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What is Trauma? And Why is It Important to Know for a Yoga Teacher?

By Katia Shulga for Yoga Medicine®.

When I started researching trauma in literature over 10 years ago, I had no idea how wide-spread the concept of trauma would become, and I didn’t think much about its influence on my yoga teaching and practice either. To me, it was just something that belonged to psychology research and cultural studies. This has all changed in recent years. We have seen a steady increase in books, articles, talks, workshops and trainings on yoga and trauma. There is trauma- sensitive yoga, trauma informed yoga, yoga for PTSD and so forth. It is becoming as important for a yoga teacher to be aware of trauma as of hypermobility or joint issues. This is great, but also complex, because it is easy to think that trauma is one thing and one thing only, when in fact it’s unique to each person and each experience. This makes it harder to say what yoga for trauma should look like. On the other hand, we also know that not all hypermobility is addressed with the same pose adjustments, so perhaps it’s the same approach we need to apply here.

So, what exactly is trauma? We can simplify trauma to say that it’s an experience, or a collection of experiences, that impact our nervous system, so that it becomes trapped in a fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. Bessel van der Kolk explains it as: “something that overwhelms your coping capacities”, Peter Levine defines it as: “an overwhelm of our natural defensive responses that creates something like an injury in our autonomic nervous system, which affects its ability to self-regulate”, and Judith Herman says: “Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life”.

A good example to think of is how animals in nature respond to danger, attacking their predator, freezing so that they become unseen or running away. Animals tend to release these events from their bodies relatively quickly afterwards by shaking, but if the danger persists, they become traumatized in the same way as people do. Think of a dog that has been neglected or abused, what’s its body language like? How will it respond to a stranger coming over to it? How would you approach it? This is similar for people who have experienced trauma, but it’s often less overt. Sometimes, they may not be aware of it themselves, or that their reactions are anything out of the ordinary. This is why it is important for yoga teachers to be aware of the many ways in which trauma manifests in people’s bodies and minds, especially if we do hands on assists.

The difficulty with trauma is that it is experienced in different ways by different people, not one singular event is inherently traumatizing. As Dr Gabor Mate suggests, “Something bad has happened to you, or not enough good things have happened to you.” Some people come away from a terrifying accident completely unharmed, others carry the event within them, unable to process it. Therefore, we shouldn’t assume that trauma is expressed the same way by different people. Cultural, generational, and gender issues impact this as well, adding to the complexity. Knowing this, it becomes apparent that there isn’t one way of approaching trauma in the context of yoga – what may be soothing to one nervous system, may not be for another. Restorative yoga may be healing for some but triggering for others, same for any style of yoga. So what can we do?

Well, there are some simple things that can make any yoga class more conducive to trauma healing. The teaching space has to be one of exploration of connection, but within a safe structure. This may seem paradoxical, but the most important thing we can create in a yoga space is a sense of safety so that the nervous system can start to let go of some of its hypervigilance, and therefore start to explore what it’s like to be in the body. Simple ways to establish safety is being clear about what you will do in the class, what the sequence is, where you will place yourself in the room, whether you will turn the lights off or not during Savasana and why you may look at someone’s pose. All it takes is a couple of words stating: “We will do X, I will be walking around making sure your practice is anatomically safe, and during Savasana I will play some music/turn off lights etc.” And it’s paramount to be clear about time, always being on time and finishing on time is an underestimated technique for creating safety. It develops trust that you will do, what you say you will do.

Some other aspects of yoga may be both more triggering and more healing, and it’s a fine line to walk, knowing that we all may get it wrong from time to time. This is where it gets more complicated. One of the profoundly healing qualities of yoga is its ability to cultivate a connection between body and mind. Often, trauma separates the connection to the body, or makes the body an unsafe place to be, for a variety of reasons. As van der Kolk explains, “Trauma is actually NOT the story of what happened a long time ago; trauma is residue that’s living inside of you now; trauma lives inside of you in horrible sensations, panic reactions, uptightness, explosions, and impulses. Because trauma lives inside of you, getting to know yourself can be the scariest thing to do.” The invitation to experience the practice from within, is where the experimentation and exploration part comes in. As a teacher, you are slowly coaxing and inviting the person to connect to what it may be like to sense the body.

This doesn’t have to be complicated, in fact, it may be very simple, yet profound. Some embodiment practices that we may want to incorporate, and that we may already use, are as simple as feeling the breath and the movement of ribs, with hands on ribs. This combination of interoception (feeling from the inside) and proprioception (feeling from the outside) is a simple link that can bring the person back to the sensation of being in their body. Deep breaths are always good as well! Feeling feet on the floor, inviting the students to touch their own skin to feel the boundaries of their bodies, feeling the sensations of hands pressing into each other, all of these small things can be some of manageable and digestible moments of when a person returns to their body and is able to experience the union of body and mind.

One thing that we must be aware of with trauma, beyond anything else or any training that we do, is our own traumas and how we harbor them in our bodies. Working with our own traumas as teachers, is probably the best thing we can do to provide a safe space for our students. Seeking support in holding space for our own trauma will help us in holding space for other people’s traumas.

Guidelines and Grace: Recommendations for Teaching Trauma-Informed Yoga

By Jaci Gandenberger for Yoga Medicine®.

