Eighty percent of doctor visits are for stress-related problems. Seriously, I think we can all agree that statistic is staggering and scary! So many of us live in a constant state of stress. This week Dr. Catherine Spann lectured on self-regulation. Spann explained that self-regulation includes skills like focusing and maintaining attention on a particular object, regulating emotions, reflecting on experiences, and engaging in positive social interactions. It also involves regulating our stress. The bad news is that self-regulation is one of the first things to go when we are stressed. Stress hijacks the brain and puts us in a state of imbalance. Without self-regulation, we have little control over our actions and responses to stressors (which basically turns into a vicious cycle).
But what does all this have to do with yoga?
Yoga and meditation heighten our awareness of body sensations and feelings. Once we realize something is out of balance (shortened breath cycles, tension throughout body, increased heart rate, etc.), we can use breathing techniques to calm the nervous system. Calming the nervous system is our first line of defense to helps us switch from the sympathetic (“fight or flight” emergency response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed, calm, energy conserving state). Yoga and meditation are mindfulness exercises that help us practice paying attention to what is going on in our body and mind while strengthening our self-regulating abilities.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to suggest a gratitude practice which will help with this process of calming the body and managing stress better. Simply take a minute or two to sit in a quiet place and recall the blessings in your life. I find this especially helpful when I am feeling stressed or frustrated. Focusing on the positive can really put our problems in perspective. A few quotes I’ve read this week on gratitude:
“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.” -Eric Hoffer
“If a fellow isn’t thankful for what he’s got, he isn’t likely to be thankful for what he’s going to get.” -Frank A. Clark
“If you want to change your life around, try thankfulness. It will change your life mightily.” – Gerald Good
“God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say ‘thank you’?” -William Arther Ward
Yoga therapeutics relates the the good effect on the mind-body and well-being promoted by yoga. However, there is also medical therapeutics involving the treatment or healing of diseases of the body. More and more people are looking to Eastern medicine for a more holistic approach to wellness.Western medicine heavily relies upon logic and scientific studies where Eastern medicine focuses more on mind-body observations, energy lines in the body, and intuition. Both approaches have valid purposes and it is their fusion that holds greatpotential for our future well-being. We need more scientific data to fully understand all the therapeutic benefits of yoga. At this point we know there are a myriad of health benefits. decreases therisk of heart disease, chronic back and neck pain, blood pressure, stress, and blood sugar. It increases flexibility, brain function, balance, and, bone and muscle strength. Studies have found it increases self-regulation in children and adolescents. One of my favorite studies is a 12 minute yoga practice that was shown to reverse bone loss AND increase bone density in spine, hips, and femur. You can read the study here.
I’m diving back into the topic of mindful eating during the holidays (you can check out part one here). Today, I want to focus on what to *actually* eat.
- Make a whole foods, plant based diet a priority. As a yoga instructor, I view food through the lens of nourishing the body so it can function optimally for well-being. Every where we turn, there is a new fad diet and fanatical followers. I prefer to follow the advice of Hippocrates: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The University of California Davis Integrative Medicine has coined this catchy couplet “greens, beans, berries and seeds” making it easy to remember what to include in our diets. You can download a free reference chart here.
- Do not restrict food intake. Deprivation leaves us feeling dissatisfied and sets us up for failure. Period.
- Start each meal with a serving of fruit or veggies. Studies have shown that eating an apple prior to a meal reduces caloric intake by 15% (see the study here). Another study showed eating a bowl of vegetable soup first reduced calories even more – 20% (read more here). This is especially useful during holidays when calorie dense foods are plentiful. In a webinar from Forks over Knives, Matthew Lederman explains the connection between satiety and calorie density. Satiety is the physical feeling of our stomach stretching which turns off the hunger signals. If we can fill our stomachs with nature’s “multivitamin” (i.e. fruits and veggies) high in fiber, nutrients, and water content, then we will be less likely to overload on richer, more processed foods.
- When indulging, be very intentional and present with your choices. Refer back to part one of this series. If it is worth the splurge, take the time to savor each bite, chewing slowly, and engaging in the present moment.
As a side note, I am a huge fan of NutritionFacts.org for the latest updates on nutrition research. There are more than a thousand videos on nearly every aspect of healthy eating. It is a FREE, non-commercial, science based public service.
Now that Halloween has passed, the holiday season charges full speed ahead. While some embrace this time with the utmost enthusiasm, others find it synonymous with stress (guilty!). Increased stress and unraveling of healthy habits are two of the less glamorous products of the holidays. One of the difficulties this time of year is eating mindfully. Mindful eating involves tuning in to understand what our body is truly craving and how to nourish it. I try to follow the guidelines below year around but they are especially helpful in promoting well-being in times of higher stress as they strengthen the mind-body connection.
