Welcome!

Are you feeling the effects of chronic stress in your life? Does it feel like you can’t relax, no matter what you do? Do you have trouble sleeping because you’re worried about problems big and small? Are you feeling disconnected from the things that matter to you – your hobbies, interests, and spirituality?

Perhaps you’re going through a life transition such as marriage, divorce, career change, or a geographical move. Perhaps you have more than major life event happening. We may think to ourselves that we can handle it all, but our bodies tell the truth with symptoms like insomnia, fatigue, and chronic muscular tension.

You may be worried about developing a stress-related illness, such as high blood pressure, or perhaps you already have one or more stress-related illnesses. If you have an auto-immune condition, you may notice it flaring up more often. Or you may find yourself overeating, under-eating, or isolating yourself socially, having unusually negative thoughts about life. You want your old self back.

If this describes you right now, yoga can soothe your mind and bring you back to balance. But mainstream yoga classes are usually missing a key element that brings true calm: mindfulness.

Mindfulness has been proven to increase the brain’s ability to handle stress, stay centered, and maintain an open, empathetic mind. This is achieved through mechanisms that are just beginning to be understood by science, but have been noted in Buddhist self-help books for decades.

Maybe you already have a yoga practice, and are looking for ways to make it more suited for mental balance. Maybe you’re thinking of starting a yoga practice, but want guidance from a trained mental health provider. headshot 3 crop

As a Certified Yoga Instructor and Licensed Counselor with a Master’s Degree in counseling, and professional experience using mindfulness for mental health, I can help you get from chronic stress to a place of wellness. You can email me to get a free consultation, read more about my services, or check out my credentials here.

Be well,

Andrea

Engaging the lower chakras to calm anxiety

Sand Run leaf and roadIt’s fall. Vata, the ayurvedic element of air, is blowing in along with stiff winds, cooling temperatures, and dry leaves. It’s a time of change, whether you’re going back to school, or just feeling the profound transformation of nature. Because we all contain some vata within, fall can stir up our minds like the wind stirring up scattered leaves. This can feel invigorating, as we think and plan about the future, or feel creatively inspired; but left unchecked, too much mental activity can leave us feeling ungrounded.

Even if vata isn’t your primary dosha, most of us feel the invigorating, slightly unsettling energy of vata in the fall. Fortunately, there are many ways to ground ourselves in the winds of change. We do this by engaging the lower chakras.

A simple way to activate the lower chakras is to exercise outdoors. Simply walking in the woods and soaking up the last of the summer sunshine can re-awaken your body. Summer isn’t over, after all. And even if it is, at least you’re enjoying the last rays of light as much as possible.

If you can’t get to the woods, consider walking around your neighborhood. Take the time to look at your neighbor’s flowers (or their weeds!). Even in urban areas, there are likely some flowers or trees nearby, at least, or maybe a small park. Where I live, there’s a large lawn across the street with a few trees and a bench. Up the street, a big patch of wildflowers hugs the edge of a noisy 4-lane road. While I much prefer secluded areas in nature, these are OK for a short break on a sunny day.

A vata imbalance can lead to symptoms of anxiety or depression. When we do a lot of thinking, it drains our energy out of the present moment, which is our most powerful source of happiness. After awhile, this leads to fatigue. The nervous system, when fatigued, is more prone to depressive symptoms. By becoming grounded in the body, we bring ourselves back to the present moment, which calms the nervous system and rejuvenates our life force.

Those who have vata as their primary dosha are much more susceptible to forgetting about their bodies. When school starts up, or even in the midst of other projects, we really need to watch ourselves to maintain the balance between mind and body. It’s easy in the spring when nature’s long-awaited emerging is an elixir to the senses. In fall, we’ve already had months to play outside, and we may suddenly revert back to habits of long hours of study and thinking, without regard for our need to move and feel. Creating pleasure, such as oil massages, naps, slow delicious meals, or whatever tickles your fancy, is a potent way for vatas to ground themselves.