As a social worker and yoga teacher who has supported many other teachers in offering classes to vulnerable populations, I’m often asked about “trauma informed yoga.” In many cases, teachers want to know a formula or list of rules that can be used to create a trauma-free space.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. Trauma is deeply personal and triggers – things that remind someone of a past traumatic experience – can be unpredicatble due to the unique nature of a traumatic experience. Moving your body into a certain position, hearing a particular melody, or catching a whiff of a scent can all bring past experiences crashing back, and sometimes even the person experiencing this has not foreseen their own triggers.

A given pose – child’s pose, for example – might feel grounding and soothing for one person but feel vulnerable and unsafe to another. Similarly, breathing practices, room configurations, music playlists, and more can all carry the potential of triggering someone. I know of one yoga teacher who worked to create a “trauma informed” playlist that only had traditional Indian music. It had been well received, until one day she had a student from India who broke down sobbing during one song. He later explained that that song had been played at his father’s funeral.

While it can be scary to have no guarantees and no perfectly safe approach, here are some general tips that I use to mindfully plan safe classes for vulnerable students.

1. Ask your students what they want.

Would they prefer the lights bright or dimmed? The door open or closed? What kinds of music do they enjoy? In addition to setting yourself up for success, you’re also conveying that you’re someone who cares about your students’ preferences and needs. That alone can create a greater sense of safety.

Important note: Do NOT ask your students about their trauma histories or triggers! At most, you might ask in a general sense what makes them feel safe and if there’s anything they want you to know makes them unsafe. However, as their yoga teacher it is inappropriate for you to dig any deeper than that.

2. Do not give physical assists.

Many forms of trauma are related to people’s bodily autonomy being taken from them. Depending on your students’ experiences, they may not feel comfortable setting boundaries with you, so you can support them by refraining from touching their bodies at all. If you do want to give physical assists (only after developing significant rapport with your students), use an opt-in rather than opt-out approach and describe exactly what assist you are offering. Yes, this means getting permission for each assist – this gives students the opportunity to change their minds, and it recognizes that people have different boundaries around different ways of being touched. For example, I might be fine with someone pulling my heels down while I’m in down dog, but that doesn’t mean I’d be comfortable with them lifting my hips in the same shape.

3. Stay on your mat.

In my teacher training, I was urged to spend as little time on my yoga mat as possible. There are a lot of good reasons for that, but if you’re teaching a population with high levels of trauma, it’s better to stay in place. Many students feel vulnerable if someone is walking around the room while they’re practicing, particularly if they can’t see where that person is. In addition, if you’re not giving physical assists your visual cuing becomes more important. By staying at your mat and demonstrating the poses as you describe them, you’ll be be giving them a different, and typically safer, form of assisting.

4. Encourage body awareness and choice.

One of the most empowering things you can offer your students is a sense of bodily autonomy and the freedom to make their own choices. Rather than direct instructional language, use invitational language to encourage them to explore what would feel most helpful in their bodies.

For example, if we’re releasing the neck I might say: “If you’d like, begin rolling your neck slowly from side to side. As you do so, notice if there are any areas that feel a little tighter, or where there’s a feeling of tugging or resistance. As you notice those areas, you might choose one to linger with. You can send your breath into that spot, or maybe even give it a little massage to help it release. When you’ve spent enough time in that spot, you can roll your neck a little more until you feel the next place you’d like to linger.”

5. Give your students tools to ground themselves.

If students start to feel triggered or disassociated, an effective ways to recenter them is to encourage them to focus on what they’re experiencing with their five senses. This returns their attention to the present moment. One simple way to do this is to ask students to notice 5 things they see, 4 things they feel, 3 things they hear, 2 things they smell, and 1 thing they taste. You can offer this as a practice towards the beginning or end of class, or any time students seem to be becoming disconnected.

6. Don’t try to be their therapist.

You can offer a powerful, healing practice as a yoga teacher so focus on what you’re trained to provide and are there to offer. If you have a student who seems to be in crisis, or one who comes to you before or after class seeking a level of support that you aren’t equipped to provide, the best thing you can do is to refer them to other support systems. One valuable resource is Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” tool, which allows you to search for therapists in your area by categories including specialty, language(s) spoken, and types of insurance accepted.

7. Give yourself grace.

Because there is no fool-proof formula, know that you aren’t a failure if a student is triggered in one of your classes. You’re being present with the reality of being human. Make sure that your student has the support they need, which will likely include connecting them with an outside resource. Then learn from it, grow from it, and release it.

Growing Mindful Partnerships in the Midst of Mayhem

Actionable steps we can all take now to come out of chaos stronger.

How extreme are these times? We are urged to physically distance ourselves in public and yet many of us find ourselves at home in close proximity to our partners and children. We are disconnected from our local community and extended family, but technology provides an extended sense of community outside of our walls. Life and routine is interrupted. 

Within our home, the stress and closeness can literally bring us together or exacerbate any underlying issues that our relationships might have been hiding. Globally, divorce rates and domestic abuse have spiked worldwide since Coronavirus appeared. On the flip side, experts predict an increase child births in the next 7-9 months.

“This pandemic is not treating everyone equally,” says Atlanta-based family and marriage therapist Sadé Ferrier. “Some couples are feeling the walls close in as pre-existing friction intensifies while others are relieved to slow down, talk more, and gaze into one another’s eyes.”

