Month: August 2018
Charlotte Johnson for Yoga Medicine® shares how yoga for athletic recovery can help during long-haul endurance sports like multi-day cycling tours.
Yoga at an Endurance Sporting Event
The JoBerg2c is a 9-day mountain biking race from the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the coast – 900 kilometers away. Over 800 riders enter this event every year. And this year I joined the recovery team to offer yoga and myofascial release sessions to the riders. It is an incredible learning experience to work with a mountain biker after one long day in the saddle. But to do this nine days in a row requires a different application of yoga and recovery techniques as the athletes’ bodies wear the stress over the course of the race.
The mind of the athlete is key
The long-distance triathlete Sebastian Kienle said; “Your body drives you to the line, but your mind makes you cross it”. I instantly became aware of the role that the mind plays on an endurance race. I would argue that the mind is also what drives you to the line. The athletes who gained control of their minds were clearly having a different experience than the other athletes. Athletes who were invested in the enjoyment and the experience of their sport, rather than solely their performance or ranking, appeared to wear the physical effects of the race better than those who allowed themselves to be weighed down by fears, uncertainty, pain, and performance. In particular, one athlete stood out to me. He was over 60 years old and his sheer enjoyment of mountain biking seemed to keep him (somewhat miraculously) pain-free throughout the race.
So how did I apply yoga? After noticing this, I spent time in every session inviting and guiding the athletes to take control of their experience. I would invite them to mentally recap their day and to think of a few things they were grateful for, such as the things that went right that day. I encouraged them to recall all the reasons why they enjoy their sport. Many of these athletes are riding it for a purpose beyond themselves – for a charity or in memory of loved ones lost. It was helpful to reconnect with these purposes. It was also good to acknowledge that although the race held many factors that were beyond personal control. The one factor that did remain in their control was the choice of how they would respond to adversity or the unexpected.
The immune system of the athlete needs TLC!
In the JoBerg2c, the average athlete spends about 6-8 hours in the saddle daily and therefore, would have anywhere between 12-16 hours of recovery time before getting back in the saddle. However, the body’s recovery rate starts to slow down over the course of nine days as you keep loading the body with stressors without giving it enough time to fully return to homeostasis.
My perception is that from Day 1- 3, the athletes experienced general muscle soreness, cramping, and fatigue. Yet they were able to return to a somewhat rested state between these days. From Days 4-7, the recovery time noticeably slowed and the athletes’ immune systems became compromised. Many athletes picked up head colds and stomach issues. This was also the time period during which I noticed the mental fatigue, resulting in more accidents and errors occurring on the bike.
During this time, I took particular care with addressing the immune system through yoga. Imagine being taken out of the race of your life over a runny nose! During these yoga sessions I focused on boosting circulation, reducing stress, and facilitating relaxation.
These were my main focus points:
- Boosting circulation assists the body in processing toxins faster. To do this, I offered poses that incorporated gentle compressions such as twists, child’s pose, or a modified version of broken toe pose.
- Stress reduction is important because when one is on a bike descending a sheer cliff face, there is a good amount of adrenaline pumping through the body as the sympathetic response kicks in. This sympathetic response is good for keeping one alive and negotiating obstacles on the bike with acuity. However, too much time spent in this heightened state starts to impact the body on multiple levels, including adversely affecting the immune system. I spent time cultivating breath awareness and deepening the breath. The movement of the diaphragm during slower, deeper breathing . massages the vagus nerve, in turn tbreathing.he parasympathetic response which reduces stress.
- Facilitating relaxation when you have a limited amount of time to gain the maximum amount of recovery is important, however, not all relaxations are made the same. This means there are ways to quickly ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response versus times where you can slowly slide into relaxation, like putting your feet up with a beer in hand. The former being the method of choice when your body has limited recovery time. To ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response, I offered restorative or yin style postures that made use of props for support. I also incorporated myofascial release techniques into the practice. It is best to try ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response within the first 2 hours after exercise.
