Mindful Weekend: Gentle Yoga

Gentle yoga is a great way to practice mindful movement
Gentle yoga is a great way to practice mindful movement

I have practiced yoga intermittently over the past 10 years and every time that I restart my practice after a break, I ask myself the same question: “Why on earth don’t I do this every day?” I find it to be such a refreshing way to practice mindful movement. Not that it is always pleasant… Quite the opposite really. Practicing yoga mindfully reveals a plethora of body sensations that are sometimes uncomfortable but always interesting.

Practicing yoga with the intention to be mindful can open you up to a vast array of sensations in the body. When not being mindful, it is natural to simply find these sensations aversive and to strive to minimize or avoid them. But if you try getting deeper into those sensations- by breathing, softening and allowing them to unfold- their complexity may surprise you.

For instance, last week we invited a prominent yoga teacher to our mindfulness class. She led us through a wonderful set, part of which included the  star pose. This pose simply involves standing like a 5-pointed star with legs apart and arms held parallel to the floor.  Immediately, I connected to feelings of tingling in my shoulders, which progressed to burning. With each breath I could feel the heaviness of my limbs but rather than dropping them down, I investigated these sensations as if it was the first time encountering them. In so doing, I could step back from my impulses to immediately minimize these feelings and instead, observed that the intensity of these sensations rose and fell- that it was more tolerable than I feared.

Given that mindfulness made its initial foray into medical settings in part due to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s use of mindfulness for managing physical discomfort and pain, mindful yoga is an excellent way to play with the experience of the body and to recognize how much our thinking mind can unintentionally influence our relationship with body sensation.

If you’re curious, check out this 30-minute guided practice of mindful yoga this weekend. I hope that you will be surprised and captivated by what your body tells you when you listen to it.

Self-Compassion and Parenting: Talking to Yourself Like You Talk to Your Kids

Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful
Parenting can be as challenging as it is joyful

Following a very fun and thought-provoking workshop about mindful parenting on Monday, I’ve been reflecting on the notion of infusing more self-compassion into parenting. Specifically, how parents can cultivate self-compassion and what responding to difficulty with self-compassion rather than guilt and anxiety would look like in reality. I believe that careful cultivation of self-compassion can provide much needed balance to our habitual reactivity.

First, I think it is important to elucidate what self-compassion is not, as it can easily blend with some of the other “self-” terms that exist in our modern vernacular, like “self-esteem,” “self-indulgence,” or “self-care.” As self-compassion researcher and advocate Kristin Neff explains, self-compassion is not self-pity:

Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Self-compassion is also not self-indulgence. Again, Dr. Neff explains:

Many people say they are reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re afraid they would let themselves get away with anything.  “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of icecream.” This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Remember that being compassionate to oneself means that you want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  

Instead, self-compassion is an acceptance of our humanness, an acceptance of those things that make us flawed, imperfect and relatable. And it’s about responding to those difficult moments (when those challenging aspects of yourself feel so front and center in your mind that you cannot think of anything else) with kindness and gentleness. Luckily, we parents have an advantage when it comes to cultivating self-compassion because we have a lot of practice with compassion in responding to our kids.

Think about it: when your child comes home complaining about a bully, or feeling sad, or feeling angry- you respond. You likely relate to your child’s suffering and attempt to make your child feel better by responding with warmth and understanding. Ok, now let’s flip the script:  what would it be like to respond in this same way to yourself when you are experiencing similar difficulties?

Self-compassion and mindfulness go hand in hand. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of difficulties as they arise, and to be able to observe them without over-identifying with them. With mindfulness, we can simply notice the experience without judgement and without getting swept away in unhelpful reactivity.

But, like all new thinking habits, cultivating self-compassion takes time and a consistent effort to try something different in the face of a difficulty. It takes a) recognition that you are indeed being triggered in this moment, b) stepping back to decide how to respond and finally, c) deciding not to do the same old thing, like talking to yourself with reproach or self-criticism, but instead noting that a mistake was made and that imperfection is normal (and, dare I say it, even desirable!). See if you can replace the punishing self-recrimination with the idea that you are doing the best you can.

We parents are quite adept at helping our children to cope with the stressors and difficulties that they encounter everyday. But, somehow, it is far less easy for us to treat ourselves with the same understanding and kindness. You’ve likely seen that the “carrot works better than the stick” with your kids, that they are far more motivated and effective when rewarded for good behavior rather than punished for the bad. And what about for you? What would it be like to modify your internal dialogue and talk to yourself more like you talk to your children? With time, you may find that intentionally cultivating self-compassion can help you to be a more effective parent.