Ferrier says the one thing we have is common is that we are now faced with the current core temperature of our relationship. 

“Most distractions have been stripped away, making the status of your relationship more evident,” says the intimacy expert. “It’s a good thing. Whether you realize you need to address years of hidden wounds, or you realize that you truly do enjoy one another and need to make more space for reconnection.”

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel suggests that we use this time “cocooning” to hone in on the people who really matter to you. Instead of bracing for the worst, we can embrace this opportunity in close quarters to build connection. Here are some ways to get started:

Set a Relationship Meeting

The idea of a meeting may sound tedious, but setting aside time for it is important. Often our mundane business of marriage, family or relationship infiltrates our day-to-day living. And now with this pandemic, it’s even more important to have a check in. 

You and your partner should schedule an agreed time once a week to discuss schedules, finances, home maintenance, planning, etc. Keep to an agenda for the meeting and keep it to a set time. This opens up your other time together for just fun and more effective ways of getting closer and building rapport. We actually have two meetings in our family — our marriage meeting and our weekly family meeting. The latter always ends in us playing some game or activity together. 

Make it Last

Collectively, our kisses and hugs are just too fleeting to have an impact on our brain and hormonal system. Science suggests a 6-second kiss, lips to lips. And for hugs, a full-on 20-second hug with each person supporting their own weight. The benefits are numerous from heart health and stronger immune system to the release of positive feel good hormones throughout the body.

Renown family therapist Virginia Satir once said, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”  In our marriage, we take this literally. My husband and I run a business together and on especially stressful days, we make it a game to stop and get a hug and reach our twelve. 

Give Each Other Space

All this togetherness, can be too much togetherness! Take time out for yourself and use it to set your own personal goals and daydream about your aspirations. Maybe even try journaling. The key is that you know yourself intimately. Ask yourself questions about who you want to be? And what do you want to do with your life that is fulfilling? Find a way to connect and express yourself. 

I highly recommend listening to Perel’s new four part workshop to help you learn how to navigate this time for yourself and your relationship with others. 

Intimacy Challenge

About a year ago, our trusted marriage adviser Dr. Mike issued us an intimacy challenge.

The goal: aim for 30 minutes a day cuddling, two times a week make out sessions that never ended in intercourse. In fact, we had to wait after 24 hours after a make out session to have sex! My husband and I had to set clear, ahem, rules of engagement. I definitely thought to myself that we would nail this challenge but we have found it challenging. And to this date, we have fun trying, and sometimes failing, to hit our goals. 

Seek Out the Different, Fun and Funny 

Even though we find ourselves limited in resources right now, try to be creative. Set up a picnic, dress up more than usual, arrange a dance party, or dinner by candlelight. 

Ferrier tells her clients to be sure to “add the element of playfulness. Touch should be fun – whether that be the fun of passion and intensity, or the fun of giggling and tickle fights.”

Lastly, don’t be afraid to laugh. Watch a funny movie, play a family game, but just find a way to laugh with each other.

Seek Outside Help 

Not everyone is experiencing harmony at home, and some of these tactics may be met with resistance or unable to get started. Or it is possible that a partner is too triggered with anxiety to reciprocate. It might be time to reach out virtually to a marriage counselor who can help you come to an understanding. 

Visit websites like BetterHelp and Psychology Today to screen counselors’ profiles. 

Ferrier recommends that couples should ask therapists what percentage of their clients are couples and what their specialities are. “Online counseling has unique differences, and you’ll have more success navigating this as a couple if your counselor is already skilled in couples counseling,” she adds.

Yoga for Every Body: Supporting Students with Disabilities

By Jaci Gandenberger for Yoga Medicine®.

The first time I offered a group yoga class to people with disabilities, only one student showed up. She was an experienced yogi who had fractured her elbow, so we focused on standing poses followed by restorative shapes to soothe her nervous system. After class, she said that it was the first time her nerves had stopped jangling since her injury and that she looked forward to coming back.

Great! I thought. Next week, I’ll create a sequence that’s designed to support her.

The following week, she didn’t attend. Instead, she was replaced by a student who had never practiced yoga and who used a wheelchair. Needless to say, that lovingly designed sequence had to be tossed out the window.

Every experienced vinyasa yoga teacher has stories of creating sequences that were completely wrong for the students who came to class, but when teaching adaptive yoga, the challenges can be more dramatic. I’ve also found these classes to be some of the richest, most enjoyable, and engaging that I’ve taught, and they’ve made me a better teacher in my able-bodied classes too. 

Here are a few of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

1) Be aware of your own ableism.

This can range from careless language choices (I still cringe at the time I thoughtlessly described myself as “spazzy” in one of my classes), to deeply rooted and perhaps unexamined assumptions. For example, not everyone who uses a wheelchair sees that as a burden or has the goal of one day getting out of their chair. Take the time to really listen to your students and learn what their goals are, rather than setting out to “fix” them according to your own values and priorities.

2) Consider the purpose of each pose.

As you create a class – whether by planning it in advance or developing it in the moment – take time to reflect on your true goal with each shape. Take tree pose, for example. Your primary goal with the shape could be grounding, a gentle hip opening, increasing core strength, building the stabilizing muscles of the ankle and foot, teaching about drishti, or something else entirely. Once you know your true goal, you’ll have a much better sense of how to adapt the pose for a wide variety of bodies.