Here’s what I didn’t expect…
I expected a consistent decline after the effects of fatigue kicked in. I expected my exhaustion to compound. Instead around Day 7 or earlier, many athletes had adapted or compensated to reach a strength and resilience plateau. They felt physically strong, mentally capable and were enjoying their sport. Noting how quickly the athletes were able to adapt, I came back to the importance of the mind in an endurance race. It is impossible to ignore the correlations between the strength of the mind (affected by among other factors, the enjoyment of the sport) and an athlete’s recovery rate or their perceived need for recovery.
I also pondered on the effect that nature had on recovery. For nine days we were steeped in the most remote and beautiful landscapes that the South African hinterland has to offer. It made me think of what the author Henry David Thoreau described as “wilderness tonic”. I dug a little deeper on this one and found that, indeed, there is scientific evidence backing the positive effects that being in nature has on the immune system and recovery rate.
You can recover “too much”
By this I mean that in the body’s return to homeostasis, inserting too many recovery methods can, in fact, hinder the process. At the race, there were various recovery options available – physio, sports massage, dry needling, yoga, myofascial release, compression boots, and more! There were athletes that would come off a bad day on the bike feeling cramping, sore and shattered, then work their way through every therapy available. But it’s important to remember that many of these modalities also requires a recovery period for the tissues to respond and adapt so more isn’t always better.
In myofascial release for example, we are triggering an inflammatory response to instigate the healing process that allows the tissues to adapt and recover more quickly. As the body heals, it lays down the collagenous fascial wave in a stronger, more orderly configuration indicative of healthy fascia. However, with deeper, more aggressive work, there is also more inflammation. And thus, more recovery time is needed. When an athlete is low on recovery time, it is very important to mete out the amount of therapies one applies. To take care in this regard, I applied gentle myofascial work, in the initial days of the race. I stayed away from highly inflamed areas of the body (due to over-exertion), such as the legs. And focused on areas of secondary stress such as the quadratus lumborum and semispinalis capitus.
It was important to assess the need of each athlete and for some, I had to prescribe the feet-up-beer-in-hand recovery option as their tissues would not benefit from the additional inflammation. For these athletes, it was also important to reacquaint and reassure them of their body’s ability to adapt and recover because in many cases, the angst around recovery sat within the mind. Many athletes needed to be reminded that their body had a keen sense of its own recovery process and that their success or failure did not hinge on a myofascial release tool or a massage table.
Watching and working with these athletes over nine days shattered many preconceived notions I had about how bodies function in certain conditions. It ultimately reminded me anew of the magic that is the synergies between the mind and body and how important it is to engage all of ourselves in the way we move and heal.
Live Be Yoga ambassadors Jeremy Falk and Aris Seaberg are on a road trip across the country to share real talk with master teachers, explore innovative classes, and so much more—all to illuminate what’s in store for the future of yoga. Follow the tour and get the latest stories @livebeyoga on Instagram and Facebook.
What happens when you blend two powerful traditions of healing? As a yoga teacher trainer, a licensed acupuncturist, and the founder of Yoga Medicine®, Tiffany Cruikshank is known for integrating aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine in the practices she teaches. While in Seattle, Aris and Jeremy joined Tiffany and her Yoga Medicine trainees at Bala Yoga. Enjoy this brief primer on the elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Then, learn how to bring them onto the mat with five creative poses.
You can also view the article on Yoga Journal – click here.
Jenn Sinrich for Brides.com shares a few simple yoga poses that are perfect to improve posture before the wedding.
While it’s totally natural to feel stress, it’s an unwelcome visitor for most brides, leading to everything from breakouts and weight gain to sleep problems and muscle tension. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate de-stressing activities, such as meditation and yoga, into your day-to-day wedding-planning routine. Not only is yoga an excellent, time-effective way to combat stress, but it also helps with things like your posture, your connection to yourself and what’s really important to you (important to keep in mind when planning a wedding) as well as your ability to be present, which may well be the most important point when it comes to wedding day, explains Tiffany Cruikshank, yoga instructor and founder of Yoga Medicine®. Since no bride wants to stress or slouch on her wedding day, here are some of the yoga poses that promise to help you get altar-ready in no time.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
If you’re looking to improve your posture while strengthening your upper body, make cobra your go-to pose. It not only strengthens your back and shoulders, but it’s also great for increasing blood circulation and range of motion in the upper back. From your belly, Cruikshank recommends beginning with your hands on the floor under your shoulders. “On an inhale press down through your legs as you curl your shoulders and upper back away from the floor,” she says. “Stay for 2 to 3 deep breaths and then slowly lower and repeat.”
