The Power of 8 Percent

As International Peace Day approaches, I find myself Googling a rather existential question: “Has the world ever been at peace?”

According to this New York Times article, humankind has only succeeded at avoiding conflict for 268 of the last 3,400 years — a mere 8 percent of recorded history. This initially struck me as a grim harbinger of the future. After further consideration, it also inspired hope. After all, many people believe there has never been a time without war.

What would happen, I wonder, if 8 percent of the time I was on the verge of snapping at a loved one, I regained my composure and responded with understanding instead? And what if that person, in turn, maintained their patience with another just 8 percent of the time?

When you consider that every action has a reaction, it becomes possible to imagine that 8 percent rippling outward and growing in magnitude. Perhaps it wouldn’t usher in world peace, but it would certainly diminish a significant degree of our suffering and that of those around us.

Indeed, small changes in the way we think, feel and act in our interpersonal relationships add up to larger shifts with practice. Especially when we see our outcomes improve — who doesn’t want to experience more harmony and understanding in their relationships?

I know of no better way to gain greater awareness and command of our thoughts, feelings and actions than the practice of meditation. Slowing down and creating space between thought, impulse and action offers us a chance to consciously choose peace — the kind of peace that can grow from, say, 8 percent of our lives to a peace that abides.

On International Peace Day, next Thursday, September 21, Yoga Nook teachers will incorporate a short meditation, chant or other offering in their classes to mark the day. By joining countless groups across the globe to practice peace for just a small percentage of the day, we intend to expand our personal, community and global “8 percent” into something much bigger. We hope you will join us.

Image credit: United Nations Photo via Flickr (CC)

 

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Terrified of Failing

I don’t watch much television, but my guilty secret is that I’m addicted to Project Runway. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, it’s a reality show that puts a group of fashion designers under unreasonable time constraints to create something beautiful, within a budget. The contestants are judged by several well-known designers and gradually kicked off the show until the finale.

I love the creativity of it, the making of something beautiful from nothing, the intense focus that it requires, and the way that each person must be willing to fail. Last week was the “unconventional materials challenge,” a test not just of design or construction but the ability to transform trash into treasure. One of the contestants, paralyzed by the enormity of the task, broke down and said, “I’m terrified of the shame of failing.”

This sentence struck me like a thunderbolt. I’ve been in that place, so I recognized it right away. I see it in the young when they are not motivated to try. I see it in the students who come through the teacher training program, and I see it in myself when I must find solutions to challenging personal or business problems.

The key here is to notice the part of you that is afraid of being vulnerable. Get to know that part, become curious. Can you identify why you are afraid? Is it because you don’t feel sufficiently prepared? Are you not able to trust your skill set? Or are you indulging in self-sabotage, imagining that the world is judging you and labeling you a failure?

Finding out that something isn’t working or didn’t go the way you had planned is an opportunity to learn, to change, to grow. Failing isn’t a step back; it’s sometimes a necessary step forward on the road to success. In life knowing what you don’t want is just as important as knowing what you do want.

Learn to trust the journey and experience the rich textures that this life experience offers you — not just the smooth easy-going moments but the rough, rugged and raw ones too. They are all part of your story.

For those of you wanting to know more, I recommend the book Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better by Pema Chödrön.

Image credit: airpix via Flickr (CC)

 

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How Often Should You Practice Yoga?

One of the most common questions that students ask me before or after class is, “How many times a week should I practice yoga?”

As the medical field increasingly recognizes the benefits of moving with awareness and improving posture, more and more doctors are recommending yoga as a gentle yet effective exercise system. Many students are drawn to yoga because they are looking for strategies to help relieve stress, pain and tightness. It’s no surprise then that students want to know: How often should you practice yoga to aid recovery and maintain a pain-free lifestyle?

The effectiveness of yoga for change and healing is dependent on the quality of the teaching and the ability of the student to move in and out of the poses with awareness. Change can begin after your first class. However, new students often find that the mind and body are a little disconnected. Reintegration through repetition and practice is necessary before real change can occur.

The equation for change is Intensity (I) x Duration (D) = Force (F). In other words, the more frequently you practice yoga with focus (intensity), the quicker you will see results. Once a week is considered a maintenance level — not ideal if you are wanting change. Practice twice weekly over a 10-week period and you will see and feel a difference. Three times weekly over a 10-week period will provide the maximum benefit.

It is also best to mix and match your routine. Attend classes with a variety of teachers and different styles. If your time is limited, practice at home. A 20-minute practice will still help affirm the movements you learn in class. Add some restorative classes to your program too, as a decrease in stress can reduce your perception of pain.