Tree pose can be done with the foot as a kickstand, using the wall for support, from a chair, with a block to support the shape, or even on the floor, pressing into a wall for grounding.

3) Take your time.

Many people with disabilities are expected to spend most of their lives adapting to the able-bodied world. That often includes having other people move their bodies for them. In my experience, many disabled students savor the opportunity to take a class that moves at their pace. Sometimes that means me giving five minutes for a student to move themselves from their chair to the floor, or collaborating with them to find a prop set-up that will allow them to settle into a pose rather than being expected to skip past it. Don’t be afraid to converse with your students so that they have space to tell you how you can best support them.

4) Move through the joints.

Feeling overwhelmed about where to start? One structure that I’ve found helpful is to move through the major joints of the body, starting at either the top or the bottom. So, I might start class with neck releases, then shoulder circles, then moving the spine through its major movements (forward bending, back bending, side bending, and twists). Next would come elbow, wrist, and finger movements, then hip releases, followed by knee, ankle, and toe movements. If you move slowly and mindfully through the class, and take time to make each shape work for each student (which might include them physically manipulating parts of their bodies, such as using their hands to move their legs through hip circles), this is often a sufficient physical practice. If you add in a bit of breathwork and some restorative shapes and savasana, this work can comfortably fill a 60-90 minute class.

If you want to learn more about how to teach students with disabilities, one great resource is Accessible Yoga. They offer trainings around the country, an annual conference, an educational blog, and an online community that is readily available to answer questions and offer fresh perspectives.

How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times with Diane Malaspina

By Beau Henderson for Authority Magazine.

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?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. Listen empathically. Try not to interject and make the conversation about yourself — allow them to express/vent. Ask: “How can I help?”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Yoga Modalities for Symptoms of Depression

By Diane Malaspina for Yoga Medicine®.

Whether you experience depression to a point where you need medical intervention or it’s something you find you can personally manage in your life, yoga for depression can be a supportive practice and can help alleviate some of the associated negative patterns that come up. Depression can present itself in many forms, particularly patterns that are considered low energy with symptoms like fatigue, exhaustion and inability to engage with life – or high energy, presenting with symptoms like anxiety, anger, muscular tension and irritation.
 
Follow along and learn about the array of symptoms associated with depression and why it’s important to understand the diversity of ways depression can show up so that we can support our students coping with these challenges. This is a short yoga practice for depression that can be used on yourself or with your students.
 

Find the original video on Yoga Medicine’s Youtube channel.

Epi-What? Change Your Internal Landscape Part 2: Epigenetics and How It Reduces Depression and Increases Longevity

In my last Yoga Digest article, we explored the concept of neuroplasticity as it relates to yoga and mindfulness. In this article, we dive a little deeper and investigate epigenetics. If you haven’t already heard this buzz word, now is your time. The term epigenetics itself is very often misunderstood and misinterpreted, so even if you have heard it, we’ll spend a bit of time unpacking what it actually means but keep in mind, this is the speed-dating version. Careers are spent on this stuff!

Essentially, the epigenome can be thought of as sitting on top of the genome (or DNA). To get a visual, think of a textbook where the printed words represent your DNA. Let’s say you go in and highlight a few sentences with a yellow highlighter. That yellow highlight can be thought of as the epigenome. It sits on top of the words but doesn’t change the words. What it changes is the emphasis; i.e., when you go back to review that section, those highlighted sentences will be emphasized (or increased gene expression). Alternatively, you could use a black marker to cross out sentences and, in that case, it would be really challenging to read those sentences again (this would decrease gene expression). Again, the words didn’t change, but your ability to read them did. Theoretically, epigenetic changes are one mechanism by which environmental exposures can ‘get under the skin’ to affect the underlying biology of a system. While there are multiple epigenetic ‘marks,’ this article will only discuss two of them: DNA methylation and telomere length. DNA methylation happens when a chemical group (called a methyl group) acts like a little sticker that adheres to specific segments of the genome. Telomeres are the end of our chromosomes and they are known to shorten as we age.

There is a small, but growing, body of research suggesting that mindfulness-based techniques, such as yoga and meditation, induce changes to our biology, particularly our biology related to stress. Luders and Kurth (2019) describe meditation as an active mental process that, when done repeatedly, regularly, and over longer periods of time, can change our biology. This is due, in part, to the fact that meditation incorporates efforts in multiple domains: awareness, attention, concentration, and focus. Yoga is a mind-body practice incorporating many of these same qualities alongside movement. There is accumulating evidence of positive effects on yoga on mental health, physical health, and well-being (Tolahunase et al., 2018). This has led some researchers to suggest that mindful-based practices, such as yoga and meditation, hold promise as evidence-based treatment for mental health disorders, such as depression (Goldberg et al., 2018).