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
This pose might be fairly simple—it pretty much involves standing upright, with your hands reaching for the sky—but it works wonders for your posture. “This pose stacks the bones correctly and maintains the natural curves of the spine, imprinting balance and symmetry and creating a sense of stability,” says Gretchen Lightfoot, yoga instructor at Goorus Yoga in Palisades, California. No matter your height, she promises Mountain Pose will leave you looking instantly taller and slimmer. Start standing tall, with your big toes together and heels slightly apart. “ ‘Shrug up’ through the ankles, calves, and thighs so that the legs are active, and lengthen your tailbone to the ground, drawing your belly up and in,” says Lightfoot. “Draw your shoulders back, keep your neck long, and your chin parallel to the floor.”
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
This pose is excellent for your hips, knees, low back, and your overall posture. Stephanie George, certified yoga instructor and personal trainer, recommends starting with feet placed together and your hands on your hips. “On an exhale sit your hips back like you’re sitting in a chair, so your legs are bent at 90 degrees,” she says. “Keep the soles of the feet planted firmly on the floor; your arms either palms together over your heart, or up by your ears with fingers reaching towards the ceiling; and your chest lifted.”
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Just as it sounds, this pose involves you standing upright with your hands at heart’s center, and one leg bent at the knee and pulled in closely to your groin area. “Tree pose strengthens your feet and forces you to have good posture in order to maintain your balance,” says George. Start standing with your feet under your hips. Roll your shoulders away from your ears and place your hands on your hips. “Lift your left foot and press the sole of your foot underneath your left knee,” she says. For a more advanced version, she suggests pressing the sole of your left foot against your inner right thigh. “Grow tall through the crown of your head and slowly lower your left leg before switching sides.”
Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
Not only does this pose improve posture, but it will also help give you killer back muscles that you can flaunt in your stunning wedding gown. To execute this pose, start laying flat on your stomach, with your hands by your sides. “On an inhale, gently reach your chest forward, looking down in front of you or about two inches ahead of you to keep the back of your neck long, and reach your hands behind you,” instructs Jenay Rose, wellness coach and influencer. “Your shoulder blades reach towards one another to strengthen your back and roll your shoulders back into their natural place, while your toes reach towards the back of the room, also lifting off the ground just an inch or two.” She suggests holding this pose for 10 seconds before releasing down. Repeat 3 times.
Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana)
Chances are, you’re not the biggest fan of this pose, which you might practice in a myriad of other exercises, from Pilates to boot-camps. Not only is plank great for building strength in the core, which contains the foundational muscles for improving posture, but it also strengthens your back and arms. “Start out in a tabletop position and extend your feet back, placing your hands directly under your shoulders,” instructs Rose. “There should be a perfect even line between the back of your neck going all the way down your back.” To engage the core, she suggests imagining that your belly button is reaching back towards your spine. Try to hold three planks for one minute each, twice a day, to get in tip-top wedding-day shape.
What Yoga Teachers Should Know About Students with Chronic Pain
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), approximately 1 in 4 adults in the United States suffers from daily pain. Given this high percentage and that more healthcare providers are recommending yoga for chronic pain, yoga teachers are very likely to find a chronic pain sufferer in their class.
As a physician who specializes in chronic pain management, here are some factors I think yoga teachers should be aware of when teaching students with chronic pain.
Chronic pain is more than a physical diagnosis
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as a subjective unpleasant sensory, emotional experience due to an actual, or potential, injury or described in terms of such injury. By definition, the medical community recognizes that pain has a mind-body connection and can only be described subjectively. Unlike diabetes or hypertension, there are no objective measurements to diagnose chronic pain. As they say, “Pain is in the brain,” however, this does not mean that pain has no physical effects on the human body. People in chronic pain have sustained deep myofascial tension and psychological stress, especially of the postural groups of muscles. Thus, patients in pain often have poor posture which further contributes to pain. Chronic pain affects breathing as well. Respirations become mainly thoracic with a lesser excursion of the diaphragm into the abdomen leading to fast, shallow breathing.
