forgiving.  It is okay. Today is a new day and we can begin again – that is why we call it a "practice".

The Uncertainty of Life with Advanced Cancer: Ondis' Story of Life and Yoga

How do we find our way when life is very uncertain and unpredictable? What would you do if you found out you had a life-threatening illness?

Ondis was diagnosed with breast cancer over 9 years before the video below was filmed and shesurvived and thrived although her prognosis was considered by many to be grim. She died peacefully at home with her beloved partner and daughters.

She participated in conventional cancer treatment and has lived a remarkably full life over the course of these years. Yoga was an active part of her own self-care and, after leaving her full-time work, she became an active volunteer in the cancer world: She provided transportation to people going to cancer treatment (through the ACS Road to Recovery program), talks to others with metastatic disease (as part of the Kindred Connections program), and facilitates a support group for people with advanced/metastatic disease.

Hear what Ondis has to stay about yoga and her own journey.

Living with Uncertainty

For a good portion of my life, I blithely went along thinking I could plan my day, my week, my next summer vacation, with certainty. And in the course of one hour, that assumption was blown away when my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

At some level, we all know that substantive disruptions in our lives are possible in every moment, but I was certainly unprepared for mine. During the 8 months my husband was alive after that diagnosis, my planning horizon and my certainty about what the next moment might bring got really short. Sometimes I could plan the next hour; sometimes not. It felt like a wild and slightly crazy dance where I could rarely get my balance.

Barely three years later I faced my own life-threatening illness, and the crazy unbalanced dance began again. My life today is more stable than when I was diagnosed and going through treatment, but I still find myself wanting to recapture that old feeling – that my life can be orderly and predictable.

I have spent a good portion of the past 16 years learning to do the dance of uncertainty with light feet and with a regular warning to myself – sometimes successful, sometimes not – that the dance floor could tilt at any moment. I have found the techniques of mind-body medicine and yoga incredibly useful at reminding me to embrace what is here now, rather than wanting something else for tomorrow. Anything that connects me with my breath usually helps. Still, I notice how easy it is for me to forget and to assume that my life is stable and change is somewhere in the future.

In the past few weeks I have been reminded a number of times that change is more the norm than I would like to think. Why is this lesson so hard to learn? I feel the seduction of wanting stability, of deluding myself during times when my health seems predictable. I would not have chosen the circumstances of my husband's illness nor my own. But I often think that these challenges have been – and continue to be – my greatest teacher.

What I have is now.

Here.

This breath.

This moment.

 

More about yoga for chronic pain

My last blog post generated questions about the chronic pain video that was attached. What kind of yoga did Linda do? How much did she practice? Here is some context for her remarkable story.

Linda has been a yoga student in one of my weekly classes for quite a number of years. As she describes in the video, she arrived in pain and usually felt better when she left – the pain was eased physically and she was also more relaxed. The benefit, however, was not sustained, and she was plagued by chronic pain in multiple joints as well as neck and spine pain. This led her to be concerned about her condition as well as fatigued from managing her life with pain as a constant companion.

In the summer of 2012, I challenged the students in one of my classes to start a brief (and I really mean brief) daily home practice. I created what we affectionately called the "10-Minute Practice" because I assured them they could do it in 10 minutes or less. I created a stick-figure diagram with breathing instructions so they would have a guide to practice with at home and we reviewed it in class. It has 3 postures! A video version is below.

A number of students began to practice it daily and Linda was among them. She noticed that it helped diminish her morning stiffness and it also helped her feel centered to start her day. Interestingly, within a couple of months Linda decided to go on a diet, something she had not been considering previously. Over the next 20 weeks, she lost 25 pounds and she has kept them off ever since! The combination of daily yoga practice and weight loss seems to have markedly changed Linda's pain.

As Linda and I were talking about this blog, we both wondered if it was her daily yoga practice that created the right environment for her to embark on her diet. Her successful discipline in doing this 10-Minute Practice helped build her will and remind her that she could take on and follow through with new activities for self-care!

My Viniyoga Journey

I had been practicing Yoga for many years when I happened into a Viniyoga class at my transplant center in Seattle late in 2001. I was quite ill and felt extremely sick and I had no idea exactly what this Yoga was – it seemed like not much was happening. But at the end of the class I felt profoundly still and filled with a sense of calm and balance that did not match my external circumstances at all. I knew then, that if I survived and could create the opportunity to learn more, I would.

I have been studying and practicing Viniyoga with Gary Kraftsow since 2004. I know it has been an essential element in my own healing, and I see the amazing impact a Viniyoga class or home practice can have for my students.

So What Is Viniyoga

Our view is…the breath is the primary tool through which you will be able to access what’s actually happening in your body. It’s the primary tool to activate change in your structure at a deep level, and it’s the primary tool to link your conscious awareness to the process of change.

So think of the breath as an internal flashlight, microscope, viewfinder, that helps you discover what’s going on.

Gary Kraftsow, Founder  and Director of the American Viniyoga Institute.

Viniyoga implies differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application. It is a school of Yoga developed by my teacher, Gary Kraftsow, based on the teachings transmitted to him by T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar of Madras, India.

Viniyoga asana is distinguished by the following:

  • Breath is the medium for movement in asana and we adapt the pattern of breath to create different effects.
  • We emphasize function over form in asana and we use the science of adaptation to achieve different results in postures.
  • We move in and out of poses not just holding in a static position.
  • We employ a sophisticated art and science of combining sequences of different orientation, length, and intensity to match the intention and context of each practice.

Viniyoga draws from the many tools of Yoga, not just asana, so a class experience will always incorporate breath awareness and some kind of guided relaxation or meditation and often chanting. Your experience in a class is not just that of using your body. Even in a class setting, each student can discover his or her own potential and connect with that sense of interior well-being which is available to each of us.