How does this happen? Most of us that practice yoga and mindfulness techniques likely feel a shift in mood after practicing, but I suspect most of us, don’t sit back and think deeply about what is happening biologically to create this shift. One possible path is through neuroplasticity, which was the focus in my last Yoga Digest article. But we can zoom the microscope in even deeper to look at cellular changes! There are currently a handful of studies examining epigenetic mechanisms as one other possible avenue by which yoga and mindfulness can affect our biology. As one example, Garcia-Campayo et al. (2018) compared the methylome (i.e., 450,000 epigenetic methylation markers across the entire genome) of experienced meditators (10+ years) to non-meditators and found differential methylation at 43 genes. What is differential methylation? It’s when there is more (or less) methyl groups attaching themselves to the DNA in meditators vs non-meditators. The majority of these 43 genes that showed different levels of methylation between the two groups have been suggested to be involved in neurological and psychiatric disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer. These researchers went on to perform experiments to show that the epigenetic response to mindfulness may modulate (or change) inflammatory pathways supporting the potential of meditation-based-interventions in the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions. This work was supported by very recent work by Chaix et al. (2020), also comparing meditators to non-meditators, who found differential methylation in 61 genes involved in immune-related (and thus likely stress- related) pathways.

An additional study by Chaix et al. (2017) focused on the epigenetic aging rate. Did you know that there are specific patterns in the genome that can predict the rate of aging? These show up in DNA methylation patterns and also in telomere length, both of which are considered epigenetic markers. Further, cumulative life stress and trauma can accelerate our epigenetic clock and these faster clocks are associated with age-related chronic diseases. Slower clocks, however, predict longevity as well as better cognitive and physical fitness. And, guess what? Meditation and yoga decreased the epigenetic aging rate, with the more years of formal practice predicting increased protective effects on epigenetic aging markers. I don’t know about you, but I want a slower epigenetic clock.

Kaliman (2019) cautions us, however, that this area of research is in its infancy. As a mental health researcher who studies epigenetics as it relates to ADHD-like behaviors, I couldn’t agree more. We need other research groups to replicate (or find similar results) what has been done, ideally in larger and more controlled studies. We also need to be able to speak to the long- terms effects of epigenetic changes. There might also be sensitive developmental periods more conducive to epigenetic changes. And so many more questions beyond the scope of this article. Despite this, however, I feel encouraged. We know, experientially, that mindfulness-based techniques are highly effective in stress reduction, and it now appears possible that such stress reduction may also mediate changes deep in our cells (Kaliman, 2019).

If you don’t already have a yoga or mindfulness practice, here are simple tips to get you started:

1. Bring meditation into your daily practice. Starting with just 3 minutes a day and building to 10 minutes over time. If sitting down to meditate feels too daunting, try a walking meditation. This isn’t just going on a walk. Being barefoot is really helpful for this approach as it will help you stay very aware of each blade or grass or grain of sand or plank of wood floor. You could literally walk back and forth over the same area trying tostay very focused on the feeling of each movement of your feet, noticing your mind wandering, and staying super present in your experience.

2. If meditating just feels like it’s too inaccessible, try practicing mindfulness as you practice yoga or exercise. When you find your mind wandering or creating your grocery list, bring it back to what you are doing. What muscles are engaging in the pose you are in? What muscles are lengthening? Mentally watch your breath coming in and exhaling out. What is the temperature of the air as you breathe in? As you breathe out? There are countless ways to keep your mind present while you practice and move.

If you couldn’t already tell, I have a tendency to completely nerd out about this type of thing. Our bodies are built to be resilient and to change. And, that change doesn’t have to be negative. In fact, changes can be positive. We have the capacity to change our habitual patterns, which could, in turn, create positive changes in our internal landscape—even at the deep layers of our cells and the ways our genes are expressed.

Change our immune response? Change our inflammatory response? Slow down our epigenetic aging clock? Ummm….yes, please!

How to Improve Safety and Reduce Anxiety During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Leah Zerbe for Dr. Axe.

No March Madness. Moreover, no sports games, anywhere, for the unforeseen future. For many, no schooling. No Broadway. Limited travel. The list goes on.

Needless to say, the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has significantly disrupted American life and continues to do for the foreseeable future.

Lastly, anxiety levels are on the rise. Will I get the virus? Will my older relatives get it and fall gravely ill? Will the U.S. become like Italy, where only grocery stores and pharmacies are open? How much will loneliness and social isolation become an issue? When will I be able to resume normal, daily life?

While we don’t have answers to every one of the questions, we’re going to give the following valuable tips from top health and wellness experts.

8 Steps for More Safety and Less Anxiety

 

Cara Natterson, MD, pediatrician and author of Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons:

1. Wash your hands for 20 seconds.

Yes, that’s a long time. But it works — better than 5 or 10, and better than just slathering on some antibacterial liquid. That’s why surgeons stand at scrub sinks and lather up to their elbows for a full 20 seconds (often longer) before cutting into a body.

On “Grey’s Anatomy,” you don’t see them squirting on the Purell and walking into the operating room, now do you?

2. Stay Home if you are sick.

There is a huge public service component to virus containment, and this requires that your life not be more important than someone else’s.

If you run an errand or downplay your symptoms and go to the office, you have just chosen to expose a much bigger group of people to your germs, which may or may not be coronavirus. So seriously, if you are sick, stay home.

Gail Saltz, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill–Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeart Media:

3. Stay appropriately informed, but not over informed.

Other than that, consume information about the virus no more than once a day. Watching and listening and reading headlines will only serve to make you overly anxious.

Many headlines are catastrophizing the situation inappropriately and driving fear. Having basic knowledge will reduce anxiety. Anxiety beyond doing what you appropriately can do, like hand washing and social distancing, is not serving a purpose and it’s worth reminding yourself just that.