There are emotional effects
Chronic pain sufferers have decreased daily function and increased chances for anxiety and depression. The body is placed in a state of perpetual stress (via the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis) and thus in a state of hyperarousal. In other words, your students may feel emotionally drained and/or have emotions stored in various parts of the body. Because of this, they may find it very difficult to relax.
It is common for chronic pain sufferers to consciously or subconsciously seek to escape their pain through avoidance, medications, etc. However, research has shown that the opposite is beneficial: mindfulness and body awareness.
Yoga has been long proven to provide benefit for chronic pain sufferers both physically and emotionally. Yoga teaches pain sufferers to activate the relaxation response which lowers inflammation and stress leading to less pain and suffering.
In one randomized controlled trial, a specific form of yoga, called Yoga of Awareness, a type of mindfulness-based yoga therapy compared 53 fibromyalgia patients with standard care. Those receiving the yoga program demonstrated greater improvements in pain, fatigue, and mood and in pain catastrophizing, acceptance, and other coping strategies. 
Yoga teachers should also realize that some students with chronic pain may never have their pain resolved. However working in combination with the student’s physician, chronic pain can be managed like any other chronic illness.
Specific precautions for common chronic pain conditions:
This is the most common pain complaint healthcare providers see. Back pain is often due to poor posture, misalignment, and/or degeneration of the spine. As a yoga teacher, be on the lookout for red flags including decreased strength or sensation in the arms/legs, shooting pain down one arm/leg or another, or loss of control of the bowel or bladder. If these signs and symptoms are present, the student should immediately contact their medical provider.
Myofascial Pain (Fibromyalgia):
This condition is primarily caused by prolonged inflammation and a chronic stressful mindset and is frequently associated with emotional pain, depression and/or anxiety. People with fibromyalgia will have diffuse full body pain with particularly painful trigger points. They may require gentle and slower movements.
Most migraine sufferers know what works for them and what triggers their headaches. Be careful with any movements they know will trigger them such as inversions. Red flags include impaired vision, dizziness, lightheadedness, or imbalance.
Knee/Hip/Shoulder (joint) pain:
Chronic joint pain is typically caused by osteoarthritis or inflammation and degeneration of the joints leading to stiffness and pain. These students will need gentle work around the muscles and tendons that surround the involved joint. Avoid deep flexion or hyperextension of the affected joints. Red flags include swelling and redness of the joint.
This condition is caused by nerve damage affecting the smallest nerve endings in the skin, most typically in the hands and feet. It can affect a person’s sensation and balance. Because of this, be careful with balancing poses or if you ask the student to close their eyes. These students will be more likely to lose their balance with eyes closed.
Students with cancer-related pain will differ immensely depending on the location of cancer, stage of treatment, history of surgical operations and more. Students with cancer will have emotional pain as well. If they are on or have had chemotherapy, students may have fragile bones susceptible to fractures and/or easy bruising.
Be careful to avoid falling and deep twists or bends. They would benefit most from gentle and restorative yoga practices, meditation, and pranayama which can soothe the body’s inflammatory responses.
A note on pain medications:
For students who take prescription opioid pain medications, you will need to take extra precautions. Opioids may make it difficult for students to exercise safely because these medications affect the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The heart rate and respirations are typically slowed and become less responsive to increased exertion, thus increasing the likelihood of lightheadedness and shortness of breath. Chronic opioid users may also experience changes in hormonal regulation leading to decreased sex hormones, decreased immunity, changes in mood, and increased likelihood for osteoporosis. They may also experience chronic constipation and nausea. For these students, gentle practice is preferable with reduced exertion.
As always, have your student consult their medical provider before beginning or resuming any physical program.
1. Carson, JW. A pilot randomized controlled trial of the Yoga of Awareness program in the management of fibromyalgia. Pain. 2010 Nov;151(2):530-9.
6 Meditation Styles to Match Your Personality
Many shun meditation because they find it intimidating or too woo-woo. However, even a minor effort on your part yields positive results. Firstly, know that it’s possible to meditate for as little as 3 minutes per day and notice a difference.
It’s important to find a practice that suits your personality best. “Remember, there is no right or wrong way to meditate since there are different techniques or styles of meditation,” says Patricia Young, certified professional and holistic coach at Inner Prosperity Academy.