- Before reaching for the party hors d’oeuvres or a platter of cookies, I ask myself “What am I really craving?” Am I experiencing hunger? Or, am I looking for a way to self-soothe or alleviate stress? Do I need connection with others or, conversely, alone time? If tuning in to the mind-body connection is a new experience, answering these questions may not necessarily be easy. Try drinking a glass of water and possibly engage in another form of self-care (i.e. take a walk, give a heartfelt hug, engage in face to face conversation with a friend, read a book, meditate, and so on). Full disclosure: sometimes we just really want the _____ (cookie, pumpkin pie, latte…) and that is okay. Move on to step 2.
- Before sitting down for a meal, I make sure I am actually sitting down. Besides meaningful face to face conversation, no multitasking allowed! Turn off the television, put away the computer, and silence your phone. In our fast-paced culture, it is entirely too easy to down a plate of food with the only awareness being an empty plate. We miss out on the eating experience; without savoring each bite, we may eat past our hunger cues and finish a meal feeling dissatisfied rather than nourished.
- Take 3 deep breaths before eating. This helps us slow down. In our family, we begin meals with a prayer of gratitude, thanking God for his provisions. Both of these practices helps us become more present and aware.
- As we eat (yes, I’m finally to the actual eating part!), try to chew several times. Chewing each bite twenty times is a nice goal but not always realistic. Just do your best here. To facilitate this better, I set my fork down between every single bite. Possibly take a sip of water between bites. Small sips of room temperature or hot water can aid in digestion. If eating alone, savor each bite. Involve the senses: notice the visual appeal, the smell, the warmth of the plate, the flavors, and the textures. If eating with others, engage fully. Stop eating when you are around 75% full.
The Science and Practice of Yoga, Week 2
I have absolutely loved the lectures, interviews, and research studies in the coursework this week. The quote above is from Catherine Spann, Ph.D., a research scientist at Link Research Lab and contributing course instructor. This understanding of neuron activity is helping me better understand the powerful potential of meditation. Our brains are made of millions of neurons that are constantly reshaped by our experiences. A well known expression in neuroscience is “neurons that fire together, wire together” and scientific studies on meditation and mindfulness exercise have put this to the test. Our brain needs to continue to grow, learn, and make new connections throughout life. We have the ability to change our habits by focusing on our highest ideals. In the interview with Dr. Rick Hanson it is summed up well: “…drop by drop, breath by breath, synapse by synapse…” That is the process of well-being; continuing to fire neurons together to fill ourselves up so that we have more to offer to others.
As we make these changes, checking in frequently throughout the day is crucial in order to reinforce new neuropathways. With this week’s focus on “being well in a digital age,” instructor Stacy Dockins suggests stopping to take five deep breaths each time you grab your phone. Another option is to set alarms throughout the day as “mindfulness breaks.” My yoga mentor Courtney Thibault recommends a six time book. A miniature composition notebook works really well. If you are interested in learning more about it, you can read her article here. I’m currently using a combination of alarm reminders and a daily task list in my bullet journal.
I have been looking forward to this course for a while and I am so excited that it is finally underway! I have been practicing yoga and teaching for several years. Currently I am working towards my 500 RYT and I knew this course would be a great resource for my studies. Plus, students have the opportunity to partipate in a yoga research study. Awesome! This first week is meant to familiarize participants with yoga and meditation basics. Meditation has grown into the primary focus of my yoga practice over the last few months. Research Scientist Catherine Spann, Ph.D., is one of the course instructors. She shares Dr. Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness in our week one videos. I’ve read a couple of Siegel’s books and I especially like “The Whole Brain Child.” I use his SIFT mindfulness exercise for meditation and self-regulating my emotions (and my kids).
The Wheel of Awareness takes the SIFT exercise to a deeper level. We first draw our attention to the five senses: what do I hear, taste, see, smell, and feel? The sixth sense invovles interoception or noticing the inner activities of the body: notice the heart beat, air filling the lungs, etc. The seventh sense is mental activities: what are my thoughts, hopes, worries, images, beliefs, and dreams? The eight sense is interconnectedness outside the body: family, friends, neighborhood, state, country, and world. I like to think of this interconnectedness from the smallest, most intimate circle and then grow the reach of the innerconnectivity outwards. I believe finding a connection to nature, animals, and all of God’s creation is a beneficial step in this spoke of the awareness wheel.
At the hub of the wheel is meta-awareness (basically awareness of awareness). Meta-awareness is incredibly difficult in our culture. Everywhere we turn, distractions are waiting to steal our attention. Further, we are taught to esteem multitasking. Where will we find room for intentionality? How do we bring mindfulness to the present moment? It certainly doesn’t happen over night but the journey is worth it!
I have the privilege of participating in a yoga research study while taking a UTA course to learn more about the science behind the mind-body connection. I look forward to sharing my journey with you!