4. Keep children calm.

Stay calm when speaking to them, answer questions reasonably, teach them to do appropriate hand-washing or use of hand sanitizer, but don’t frighten them into it.

Avoid keeping the news on in the background where they keep hearing it and likewise restrict screen time on news items that will only serve to frighten. Tell them you as a family will stay up on the facts from a reliable source and do what is recommended as a family.

5. Increase the use of relaxation techniques.

When anxiety goes up, so does the body’s tension level and, in turn, this tension raises your anxiety. To interrupt the cycle, practice relaxation techniques such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, mindfulness, taking a warm bath, whatever helps you to relax your body.

Aerobic exercise is also helpful for decreasing anxiety — for 30 minutes several times per week.

6. Know when this is an anxiety problem, not a COVID-19 problem.

If you are highly anxious after taking recommended steps to be safer, this is more likely an anxiety problem than a COVID-19 problem and stirring up people around you is not helpful. It is reasonable to ask workplaces to ask for and approve sick people staying home, and you should do the same.

But beyond that fear mongering just makes this all worse for everyone, without changing the spread of the novel coronavirus. Increased fear tends to drive poor decision making, and certainly is driving economic consequences. So trying to keep perspective is important.

If you do feel overwhelmed with anxiety, and people who already have anxiety particularly about health issues are at higher risk, then do consider seeing a professional. Some therapy can make a big difference in managing anxiety about all kinds of things, including the coronavirus.

Tiffany Cruikshank, L.A.c., MAOM, RYT, founder of Yoga Medicine®:

7. Reduce stress.

If you’re like many people right now, you’re probably also feeling the stress that this outbreak has also created in our lives, whether that be due to canceled travel plans or fear of catching it.

Stress can be one of the biggest hindrances to our immunity, especially with the escalating situations surrounding COVID-19. My favorite remedy when I feel stress and anxiety rising is pranayama or breathing techniques. I love this because it’s simple and doesn’t cost anything.

But the key here is that it’s best done regularly when you have an ongoing stressful situation. Diaphragmatic breathing is powerful because it stimulates the vagus nerve to mediate the stress response of the nervous system, and this increased diaphragmatic movement also acts as a pump for the lymphatic system to support immune function.

To do this one, simply lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor and your hands on your belly. As you inhale, feel your belly expand into your hands and on the exhale feel your belly drop back toward the floor.

To magnify the effect, press the belly into the resistance of your hands on the inhale and feel the belly drop and relax on the exhale, keeping the rest of your body relaxed. Repeat for 3–5 minutes daily.

8. Do (gentle) yoga.

A simple yoga practice can be a great way to support the immune system. Not only can it decrease stress hormones in the body, but these easeful whole-body movements also act as a pump for the lymphatics to support your immune system.

The key here is simple movements with ease and deep breath. Simple sun salutations can be a great way to accomplish this, along with this yoga for lymphatic flow sequence.

Now Is the Perfect Time to Take Up At-Home Yoga

By Caroline Cox for InStyle.

We’re living in a scary, unprecedented time. Due to the rapid spread of coronavirus, millions of people are self-quarantining across the globe. During these stressful times, we’re prone to hold more tension in our body, have difficulty sleeping, and snap at our partners or kids.

“A lot of people don’t know what to do with emotions,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and physical therapist. “We learn to read and write, but we’re not really taught how to deal with emotions.” By acknowledging the stress as normal, we can begin to cultivate self-compassion — as well as compassion and patience for others if we find ourselves on the receiving end.

One outlet people are turning towards to help them do just this? Yoga. (Google Trends shows searches for “at home yoga” have skyrocketed in just the last few weeks.) As both of a form of self-care and a solid method for staying in shape, it’s no surprise that people are turning to the practice in their own spaces while self-quarantining — for both their body and their mind.

Here, experts explain how yoga can be used to work through trauma and boost both your mental and physical health during this stress-inducing time.

Yoga Can Be Used to Cope with Traumatic Experiences

There’s growing evidence that the physical practice of yoga can affect our emotions in unexpected ways. I’d heard from a few instructors that certain yoga poses can cause emotions to bubble to the surface, but I witnessed it first-hand recently in a class when, during a hip-opening exercise, the student next to me burst into tears. So, what is it about this particular mode of movement that’s different from a cycling, Pilates, or barre class, for example?

“There is a saying in Ayurveda — the ancient Indian medical system and sister science to yoga — the issues are in your tissues,” says Ann Swanson, a Denver-based certified yoga therapist and author of Science of Yoga. “These tissues include your muscles, fascia, and blood.” When we feel fear, for example, Swanson says it’s like an alarm bell ringing our amygdala, the part of the brain that houses fear and other emotions. “Yoga has been shown to lessen electrical activity in the amygdala and increase activity in the prefrontal cortex,” she adds, which is responsible for careful planning, conscious thinking, and emotional regulation. (In clinical research, yoga and meditation have been shown to lessen anxiety and depression symptoms, relieve pain, and improve emotional regulation to boot.)

“Even when we’re not under existential threat, this happens,” Atlanta-based yoga teacher and healer Elizabeth Rowan says of the tears that can come while doing yoga. “Different emotions are believed to be housed in different parts of the body.”