Mindful Weekend: Eating Mindfully

It tasted as good as it looks
Yes, it tasted as good as it looks

Food, glorious food! Upon searching my iphoto archive for the photo above, I realized just how many pictures I have taken of food in the past few years. Indeed, eating food is one of my favorite activities and since this blog is dedicated to bringing mindfulness to all the activities of living, a post about mindful eating is well past due.

Thanks to the promulgation of information about mindfulness in the media lately, mindful eating is likely not a new concept for you.  And that’s wonderful because it is a very accessible way to practice being mindful- in fact, it is something that you can do each meal, if even for a few moments.  Here’s a few suggestions to try during your next encounter with food:

-Before eating, make sure that you’re sitting down and that you’re able to attend fully to the food you’re eating (turn off the tv and put down your smart phone). If your kids are old enough, they can participate, too.

-Before taking your first bite, take some time to investigate the meal with your other senses. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? Try approaching this food as if you’ve never encountered it before. Try it with your eyes closed if you don’t mind feeling a little silly.

-Notice what is happening in your mouth. Do you feel the moment when you start to salivate in preparation for eating? (My mouth starting salivating simply by looking at the picture above)

-Check in with your appetite. How hungry are you? If 10 is ravenous and 1 is uncomfortably stuffed, where are you currently on the scale?

-Take your first bite. How does it feel in your mouth? What parts of your tongue are most activated by the flavor? Notice the impulse to swallow the food- see if you can catch the moment when your mind sends your body the signal.

-As you eat, continually check in with your body and your sense of satiety. The more often you do this, the more familiar you will become with how much food your body wants and when/where it sends signals of fullness.  Ideally, you want to try to stop eating around a 3 or 4 on the scale.

Eating mindfully can be a revolutionary experience, awakening you to sensations in your body that are otherwise too subtle to be experienced. You can learn to differentiate between hunger and emotional cravings which allows you to more effectively respond to what it is your body needs in a particular moment, rather than just engulfing half a jar of Nutella (hey, we’ve all been there) without thinking. But most importantly, eating mindfully can improve the experience of eating and since eating is something we do at least three times a day, every day, it has the potential to make each day a bit more intentional and enjoyable.

Bon appetit!

Acting “as if”

Sometimes it works better to put the cart before the horse
Sometimes it works better to put the cart before the horse

We’ve all heard the phrase “fake it ’till you make it” and this concept has come up frequently in my clinical practice this week. When you find yourself struggling to implement a new skill or persist with a new behavior or routine, this idea of acting “as if” can be particularly useful.

It is important to recognize what one is feeling or how one may be pulled to behave but mindfully implementing this idea can do so much good. For instance, on those days when I am tired and daydream about only getting out of bed to refresh my coffee, I find that it is useful to act as if I am energized. And going through these motions (rather uncomfortably at first) can help to augment my momentum until the behavior feels more natural.

Oftentimes, our behavior can impact our thought patterns in powerful ways. When our minds observe our bodies acting in certain ways, we take that as evidence regarding how we are feeling. And because our minds do not like it when our behavior and our thoughts and feelings do not line up, they shuffle things around a bit so that it all makes sense. If I am singing in the shower to my favorite song, my mind says “Hey- she must be feeling ok. Let’s get pumped up for this day!”

It sounds a bit tricky but I invite you to give it a try. Even in subtle ways, our bodily activity can jumpstart our thinking in very productive ways. A simple way to play with this concept is by wearing a gentle half-smile throughout otherwise mundane activities. Research indicates that because of the bi-directional relationship between behavior and emotion, simply changing our facial posture can trigger a cascade of seratonin and dopamine that results in feeling more positively.

So try putting the cart before the horse and acting “as if” when approaching a difficulty. We sometimes have more direct control over our behavior than our emotions. Therefore, this concept is a useful way to practice self-validation, by recognizing your emotional needs, while gaining a sense of mastery by responding effectively to those needs.

(Image courtesy of vectorolie / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: Pleasant Experiences

Heart balloons
This weekend, practice catching pleasant events in action

Your weekly mindful weekend challenge is as follows:

Try to catch a pleasant experience as it is happening. Focus your attention on the details of the experience by answering the following questions (maybe write them down as you go to maximize the impact of this exercise):

What is the experience?

How does your body feel, in detail, during this experience?

What moods and feelings accompany this event?

What thoughts are going through your mind?