To begin the practice, you should discover the type that works best for you, as you will be more likely to make it a habit. These experts provide examples to try:
TRY: CANDLE STARING
This simple style is just like it sounds: Light a candle and stare. “If your mind has thoughts, just thank them and go back to staring at the candle,” says Young.
TRY: WALKING MEDITATION
“As you are walking, focus on the way your feet hit the ground,” says Tom Bruett, MS, a licensed psychotherapist. He says to set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. “If your mind wanders, simply bring it back.”
TRY: MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
Don’t worry about freeing your mind and, instead, simply think about what is happening in the present. “This includes thoughts, sounds, feelings in the body and anything else present,” says Young. The idea is to observe “without judgment and remain open and aware.”
TRY: MANTRA MEDITATION
“Mantras can be really helpful. Repeating the same phrase over and over can help keep the mind from wandering,” says Valerie Knopik, PhD, Yoga Medicine instructor. “Some of my favorite examples: ‘I am enough’ and ‘I am.’ This meditation type works well right before a race when you want to cool your nerves and heart rate down to conserve energy.”
TRY: VISUALIZATION MEDITATION
“Many professional athletes use meditation to visualize the athletic abilities they hope to have,” says Alisa Duclos-Robinson, PhD, owner of Another Direction Recovery and Wellness.She says you might want to practice imagining yourself running at your goal pace, as well as any potential obstacles you could incur and how you will overcome them. “Try to be as detailed as possible in your visualization, and make sure it is realistic.”
TRY: GUIDED MEDITATION
You do not need to meditate alone; look for outside help if you need it. “Meditation apps, for example, HeadSpace, can be really helpful for beginners,” says Diane Malaspina, PhD, a Yoga Medicine therapeutic specialist.
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
- Start small. “Set your meditation timer for 3 minutes and work with that time for several weeks,” says Malaspina.
- Practice in the morning. The “best time to meditate is early in the morning (before your coffee or tea), because that way you set yourself up for a peaceful start to your day,” says Young.
- Choose a comfortable position. “Sitting on a cushion or blanket can ease discomfort in the lower body,” says Malaspina. “If sitting upright is uncomfortable, lean against a wall, sit in a chair or lie on your back.”
- Slow down. “Direct your attention inward, and just notice your breathing. Do a gentle body scan,” says Ellis Edmunds, PsyD. He recommends starting with your toes and slowly shifting your attention upward to each body part.
- Relax. “Every time your mind wanders from the point of focus (your breath), you gently bring it back without judgment or criticism,” says Duclos-Robinson. “Meditation is essentially like exercise for your brain. So your strength and ability will get better with time.”
- Watch your inner dialogue. “Always make the statements you use positive and moving toward what you want,” says Tracie Strucker, PhD. She recommends something like, “I am … or I’m moving toward …” This way, you put what you want top of mind rather than resisting.
If you’re still on the fence about meditation, consider its benefits. “Regular meditation can enhance your wellness regimen,” says Malaspina. “It nourishes our mind and the mind-body communication system, improving performance, increasing immunity and easing the effects of chronic stress.”
Read on MyFitnessPal here.
Mind Games: Training your Frontal Lobe and Why It’s Good for your Health
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and left feeling like you really didn’t pay attention to a word they said? Or spent a day at work ‘multitasking’ and at the end of it, felt frazzled and unsatisfied? Maybe you’ve gone to the gym and ‘worked out’ while your brain wandered in and out of your to-do list the whole time rather than becoming immersed in your body?
You may have emerged from each of these scenarios feeling like you didn’t get as much out of the experience as you wished, or even worse, feel a bit empty and ungrounded. If you are like me, being distracted is wholly unsatisfying. And it can even contribute to overall feelings of being unwell if it becomes the baseline of our life.
We all have had experiences where we get distracted and veer off task and now, with the internet at our fingertips all the time, it is even easier to live an existence that is very far from connected to the here and now. This leaves many of us feeling like we are floating through life and often leads to stress, anxiety, unhappiness and burnout, among other things.
A major reason for this is that when we live our lives in a distracted manner, we don’t access our center of concentration in our frontal lobe, instead, defaulting to a more reactive ‘automatic’ brain pathway that is more reactive and less connected to what is happening in the moment.