She says chest opening or back-bending yoga positions are considered “heart-opening,” which can make us feel vulnerable, and hips are said to hold trauma, meaning longer hip-opening shapes can bring those feelings forward. “The difference between yoga and any other activity or workout is that yoga is designed, when sequenced properly, to create conditions for profound self-awareness to arise,” she adds.

Abby Vernon, an instructor for YogaSix in San Diego and an expert in trauma-informed yoga, has seen time and again the ways that yoga can help process traumatic experiences. “Trauma tends to keep people trapped in their survival responses of fight, flight or freeze,” she says.

Because yoga calls us to focus on the present and our own bodies, it encourages students to tune into their moment-by-moment experiences instead of ruminating on the past. “Rather than working from the top-down, meaning starting with the neocortex area of the brain first,” Vernon adds, “yoga works from the bottom up, starting with the brainstem and limbic system where the survival responses live, to encourage a sense of integration and agency in one’s own body and resolution of traumatic experiences.”

The Physical and Emotional Benefits of Practicing Yoga Right Now

But don’t let the possibility of unexpected emotions keep you from getting on the mat. Not only can moving our bodies help lessen our stress and temporarily get us out of our heads (or just off our phones), it also keeps our immune systems stronger.

In fact, there’s a clear link between moderate exercise and better metabolic health. “Especially when people have so much anxiety about their health or when our minds and bodies are exposed to prolonged stress, our immune system actually [gets weaker],” says Lombardo. “That’s why addressing your emotional and physical wellbeing will help protect you.”

If we do find emotions, whether old or new, rising to the surface during your at-home yoga practice, Rowan encourages us not to resist or attempt to shut these feelings down. “When you’re emotional, turn toward yoga, and when in yoga, turn toward the emotions,” she advises. “Allow both to do their profound healing work at this time.” The point, she continues, is not necessarily to feel good, but to connect with ourselves — “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

For most of us, day-to-day reality looks quite different right now than it did weeks ago. But while we may not be able to control our current circumstances (outside of helping our communities by donating what we can and doing our part to keep the virus from spreading), focusing on our mental health may be one of the most beneficial actions we can take.

“We are being inundated right now with massive amounts of unsettling information: illness, lost hours of work, disparities in access to care, juggling childcare and working from home, lack of resources, and so much more,” says Valerie Knopik, Ph.D., a professor at Purdue University’s College of Health & Human Sciences and a Yoga Medicine instructor who has studied how yoga and meditation can be an asset for mental health. She says distress — what we tend to label as “stress” — occurs when we feel like we don’t have the necessary resources to meet our demands. This can mean a lack of emotional resources, but also physical resources too, like when you can no longer find cleaning supplies or toilet paper on the shelves at your grocery store.

Knopik says yoga can be a great tool for shifting your mental focus from what you can’t control to what you can — and with at-home practice, there’s not even the temptation to measure your skill level against your peers. “Instead of thinking about what you look like in each shape,” she explains, “focus on your breath. Focused breath work can tap into our parasympathetic nervous system” — which helps conserve our energy by slowing our heart rate and relaxing our muscles — “to bring us back into balance.”

While it’s certainly not possible for everyone to drop what they’re doing — whether it’s work, childcare, checking in with friends and family, or all of the above and then some — taking even a few minutes to stretch your muscles and practice deep breathing is bound to put you in a better headspace. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced yogi, hundreds of apps and studios are offering free streaming classes right now — like Peleton (free for your first 90 days), CorePower Yoga (free for your first week), and Tonal (free on YouTube) to help you get started.

And even if you need tissues after the last “namaste,” at least you’re listening to what your body needs — a practice that’s worthy of its own gratitude.

How Meditation Can Increase Mental Durability in Athletes

By Alison Heilig for Yoga Medicine®.

If you’re a yoga teacher reading this, I don’t need to convince you of the numerous benefits of meditation. But for many athletes, meditation can be a much harder sell. As both an athlete and coach in multiple sport modalities, I totally understand and I have grappled with these barriers myself. After all, time is precious and much of the available time that an athlete has is spent training specifically for their sport.

So it can be challenging to convince athletes that spending 5-10 minutes per day sitting or laying in meditation can produce tangible benefits in their sports performance. Fortunately, this concept is becoming easier now that many high profile athletes are beginning to open up about their own experiences with meditation. With the increased interest around meditation and its applications to sports performance, there’s so much more research now which means that the benefits — such as improving focus through distractions, enhancing concentration, heightening breath awareness, reducing in sensitivity to pain, and aiding in physiological and mental recovery — are now well-documented by scientific studies.

Since I currently have my feet in both the athletic competition and coaching worlds, I thought I’d add my voice to the conversation and share one other interesting benefit that I’ve noticed in myself and the athletes I coach: how a consistent meditation practice can significantly improve mental durability.

What is Mental Durability?

Many people think that mental durability means “being tough” but, while mental toughness certainly is part of it, there’s a lot more at work here. Mental durability is the resilience of your mind and refers to its ability to withstand the stress caused by the rigors of training and competing without becoming burnt out, frustrated, or mentally fatigued.

Intuitively, we know that training day after day for competition can take a toll on our bodies and, as athletes and coaches, we do our best to manage that reality through intelligent physical training program design. However, that same stress can also take its toll mentally and I believe we should be taking steps to prepare for and guard against that as well. This is something that meditation is well-positioned to do – specifically in developing the grit or mental toughness to keep going in the face of discomfort, the ability to remain present and composed as the intensity increases, and the capacity to focus through nerves and distractions. Just like our physical training, these are all skills that can, and should, be developed through repetition and practice.

