As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diane Malaspina Ph.D., Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist and Applied Psychologist. Combining yoga tradition and modern science, she teaches evidenced-based methods for healing, stress prevention, and sustainable well-being through yoga sessions, workshops, and teacher training — both locally and across the globe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a graduate student, I was burned out and carried a lot of stress, like most grad students, and a friend recommended that I try yoga. My area of study in school was coping with stress and resilience and when I came out of my first yoga class I was completely hooked — I felt like I genuinely tapped into the experience of what I was studying about — a mind-body modality that also helps me feel more connected to life. Through the years I maintained a consistent yoga practice, and later in life, as a psychology professor, I dedicated most of my free time to take as many yoga and meditation workshops and training that I could find, while also teaching yoga on the side. Eventually, I took a deeper look at my life, felt that it was too stressful, with too much pressure, and that I wasn’t able to directly help others like I wanted to — so I left my career and went into business for myself. Along the way, I completed an advanced certification with Yoga Medicine® which brought together my two passions of blending Eastern and Western modalities as therapeutic approaches to healing and well-being, that I incorporate in my work as both an Applied Psychologist and yoga instructor.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I opened a yoga studio and ran it from 2010–2016. In the 2 -year transition from leaving academia to opening the studio, I had a few side jobs to help sustain me financially. When one of the contracted jobs I was working was about to end, I didn’t have a solid plan for what was to come next. So I embarked on a 30 -day meditation practice with the intention of ‘staying open.’ By day 15, it came to me that I wanted to run a yoga studio. On day 17 of the practice, I entered negotiations with a local studio to see if I could buy their business. On day 22 the owners decided not to sell. On day 26 my friend told me her mother’s Pilates studio had a space for rent that could be used as a separate business entity. And on day 29 of my ‘staying open’ meditation, I garnered a business license, started an LLC, and obtained the keys to my first location for a yoga studio! The meditation practice provided me with the space and insight to connect to something that I didn’t even realize was a dream. The experience of owning the studio gave me a lot of teaching experience, pushed me to learn and offer different styles of yoga, create workshops and a teacher training, and provided me with business experience that I still rely on. Five years into owning the studio I went on a 2-week meditation retreat. I found myself very emotional and crying uncontrollably for several days. As I delved into the emotions, I realized I was ready to move on from owning a studio. I uncovered a new vision for my work, eventually closed the studio, and started taking the steps which brought me to my current work as both a Psychologist and yoga teacher trainer (with the perks of international travel)! I have never felt so fulfilled professionally. Again, meditation paved the way for me to connect to my deeper intuition and inspired me into the next phase of growth.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle is a book that I come back to time and time again, and every time I discover something new or relate to a lesson in a different way. One of my favorite passages in the book is the re-telling of a Zen story where two monks are walking and pass a woman who is trying to cross the road, but she can’t get across because there is a deep mud hole, and if she were to go through, she would ruin her kimono. One of the monks picks her up and carries her across the road, sets her down and the two monks continue on their way. Several hours pass, and one monk says: “Why did you carry her across the road? We are not supposed to do that.” The monk who carried her responds: “I put her down hours ago, are you still carrying her?” I love this story because as humans we carry around so many grievances and stories that take us out of the present and block our ability to see clearly, thus creating stress and burden. These thoughts keep us from living in the reality and beauty of the present and affect many aspects of our life.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Mindfulness is a practice and like anything that is a practice it needs to be done over and over again. There is no end point. It requires the honing of all of our senses and taking in each experience through the five senses while turning off the internal dialog. It is a state of allowing the mind to be full of the current experience and not full of thoughts. The state of being mindful is the ability to get quiet and apply focus to each moment. I also see it as a place where we can just ‘be’ — versus having to take action or do anything.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Physically, practicing mindfulness reduces stress which has positive effects on the nervous system. When our nervous system is more balanced, we see a variety of health outcomes including enhanced cardiovascular health, immunity, and reduced muscular tension and inflammation which could be related to feeling less pain in the body and lower risk for disease-causing states. There is also evidence that practices reduce cell aging, affecting the integrity of specific proteins (called telomeres), which may be related to enhanced longevity and protection from the effects of aging. Mentally, mindfulness practice is associated with improved focus and executive functioning — which includes better problem-solving and decision making. In addition, mindfulness-based practices minimize activity in an area of the brain called the Default Mode Network (DMN) which is where we tend to engage in mind wandering and often times this mind wandering is related to negative thinking. Mindfulness may also slow the cognitive decline associated with aging and Alzheimer’s Disease. Emotional benefits include improved mood, increases in positive emotions, and decreases in anxiety, emotional reactivity, and other stress-related conditions like feelings of overwhelm and burnout. Since mindfulness practice re-directs neural circuity, it takes the patterns away from the emotional centers related to fight or flight and into the areas of the brain where we can process emotions and respond versus react.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Minimize the amount of exposure you have to all media, including television and screen time. Choose a trusted source for news and read articles, versus watching videos or live updates. Stay current on events but limit your news intake to two times per day. I have found that when I mindlessly look at social media or have the television running that there is sensory overload which is highly stimulating and evokes fear responses. We don’t experience the same sensory overwhelm when reading the written word versus seeing and hearing it on a screen.