For many of us, long-term distracted living can lead to physical ailments: overeating, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, chronic pain…these issues can snowball and lead to chronic diseases. Mindfulness training can help us regain our connection to ourselves and our world bringing a sense of stability and wellbeing.
Meditation & Yoga
In my work as an emergency physician, my workday is filled with distractions, yet as each one comes my way, I have learned to stay focused on what is happening right now. I, for one, do not want to take care of a patient ‘half-way’. I don’t think any of you out there would like to be ‘sort of’ taken care of by your distracted doctor!
The key to my success has been a dedicated yoga and meditation practice. Mine is not always an hour plus in length, because sometimes I only have 20 minutes to practice yoga and 3 minutes to sit! But in that time, I am focused and committed. It isn’t necessarily the amount of time you practice, but the intention behind your practice. The intent on being focused for the time you are practicing.
In March of 2014, JAMA published a meta-analysis – a study that looks at a group of similar studies – that looked at outcomes of people who participated in a meditation program versus those who did a placebo type of program at 8 weeks, 3 months and 6 months.
The study concluded that meditation showed benefits in the areas of reducing psychological stress, anxiety, depression and pain. In my work as a physician, I can confidently say that the majority of both acute and chronic diseases I see in patients are the result of people struggling and trying to cope with these very issues – often in the form of overeating, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, poor sleep – the list is long.
It’s likely not news to any of you who are reading this that meditation has many wonderful benefits. But what exactly are we ‘exercising’ when we meditate? When we take the time to sit quietly or even move in a mindful, deliberate way – e.g – walking meditation, yoga – we give the frontal lobe of our brains – the most highly evolved part – a chance to ‘flex its muscle’ so to speak.
The frontal lobe is where executive functioning happens. It is where we take pause to ‘think things through’ before acting, overriding our default pathway of reactivity. Motor planning also happens here – where we take movement and hone it before we execute it. I like to think about this part of our brain is a place of refinement. When we are more focused, we can execute things in a more skillful way – both mentally and physically. And, neuroscience supports that the more we do this kind of work, the more robust the nerve cells in this part of our brain become.
So the next time you think about moving a seated or moving meditation lower on your priority list to make room for say, checking social media or shopping online, realize that there is an important choice in front of you: will you reinforce ‘distraction’ or will you tone your ‘concentration’ muscle?
Will you set yourself up for a more frantic, frazzled, unconnected existence? Or will you train your ability to focus intently on whatever is in front of you? If you choose the latter, you will undoubtedly be moving toward a larger a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and overall wellness in your life.
Dealing with Shadows in Meditation
I sat down to settle into a steady seat. The position was comfortable and familiar. After all, we had already spent two days in silence alternating between periods of sitting meditation, walking, eating, and sleeping. I was far from home on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, indulging in a practice my soul yearned for, and just a few breaths in, I met a familiar dark shadow: grief.
Memories of my father’s recent passing came rushing in like a storm. I had just noticed my mind thinking how much he would have enjoyed a retreat like this when I felt my throat close up and my face quiver. Warm tears began flooding my face, and, of course, the stream of thoughts continued just as fast… I missed him. Horribly.
I missed everything about him. I wished I wasn’t crying so hard. He used to give the best daddy hugs whenever I was feeling down. I just wanted the overwhelming sadness to pass. I knew it would, but the fear that it could haunt the rest of the entire retreat was heavy. Breathe.
Soon fear turned to anger as I remembered the teachers asked us not to move during sittings. I remember thinking, “What am I supposed to do, just sit here covered in my snot and tears for the whole day?” Before I knew it, I was frustrated with the whole affair. My hips were screaming from the sitting. My mind was racing faster than my heart. Hopelessness about the next eight days was setting in. In truth, I was most irritated with myself for falling into a whirlpool of such uncomfortable emotions. Where were my decades of experience meditating now?
Whether you are a new explorer of meditation or have been on the contemplative path for ages, strong emotions and uncomfortable thought patterns are bound to arise during a practice. You don’t have to be at a silent retreat for them to show up. Even in a five minute seated meditation at home, it is completely natural for deep-set feelings to manifest.