Why Mental Durability Matters

Let’s be honest here, high performance output for competition is tough. It’s important to note here that “high performance output” is a relative term meaning that for each individual athlete, their own maximum effort typically involves significant, if not extreme, discomfort — regardless of where he or she stands on the leaderboard or in the rankings. This means that you don’t have to be an elite level athlete to understand what I mean when I say operating at maximum capacity when it’s time to throw down in competition or the day of your event is no walk in the park. That’s why we reserve these high intensity performances for the peak of our training — whether that is a single day or a series of days throughout a designated competition season.

"Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture..."​

Alison Heilig

Three Ways Meditation Can Boost Mental Durability

The widely discussed performance applications for meditation include refining focus, concentration, and breath awareness – all of which form the building blocks for mental durability. To truly maximize the effectiveness in a sport setting, it’s helpful to look at how these specific skills trained in meditation can transfer to competition and ultimately increase your mental durability. Let’s look at some of the applications I’ve used for myself as well as the athletes I coach.

1. Meditation provides the perspective needed to manage discomfort.
During high output, things quickly get uncomfortable. This can go on for hours depending on the length of your event. When you’re giving it all you got out there, the longer the discomfort goes on, the more difficult it becomes to stay focused on the task at hand. Most of us eventually feel a palpable deterioration of mental clarity and perspective where we begin to then fixate on the discomfort, analyzing all the things that hurt or what we feel is going wrong. Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture — which is important because the moment you feel like more is going wrong than right, the wheels really start to fall off the wagon.

To practice this ability to mentally step back from the discomfort to see the bigger picture so you have it in your pocket on competition day, I find it helpful to routinely do a simple body scan meditation where you’re alternating between noticing the parts of your body that feel unpleasant and those that feel pleasant. As you do this, try to avoid judging, analyzing, or interpreting and simply notice them as pure sensation without needing to label them. After a few moments of sensing these two separate and distinct areas, imagine blurring them together and allowing them to coexist in your experience as you breathe calmly. As I once heard Yoga Medicine founder, Tiffany Cruikshank, say during a meditation: “imagine that every sensation in your body is like one brushstroke in the painting of your entire experience in this moment as you step back to look at the whole picture.” Practices like this one, when done consistently, can help develop your ability to zoom out, take in the whole experience, and likely see that many things are still going well and working in your favor.

2. Meditation teaches presence and patience when the panic starts to set in.
In the sports performance world, we often talk about “flow state” or being “in the zone.” While it has many definitions depending on who you talk to, my experience with it is that it’s a state where you’re fully immersed — mind, body, and spirit and involved in the process of performing. This state requires absolute presence with your full awareness and engagement directed towards the present moment. By definition, this means that you cannot be worried about whether your training was adequate (the past) or the eventual result (the future). Often, the panic sets in when we feel like we don’t have what it takes to see it through to completion; in other words, we allow the past and future to seep into the present and interrupt the flow.

Obviously, there is a place for forethought — after all, competition in any sport requires strategy even if the only person you’re competing against is yourself. However, a well-thought-out pre-competition strategy is different from obsessively worrying about the outcome mid-performance. One will help you, the other not so much.

To practice this skill, I recommend a meditation with a specific focus on your breath. For this one, set a timer for five minutes and focus on being right there for every exhalation — completely present for the feeling of emptying and being empty of breath. When your mind wanders off and you notice it, gently bring your attention back to the process of exhaling your breath. You’ll learn to use something that’s always with you — your breath — to stay anchored in the present moment. One step at time. One rep at a time. One breath at a time.

3. Meditation reduces pre-competition nerves and refines focus.
For most athletes, we have some sort of taper or deload period built into our training leading up to competition. This is the time where your coach tells you to trust your training and ease up to let your body fortify itself and prepare for maximal effort on the day of competition or your targeted event. In my experience both personally and as a coach, this is the time when athletes start to get a little nuts! After so much intense training, all this extra rest and recovery time causes us to feel stir-crazy, get extremely antsy, and then direct that energy toward worrying. This is the perfect time to double down on your meditation practice — after all, you’ve got the time, why not use it to condition your mind to perform optimally the way you’ve conditioned your body. There’s nothing worse than finishing your event after countless hours of training, knowing you had it in you physically but mentally you just couldn’t rally.

During this time, I highly recommend to my athletes to spend time in meditation visualizing how the entire day of competition playing out in as much detail as possible and ending in a positive outcome. Note the sensations in your body present with every step of the way — visualize the pace of your movement, the contact of your feet with the ground, the cadence of your breath, the power in your muscles, the control in execution, the sensations associated with confidence and resolve — all the elements involved, no detail about the experience is too small or insignificant. This will help you create a sensory imprint that you can recall and return to on the day of competition which will keep you focused and moving toward that positive outcome even if things don’t play out perfectly according to plan. Much of those pre-competition nerves are related to feelings of the outcome being out of our control so visualizing a positive outcome and anchoring into the sensations associated with a good performance can help alleviate performance anxiety and help you stay focused on what you do control — giving your best effort right now.

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