Those who have vata/kapha mix may find it especially tough in the winter. The combination of a lack of potential for physical activity, along with the cold and stagnancy of the season, is a perfect setting for depression to brew. A pure vata can take comfort in the cozy activities of winter, welcoming the chance to slow down, but a kapha may find themselves pulled into depression by the same activities. In winter, physical exertion like ashtanga/vinyasa yoga, or some kind of structured, challenging activity (ie, volunteering, martial arts classes) is the best means of grounding and energizing for anyone with a lot of kapha.

Vata/kaphas would be well advised to mindfully observe the tendency for physical stagnation through the fall. As the weather gets cooler, you may feel symptoms of depression setting in. Don’t give up on your physical practice, it’s your best ally at this time.

Happy grounding!

Understanding Stress: Part I: Stress and Spirituality

We all deal with stress, but it’s the way we cope with it that can make or break us. In this series of posts I’ll be taking a look at how stress affects us spiritually, emotionally and neurologically; and finally, how to re-wire how you deal with stress.

While we often refer to stress as an external force, it has much more to do with habitual thought patterns in the mind. Beliefs such as “people can’t be trusted” or “life is hard”, can be ingrained so deeply that despite our best efforts at self-awareness, they still flare up unexpectedly, making it harder to deal with upsetting situations. When we embark on a mindful journey such as yoga or meditation, we have the opportunity to unearth these beliefs and change them.

Stress changes how the brain works. When under stress, the brain shunts blood away from the pre-frontal cortex, in order to beef up areas associated with survival. The “fight or flight” response kicks in via the sympathetic nervous system. However, there is also a change in thinking, for as energy is literally drained from the thinking center of the brain, our emotional reasoning takes over. We lose our creative problem-solving and flexible thinking, resorting instead to black-and-white answers. Because we are so busy defending our own position, empathizing with others becomes difficult. We find it difficult to integrate our emotions with our logical mind. When emotions take over, we feel victimized and persecuted. Or, judgments may take over, as we take on a persecutor role, thinking we are right. (However, while the persecutor may think he’s “winning” the argument, he is actually losing, by being cut off from empathetic functions that could actually bring resolution.)

You can imagine the implications of this during a single argument; now imagine the implications if it becomes a constant state of being. Over time, our ability to understand others erodes, just like any skill that is not practiced. We find ourselves judging strangers, like those bad drivers along the morning commute, or colleagues at work. On a spiritual level, this directly blocks the development of oneness and connection, since we are so wrapped up in defending ourselves and making sure we feel comfortable, “correct”, and “good”.

When we practice mindfulness, we hold these beliefs up to the light and make conscious choices about them. We can then choose beliefs such as “people are basically good” and “life is what you make of it.” We can begin to act in a way that supports joy and health, supported by these new beliefs.

Recovering from chronic stress is an act of self-care, but it’s also an act that can change the world. We live in a culture that’s addicted to stimulation and fear, which erodes our ability to make wise choices as citizens, consumers, and people. By recovering from chronic stress, we regain the capacities that make us human: empathy, creativity, and morality. The ability to think beyond personal, short-term needs is exactly what is needed these days to avoid destroying ourselves and much of the life on earth. By recovering from stress, we reclaim our humanity, and are ready to place ourselves fully in service of a better world.

Mindfulness – what’s the fuss about?

Mindfulness is everywhere. It’s become a favorite technique for life coaches and counselors. Even those who don’t openly advertise mindfulness are doing it under the umbrella of yoga, with its emphasis on awareness of the body and breath. Mindfulness is now being embraced as a treatment for stress, depression, and other disorders.

So what’s the fuss about? What makes mindfulness such a good way to improve your mood, change your perspective, and heal old wounds so you can be fully present today?

In a nutshell, mindfulness provides a space within to contain our emotions. Without that safe space, we often fall into self-criticism, shame, or panic. This is because our culture provides little to no education on emotional intelligence, focusing instead on the intellectual aspects of learning. As a result, the normal ups-and-downs of emotions can be overwhelming and frightening.