I Thought Meditation Was Supposed to Be Relaxing…
From my years of sharing meditation with others, the notion that meditation equals blissed-out relaxation is one of the most common misperceptions. Although the pausing and breathing associated with meditation can initiate the physiologic relaxation response, relaxation is not necessarily a promised byproduct.
As a relationship with innate awareness matures, so deepens the ability to include and recognize more life experiences – the pleasant with the unpleasant, the empty and the overwhelming. The teachings of mindfulness urge practitioners to maintain equanimity, clarity, patience, and loving care through it all, but at times the emotional tone can feel like too much. When the experience is far from the expected delightful rest, failure seems like a reasonable deduction, as does quitting the practice altogether.
Though our first tendency is to turn away from such negative experiences, maybe there is another way to relate with them. Inviting a freshness of curiosity, let’s explore why these challenges may arise and navigate strategies to approach them that can support you and your practice.
Am I supposed to be feeling this?
Difficult emotions and feelings of discomfort can arise during a meditation for many reasons. Sometimes they are in relationship to a present-moment focus of the meditation practice. Other times they refer to an ongoing experience or current life-event. Now and again they can be associated with unprocessed or deeply rooted emotions from the past.
Just as massage or foam rolling with broad strokes can soften superficial soft tissue tension over time to reveal defined sources of tightness underneath, cultivating a relationship with inner experience through meditation can begin to release overtones of joy, anger, sadness, and/or ambivalence. Meditation opens space in awareness for more subtle nuances of emotion and related thoughts to be known.
Raw emotion rarely exists in a vacuum. Thoughts, the stories we tell ourselves, memories, assumptions, judgments – these are all often intertwined. Also enmeshed are patterns of gripping and softening within the body and, of course, our habitual reactions to them. Awareness of any of this can trigger a myriad of responses ranging from positive to negative emotions. Sometimes negative reactions can quickly spiral towards significant distress.
Here are some ways to reconnect with innate, resourceful strengths within the context of meditation when you feel like you need a breather.
1. Remember you have choices
Firstly, there is always the potential for aspects of meditation to be a re-traumatizing experience. Whether you have a significant history of trauma or not, most everyone has felt wounded in some way or another – made to feel othered, left out, silenced, or rejected. If triggered when these or other kinds of difficult feelings resurface, it becomes easy to forget that choices exist.
Just as with any new behavior, we can sometimes get caught up in the rules we place around a practice. For example, there are many meditations where it is encouraged to stay with discomfort to nurture intimacy with life experience. These can be beautiful practices, but there is also a point where “following the rules” may not be the most skillful means. Healthy engagement with challenging emotions may begin to shift towards unhelpful distress.
Emotional dysregulation can express itself in a number of ways as our bodies engage with the stress response. Hyperarousal may initially present itself with a sense of agitation, anxiety, or anger. This can turn more severe as threatening feelings may become overwhelming, leading you to even feel out of control. Sometimes, rather than fighting or fleeing with stress, we can become frozen, disengaged, or hypoaroused. This can translate into feeling emotionless, numb, disconnected. Thoughts can be apathetic or unmoved. The body can feel absent of sensation.
You may be able to think about how these different responses have impacted you in daily life. You may also be very familiar with your personal range of tolerance – that space where you can effectively cope with life’s challenges in ways that are calm and engaged (vs. exhausted or anxious).
Engage & Check-In
In the context of meditation, if you begin to move past your own window of healthy engagement, check in with your heart, mind, and gut. If the wisdom you carry says this is truly not right for you at this moment, trust yourself. Maybe this is not the best time to explore a meditation practice. You can always come back to it when you are ready. Maybe the skillful option is taking a mindful walk in nature, journaling, calling a trusted friend, or speaking with a trained counselor.
Simply noticing yourself in a state of disharmony is an act of mindfulness itself. It opens a little room to consider all of your options. Trust your inner ways of knowing. If it feels like you can keep meditating, continue reading below for more choices to explore.
2. Ground into stable anchors
Re-establish a connection with your presence by anchoring into a stable, comfortable focus of attention. Examples of an anchor could be the breath or a particular sensation within the body (feeling the feet resting into the floor or pelvis heavy in the seat). You could even place your hand over the heart or belly, feeling into the warmth of sensations this creates. Mantras or affirmative words can also be stabilizing anchors for practitioners. Repeatedly resting attention back upon any of these can re-orient you back to the present moment. It can help to regulate the stress response, making it easier to sense into your presence of body, heart, and mind.