The rationale for engaging your awareness in this manner is to help you to be better able to simply experience and appreciate the pleasant moment as it is, without adding additional thinking to the mix.  Good luck!

This exercise is adapted with permission from Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn (2007).

Mindfulness as an Antidote to World-Weariness

There is so much beauty to be noticed
There is so much beauty to be noticed

The first thing I saw when I read the paper this morning was an article detailing the killing and butchering of a young giraffe at a zoo in Denmark. There were gory pictures of the animal being chopped to pieces in front of on-looking children and then the carcass being fed to a lion. Throughout this morning, I saw the pictures again in my friends’ Facebook feeds and on various online news sites.

As consumers of media and livers of life, we are regularly bombarded with disturbing images, experiences and details from the world around us. At times, it can seem that there is so much pain and suffering in the world that we are powerless to stop it or to suggest that life can be beautiful and filled with wonder. It is true that if you look for it, you can find just about any atrocity you imagine. Likely, there is even a Twitter account, Facebook profile and blog that will keep you updated on this atrocity as it unfolds.

And that is where mindfulness comes in. Being mindful reminds us that we can choose where and how to focus our attention. We can intentionally bring our awareness to the goodness that happens with just as much consistency and intensity in this world as war, injustices, and brutality. We can focus on the small acts of kindness and subtle heroism that restore our sense of humanity. This does not mean that being mindful fosters denial or inaction. Mindfulness enables recognition that our compassion is best activated when we feel hopeful and empowered rather than raw and depleted.

Mindfulness helps us to recognize how we respond to any stimuli, including the entire array of emotional experiences our bodies and brains enable us to have. In a moment of world-weariness, we can check in with ourselves and notice that fear and sadness and anger are activated. And rather than pushing it aside with cynical numbing, we can open to and embrace our ability to feel empathy, to feel genuine connection to others who may be suffering. And then, we can decide how to respond effectively to these feelings.

When you catch this world-weariness in yourself, it can serve as a cue to reach out and connect with someone you care about, or make a thoughtful donation to a charity of your choice, or engage with your community. Or perhaps, it will cue you to simply replenish depleted stores of resiliency by taking some time away from the internet, making a cup of warm tea or going for a jog. There is goodness and gentleness in the world- maybe more of it than we recognize as it is not often celebrated or remarked upon. If we cultivate an ability to seek out goodness and contribute to it, this will help to counteract vulnerability to being overwhelmed by the real difficulties in our society.

 

Mindful Weekend: Mindful Parenting

Beginner's mind in action
Beginner’s mind in action

In a few weeks, I will be hosting a “Mindful Parenting” workshop. Preparing for this has really prompted me to think more about ways to integrate practice with the daily rigors and joys of raising kids and managing a household.  I find that being a parent can be an interesting mix of overstimulation (stress!) and understimulation (monotony), and that practicing mindfulness brings me back to “center,” to a place where (most of the time) I can find a sense of calm and effectiveness alongside whatever is happening.

There are days when I feel profoundly un-mindful; when I catch myself constantly plotting how to plan out the day or analyzing what happened at breakfast or daydreaming about my next Ladies Night Out or just watching the time slide by. Some days, I feel like my mind is flipping through channels rapidly and consequently, I rarely attend to what is happening in the moment.

Yesterday, for instance, I left my cell phone in the refrigerator. I don’t know how long it was there but thankfully, I got to it in time to save it from a slow, cold death. To me, forgetfulness and absent-mindedness are cues to slow down and zoom in. And when I do, I am usually rewarded by a more profound sense of being engaged in an activity, being more connected to my son, and enjoying our time together more.

After rescuing my phone, I paused. I brought my attention to my breath. And then, I pulled out some coloring books and crayons and my son and I dug in. And it was a great mindfulness practice: each time I noticed that my mind wandered away from the image or the feeling of the movements in my hand or chatting with my son, I just picked up a new crayon and began again. After ten minutes, it was interesting to see how many times the color changed. The picture was a visual representation of my practice during that period.

Kids are such good mindfulness teachers. They provide great examples of approaching life with a “beginner’s mind,” where we can come to a moment with openness and interest, as if we are experiencing something for the first time. This experience made me wonder: If coloring was so enriching, what other activities could anchor me to the present moment?

And what about you? How do you practice parenting while being mindful? Does it impact your ability to be effective? To connect more deeply? To feel gratitude? I would love to know.

In the meantime, why not do some coloring this weekend?