As children, we are subject to wild fluctuations of emotion that we don’t know how to control. When I was 4, my parents rented “Strawberry Shortcake” from the video store. When it came time to return it, I couldn’t understand why we had to “give it back”. My lack of understanding of how video rental worked was compounded by not knowing how to face disappointment, and I bawled my eyes out. (I’m not sure how long this lasted, but it must’ve been awhile because my parents still tell the story!) Parents are there to help children through such ups-and-downs. They ideally provide an accepting, non-judging presence that helps the child see that “it’s not the end of the world”.

Mindfulness is almost exactly the same, except that non-judging presence comes from within. Instead of judging, shaming, or even indulging ourselves (such as resorting to addictive behavior), we have the inner resiliency to face the emotion and let it pass.

It’s amazing how many things can shift when we learn to sit with difficult emotions. The urgency to get our way in an argument becomes less intense, as we are no longer desperately trying to rid ourselves of negative feelings like rejection. If symptoms of anxiety or depression are present, they lose their stranglehold over each day, as we experience them without being overwhelmed by them. We may even discover we have a story about feeling victimized by these symptoms, and when we can witness that and let it go, we gain tremendous empowerment and willingness to help ourselves.

Mindfulness taps into the inner parent, the nonjudgmental presence that neither rewards nor punishes our emotional ups-and-downs. By providing a safe space within ourselves to feel emotions, we free up resources that allow us to expand and enjoy life, and even to be present for others as well.

The answer is not in your mind.

0613 toronto sunset 2When we acknowledge that the answer to our problems is not in the mind, we begin to learn and heal.

I see so often that the people who isolate themselves are the ones who feel most negatively about life. When we expand in ways that are reasonable to us, small as they might be, a shift occurs. But we have to be willing to admit that the answer is not in our minds. It may be in our body, in some creative activity, or teacher, or community; it may be within us and waiting to be called forth. But it is not in the way-we’ve-always-done-things.

When we can admit that we hold fearful beliefs and patterns, which requires a great deal of courage, then we open the doors to a world of healing, expansion and beauty in ourselves.

While this may seem easy for some, the reality is that for some with anxiety or depression, it can feel light-years away, if even tangible at all. It requires a leap of faith into a new way of looking at the world. Even for those who have been to the other side of fear, it remains difficult to leap again and again. I am grateful for this human ability to have faith in the unknown, despite being wired for “fight-or-flight” and self-preservation… we still have this ability, which is basically love, to transcend ourselves. It is through this that all the capacity for healing and magic is unlocked.

“Yoga and the Brain” workshop

Amidst the all the wandering and wondering of summer, 3 weeks have passed since Yoga and the Brain at Lifesource Yoga! I wanted to post a quick update on how it went.

Everyone who came had lots of questions and ideas, which shot off into many fascinating directions in our discussion. I was delighted to realize that neuroscience is a household topic that people are reading about, whether for stress management, or to understand the process of learning, growing up, aging, or falling in love. Because of yoga’s effect on the brain, doing yoga can optimize our lives in many ways.

We practiced some of thbrainstorme techniques, like mindful breath, movement, and meditation. When done mindfully, these have a tremendous impact on areas of the brain that control insight, attention, compassion, and self-awareness.

If you missed the workshop, stay tuned; I’ll be offering it again this fall. If my schedule heats up, I’ll start posting announcements of where and when I’ll be teaching. I am very excited to be offering this technique for well-being and wholeness, this bridge between the mind and the soul.

Namaste,

Andrea

“Body-based” vs “evidence-based” – or maybe both?

Having never felt at home in the medically-focused U.S. Counseling field, I always tried to integrate the body into my work. However, counselors who work in community agencies are typically pushed to do “evidence-based treatment” like Cognitive Behavior Therapy, leaving the body out of the picture, with all its wisdom.01-montauk-surf-beach

Mindfulness seems to answer this duality between “evidence-based” and body-based therapies. Mindfulness incorporates the body, mind and emotions, and has a growing pile of evidence supporting its use for mental health. Plus, it’s gaining in popularity, as people embrace it as an empowering, simple, and effective tool.

Maybe one day in the near future, we won’t have to choose between the body-based, integrative therapies that help so many, and those that are officially recognized. It would be a refreshing change to see us stop squabbling about what works, and just get down to the work of healing.