3. Re-orient to the environment through the senses
Sometimes using an internal anchor such as the breath, body, or a repetitive thought/mantra may not feel stabilizing. If this is the case for you, explore grounding into the present environment by resting the attention upon one of the five senses.
If your eyes are closed, open them. Take in the visual landscape. We often forget this simple option is there while meditating. If you prefer to keep eyes closed, then explore the process of hearing. Explore allowing sounds to come and go or anchor into a particular one for grounding.
Touch can also be a stabilizing sense to explore. As mentioned above, hands can be placed on the heart or belly. A hand could also simply be placed on the solid floor or chair beneath you.
4. “Tend and Befriend”
The more familiar you become with yourself through meditation, the more you may realize how inner strengths can be relied upon in times of need. A big part of contemplative self-study is learning how to befriend yourself and your ability to hold space for your experiences in the way a close friend can. Unfortunately, when we are in significant distress, it can be more difficult to sense into this presence of clarity, courage, and care within.
In times like this, we can tap into the “tend and befriend” mechanism of the stress response by anchoring into the felt sense of someone or something we care about that makes us feel safe, loved, and resilient. You can experiment with this right now.
Take a moment to pause and recollect what makes you feel truly safe, loved, and resilient. It could be a person, a close friend or family member, an animal, a pet, or a plant – alive or not. Another option could be someone you admire or find inspirational like a teacher, a healer or a leader. It could also be a spiritual figure you take refuge within or a sacred place you love to spend time in, like someplace in nature, a temple, or within community at church.
Bring these resources to your heart and mind. What does it feel like to be in their company? What do you notice happening now? Can you feel warmth and care supporting you? Where do you sense it? Can you rest into these feelings of safety, love, and resilience?
As you practice resourcing inner strength in ways like this during periods of calm, pathways of self-regulation and integration become more familiar and easier to access. Even in periods of strong emotion or reactivity, you may find yourself able to come back to presence with more ease. Resourcing resilience in this way isn’t meant to be an escape or a way to spiritually bypass reality. It is meant to increase the inner capacity to live mindfully – to be purposefully present in wholeness, with life just the way it is.
5. Find your rhythm – focusing and expanding
Lastly, just as we might use the silence of meditation practice to help us restore and build resilience for our daily lives, within the context of a meditation practice, focusing on stabilizing presence through the practices above can help build a healthy foundation for widening attention. Once you are feeling more solidly connected to the safety of wisdom, love, and courage present within the moment, this resource of presence can support your return to continued contemplative practice.
As you include more aspects of inner experience into your meditation, if at any point you feel yourself shifting from your personal window of tolerance towards distress, take a break or come back to resourcing presence. Find more safety and peace before expanding into broader circles of awareness.
It is a constant touching and going, focusing and expanding. In the same way that present awareness can sometimes contract while the mind wanders only to reveal itself as we awaken to the moment, we can focus our experience of awareness by grounding into the present before expanding this witnessing presence to include more.
Experiment, Play and Grow
At the end of the day, contemplative traditions all arose to help support human growth and development. They were never meant to torture us (though it can feel like that sometimes). Explore the various strategies described above. Take it slow, and consider shorter durations of practice. Experiment playfully with different styles. Know what you can really anchor into, and stay with it as long as it feels safe. Once you are comfortable, adventure into other contemplative ways of experiencing the limitless essence of you.
If you are someone with a past or recent history of trauma or mental illness, strongly consider consulting your therapist before delving into a full-on meditation practice. Also, consider reaching out to a trained counselor if new mental health issues arise. Allow them to support you. Some therapists and healthcare providers have experience with contemplative traditions, like mindfulness, and may even be able to work with you to ensure your relationship with meditation is safe and healing.
(1) Meditating in Safety; and (2) Cheetah House. For more information and research on meditation-related difficulties, visit the Britton Lab at Brown University. If you are a yoga teacher leading meditation for clients impacted by trauma, consider reading Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven for specific recommendations.