(Image courtesy of papaija2008 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

You Can’t Run Away: Mindfulness as Freedom from Exercise Addiction

Mindfulness made sport fun again
Mindfulness made sport fun again

 

The following experience is generously contributed to this blog by a mindfulness enthusiast who wishes to remain anonymous but hopes that sharing this story may inspire others to try something different in their lives.

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These days, I can’t remember the last time I went to the gym. Even so, if I close my eyes, I can still recall the drumming of footsteps on the treadmill, the distinctive smell of sweat and disinfectant and coffee, and the damp strain of my perspiration-soaked teeshirt. Throughout the formative years of my life, exercise was a constant companion, so much so that when I could not exercise, I felt jittery, couldn’t sleep, wasn’t hungry. What many people call “discipline,” for me became “addiction.” It is with hindsight that I now recognize that my quest for fitness, and the time and mental energy involved in maintaining this elusive quality, was not healthy. In fact, it interfered with my functioning and the quality of my life.

In university, I  often chose a workout over studying for exam. I meticulously planned my daily academic routine around a two-hour allotment of gym time. During a summer research tenure abroad, my first thought was “how do I find a gym?” Anxiety-driven runs punctuated even the seemingly all-encompassing early days with the man who became my husband. He regularly found amusement in my early morning treks through massive unplowed snowdrifts to the nearly empty gym.

My desperate quest was not about weight or appearance (for the most part), but about wanting to maintain evidence supporting my narrow view of what an athlete should do. Since discovering my penchant for long-distance running in middle school and the recognition my success in this area garnered, I became obsessed with maintaining work out regimens that I felt revealed my level of fitness. No matter that very often these regimens were actually sabotaged by the extreme dedication I showed in their pursuit: the six stress fractures in high school, the anemia that depleted my energy, the dehydration that resulted in a miles -long blackout running along a busy road, and the fatigue and depression from being trapped in an endless loop.

If I couldn’t run exactly 7.6 miles per hour for 45 minutes on a treadmill with a 1.5 percent incline that day, I was obviously just days away from muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness and ultimately, losing my identity as an athlete. Vacations were plagued by anxiety and furtive runs were crammed in among planned pleasurable pursuits. My mood could swing from post-workout elation to an extreme irritability resulting from what felt like the worst cabin fever imaginable.

With the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that each workout was avoidance of what I feared most: being unfit and what that could mean. And if I weren’t fit, or an athlete, or dedicated to the pursuit of my physical maintenance, I did not know who I was. It took having a child and a move abroad to face this difficult reality but by the time I chose to steer my life in this direction, I was ready for change.

However, the real key to unlocking the cage of exercise addiction was the practice of mindfulness. At first I found the practice of sitting with myself, with no distraction, for minutes at a time, to be exceedingly uncomfortable. But, I made it my goal to confront my doubts about this motionless mental exercise and keep on practicing.

It was by establishing a regular mindfulness practice that I finally became more comfortable in my skin, doing whatever my body happened to be doing, feeling whatever happened to be present during that moment. When I could not exercise, I directed my attention to the movement in my body during routine activities like walking to the grocery store, doing the laundry or washing dishes. Additionally, I opened to the anxiety I felt, befriending it and getting to know its ebbs and flows. Rather than this increasing my anxiety, this approach helped me to manage it and continue to live the life I valued. By facing my fears, I gathered evidence that the worst would not happen- that I would still be a human being worthy of connection, value and belonging.

With time and mindfulness and doing things differently, I have slowly and steadily forged a different relationship with exercise. I recognize that it is not the exercise itself that caused the problem, but rather my relationship with it and its power to influence how I felt about myself. I am grateful that these days, I know I am a hard-working and healthy person who makes the time to invest in the things that I find important: friends, family, my work, and even, sport.

In high school and college, I was a competitive runner and triathlete. In high school, I placed in the top ten for my state’s cross country run. After repeated injuries, I started swimming and found triathlon to fit nicely to my interest in exercising as much as possible. A simple formula developed: a good race = pride and a feeling of accomplishment; a bad race = anxiety and self-punishment. After this frantic roller-coaster ride of a life, I decided to abandon competitive sport. For some time after college, I was so paralyzed by the threats posed to my self-image by athletic competition that I refrained from racing competitively at all.  I preferred the quiet, easily controlled and anonymous comforts of the gym. I convinced myself that sport was overrated and that I simply enjoyed working out.