- Spend time outside daily. Look up at the sky and broaden your perspective to take in the landscape around you. Close your eyes and notice the smells, breeze on your skin, and sounds of nature. I live near the ocean and I make a point to spend time on the beach daily (no matter the weather). The sounds, smells, and sights help me to be in the moment and recognize the larger scope of all life as it lives on this planet. My daily world seems less significant when I ponder and expose myself to the vastness of the natural world.
- Start your morning reading something inspiring. Avoid looking at a screen for the first 30 minutes of your day. I wake up early enough to read 3–4 pages of an inspirational book to set the tone for my day.
- Practice being quiet and still, with the eyes closed and focus on the breath. I do this after I read, but it can be done at any time during the day. Start with 1 minute (you can use a timer). Commit to sitting, eyes closed, quietly observing your breath. When ready, increase to 2 minutes, then 3. You might build up to 10 minutes, but don’t make it a goal. Simply practice sitting quietly and following your breath and naturally, you’ll crave more time doing this.
- When you find yourself overwhelmed or in a negative state, write down all of your concerns on a piece of paper or in a journal. Free write without editing, just to get it all out. After writing down concerns, evaluate which ones you could actually have an influence on. Take a moment to reflect, how much time do you spend thinking/worrying about these concerns? Next to the ones that you can do something about, record 1 -2 things that you will do to shift the concern so that it loses its power. Reflect again, wouldn’t it be a better use of your mental time and energy to focus on things you can influence versus the concerns you can’t do much about? Every thought creates a mental map for better or for worse. Spending time in a proactive state vs a reactive state will rewire your mind and prime you toward creative solutions. When we are in a fear state, we activate the parts of the brain that create more stress and worry. When we are in a solution state, we broaden and build our thought repertoires towards creativity, flexible thinking, and inviting social support.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Reach out and let them know you are thinking of them. I just recently went through a hard time and receiving messages from others was really helpful in knowing that I wasn’t alone and that someone took a moment to let me know they care.
- Listen empathically. Try not to interject and make the conversation about yourself — allow them to express/vent. Ask: “How can I help?”
- Encourage self-care on a regular basis and share ways that you are engaging in self-care, too. This might be a daily exercise, taking a bath, watching a funny movie, or something else that brings joy or relaxation.
- Bring attention to what is going well. Right now we are exposed to a lot of negative information and fear. Emphasize areas that are going well and celebrate those successes.
- Encourage reaching out for mental health support. Many therapists are offering tele-therapy sessions. I had a Zoom call with my therapist recently and it was really supportive in helping me navigate some grief and anger that I was experiencing.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
Awareness is always the first step in starting a new behavior or changing a habit. Taking the time to learn about what mindfulness is and how it is beneficial is a great place to start. There are several yoga and meditation classes offered online for beginners that can be helpful. I personally like YogaGlo as they have a large library and classes that range from 5 minutes up. I also suggest reading articles and books on mindful practices which can bring help with learning new perspectives.
Keeping an end of day log of what went well today and what seemed challenging today can enhance reflective capacity and bring awareness to day-to-day living. Once we have an idea of the current state of life, we can start coming up with strategies for doing things differently. I recommend starting with small steps — doing one thing a day differently that will increase being more mindful and feeling more serene. Then, at the end of the day, reflect: how did that make me feel? If it made you feel good, you’ll be more likely to keep doing it as it will become an important part of daily living. As these feel-good strategies start to take up more of our time, it becomes a lifestyle versus one more thing to add to our day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.” Oprah Winfrey
I recently experienced the unexpected loss of my beloved dog. It was a tremendously difficult experience as she was very healthy and through the negligence of a vet, her life went from thriving to not surviving. In the course of it all, I was by her side for weeks, praying and doing all that I could in hopes of her getting better. Unfortunately, she did not, and I had to let her go. I experienced deep shock, anger, and loss. I connected back to what my dog’s life taught me, and that was unwavering love. My original reaction was seeped in the negativity of anger, but I shifted my center of gravity toward love and have found a new way to stand. I’ve always been drawn to work that helps others, but now I am even more inspired with a sense of service in the healing power of support and love.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to see more awareness around mental health, stress reduction, and ways to live more connected in our bodies and minds start early in life and in school curriculums. Based on my own research and that of others, we can clearly see social and emotional challenges as early as kindergarten. Not enough time is devoted to developing the whole person. I’d love to see a paradigm shift where mind-body education and wellness is an inherent part of our life-long educational system with supports embedded for those who are struggling. This should be a community-wide approach with guidance for students, school personnel, and families. We could be learning effective coping strategies and lifestyle habits throughout our life that prevent anxiety and depression and that enhance overall well-being.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!