But I missed the community of sport, the joy of a big road race and the enthusiastic supporters clapping as the runners passed their front lawns. I missed the dialogue and the thrill of connection to the world of my sport. I now realize that this approach to managing my anxiety was not satisfying.

Now, I practice mindfulness during my run. I intentionally choose to run for the love of movement and from the moment I start to lace up my shoes, I am tuned in to my experience. During my runs, I experience a sense of freedom and the feeling that each step is a gift. I am grateful to be outside, to be moving, to be in my body and with my thoughts. When I am uncomfortable, I adjust my body to compensate. Rather than try and maintain some arbitrary metric that I can use to compare myself to during the next run, I open to the sensations in my body and decide how to respond to them. And I compete! I smile at the supporters and feel proud that I am engaging with the community around me. I open my eyes and look at the things I pass as I am running. I notice if my mind gets stuck on anxious thinking or comparing and bring the focus back to my breath or to the sound of my feet on the pavement.

It is thanks to both sport and mindfulness that my relationship with myself and with exercise is balanced and flexible. Most days, I am comfortable in my own skin and can respond with compassion to impulses that do not match my values. I am happy on the days that I can get in a run but am equally content when days pass and my main activity is building a Duplo tower with my son. I am grateful that even in the early stage of this new way of relating to exercise, I already feel stronger and more powerful than I did when I was more physically fit.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Mindful Weekend: What Went Well?

sunflowers
Take time to notice what is going well

We humans are a tricky species. Thanks to our ancestors from way, way, waaaay back,  our brains have developed an ability to focus on threatening situations in order to help protect us from harm. For instance, I might think  “Hmm, I could get mugged on the metro so I’d better pay attention to my purse.” As much as this way of thinking is often helpful, it can just as often be overblown, for instance, when I overestimate the likelihood of a mugging or avoid public transportation altogether. Luckily, thanks to good old neuroplasticity, we have the ability to gradually change how we perceive and organize information, and effectively problem-solve.

This exercise from positive psychology trail-blazer Martin Seligman is a way to cultivate a greater attention to what is going well and to effectively analyze a situation to increase the likelihood that things continue to go well.  In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Seligman suggests we try to regularly engage in the following exercise to practice strengthening these useful mental muscles that help us notice information that contributes to our contentment and sense of well-being.

At the end of the day, think back on three things that went well from the day. Write down each of these events – they do not have to be major, life-shaking occurrences- just three positive events. Next to the event, write down one reason that this event might have gone so well. Try this out for a week and see if it has any affect on your mood.

As an example, here’s my list from yesterday:

1) Event: I got to a meeting on time. Reason: I planned ahead and was organized and ready when the time came to leave the house.

2) Event: I made a good dinner for my family. Reason: I was more creative in the kitchen than usual.

3) Event: My son had a great time playing with his friend. Reason: My son really enjoys the company of his friends.

It may feel strange at first but keep at it and see what happens. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!

New Habits: The Power of Intention

teeth

I am from a generation and culture for which orthodontia is the norm. This meant that as a child, I had some kind of metal apparatus in my mouth for more years than not (actually even past childhood)… One of the main culprits was my tongue and its apparently unhelpful intrusion into my speaking patterns. The orthodontist described that I would have to train my tongue to rest at the roof of my mouth rather than against my teeth, its favorite place to hang out when not busy creating a subtle lisping in my speech.

At first I could not imagine being able to change the natural resting place of one of the strongest and most useful parts of my body. The orthodontist threatened that spikes along the back of my teeth might be needed if I could not make the change myself. Rather than risk the social trauma that might have resulted from my teenage mouth’s spiky surprise, I decided to see what I could do to change my tongue.

Perhaps this was one of my first encounters with the power of my body’s ability to change a deeply ingrained habit. After months of intentionally checking to see where my tongue was lying (just for a moment), and then adjusting its position, this pattern became routine. After a while, as soon as my tongue touched the back of my teeth, it was cued to move on back.

After this experience, I am convinced that simply noticing when a physical, cognitive or behavioral action occurs and then deciding how to respond to what is present in that moment of awareness can provoke lasting physiological change. And, the abundant research on structural neuroplasticity supports my anecdotal enthusiasm.

What this all suggests is that practicing mindfulness is a habit like any other. Training yourself to check in and notice what is happening in a particular moment does not become routine overnight. It requires consistent and gentle intention over an extended period of time. Some days will feel easier than others. Some days it will feel impossible to switch out of autopilot. But the feeling of satisfaction that results from deciding to cultivate a desired behavior and nurturing it into a habit is incomparable.

(Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net )