Our bodies adapt to the way we move in gravity, and it is easy to fall into poor movement habits as we age. With so much focus on external stimulation in our society, we become disconnected from our body and mind. Yoga means “to yoke” — to join or reunite mind and body. With that union, anything is possible.

 

The Sound of Life

This week, as I was sitting in the Yoga Nook garden between clients, I was filled with gratitude for all those who have helped keep the plants alive and added to the bounty with new shrubs and trees.

Light filtered in through the lacelike structure of the pepper tree leaves, creating a soft green hue. The scent of jasmine and pepper filled the air. In the distance, I could hear the roar of the freeway.

Suddenly a flutter of wings brought me back to the garden as a sparrow came to the fountain for a drink. Then I was aware of water trickling and listened to its music for a while, till I was drawn away again by the sound of the train as it blew its horn across Tapo St.

A mockingbird sitting in the branches above my head abruptly launched into joyful song, and I began to smile as I saw a rhythm in the sounds surrounding me. Then our neighbors arrived home and children’s voices were first loud, then soft as they emptied out of a vehicle and were ushered inside. Our resident cat strolled into my view, sat down and meowed to be fed.

Sounds were arriving like waves, first taking my attention away then bringing it back to the garden. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the idea of deep listening and meditation. The sound of life surrounds us, and directing our focus to what we hear in the present moment is a deeply grounding practice.

Listen right now in this moment. Notice how the brain likes to label sound. What if you just allowed sound to move through your awareness, becoming acutely aware of the quality of the sound without labeling it?

Sound changes all the time, each wave unique and rich with life. Can you let your awareness float on the waves of sound? No judgment or story – just sound.

If you catch yourself thinking, return to pure listening. Let the sound of life become a tool for spiritual practice.

 

Image credit: John Baer via Flickr (CC)

Stress Less

For most animals stress is episodic, the short, sharp response to a predator. An array of hormones cascade through the body, increasing blood flow, focusing attention and mobilizing energy systems to prepare for action. This hormone array includes adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol and is the organism’s response to an immediate, alarming change in the environment. Once the danger has passed, hormone levels will return to normal and homeostasis will resume.

Sadly, as humans, few of our stressors are episodic. While we are all likely to experience short-term grief and pain, the everyday stressors of life on earth are abundant, chronic and acute. Each time the body/mind perceives stress, hormones are released and the “fight or flight” cycle is activated. Over time the immune system is depleted, and the body’s ability to repair, renew and restore is compromised.

How our brain perceives stress, threats or changes in the environment will have an impact on the release of hormones. Over the last two decades, several studies have linked chronic stress with increased pain, digestive disorders and disease onset.

But what can we do? How do we handle it? These are some of the questions that we will address at this year’s Yoga Source Conference. Stress, it seems, is inevitable but with tools to recognize it and strategies to manage it, we can decrease its effect on our mind and body.

Check out this year’s workshop schedule at yoganook.net and choose your workshops, then register on Eventbrite. See you there!

 

Yoga Source 2017: Reduce Stress, Resolve Pain

Challenging situations are inherent in our daily life. We are sure to encounter fear, insecurity and pain during this human experience. But our pain, emotions and behavior are all influenced by stress — the effects of which are felt globally in the body.

Internal and external factors affect our ability to cope with life’s challenges. External elements include our home environment, relationships and pressure at work. Internal elements such as our emotional health, lifestyle and fitness all influence the amount of stress we experience, and how we respond to it.

Becoming aware of the habitual patterns in our daily lives that feed the stress response, and finding strategies to navigate the highs and lows, is a necessary part of our personal development. We may think we’re reducing stress by watching television, playing video games or surfing the internet to relax — but these activities can actually increase the stress response and add to your symptoms.

Yoga can help. That’s why we decided to plan our Yoga Source 2017 Conference around reducing stress and resolving pain. The workshops and presentations are designed to teach you about the influence of stress on the mind and body, how to heal your pain, and practical tools for responding to stress.

We’re pleased to have Denver physical therapist Rick Olderman, MSPT joining us again this year after offering such great information about headaches, neck and shoulder pain last year. He will again deliver the keynote presentation on Friday, March 10 and two workshops on March 11 & 12.

Aerial and circus artist Caroline Wright is also offering another fun workshop this year on building trust through circus play. Foundations, Fulcrums and FUN is on Sat., March 11. And for a very special music experience, the talented bass player Dan Pritchett (Dreaming Upright) will bring the sultry, soothing tunes. We also have a few new presenters from our own staff.

Click here to view the entire Yoga Source 2017 Conference schedule, and register here for classes on March 10-12. We have a wide range of stress- and pain-reducing classes, and an opportunity to more deeply explore your yoga practice. We hope you will come away inspired, encouraged, and set free from stress.

Subscribe below to receive updates. And we’ll see you there!

 

3 Ways to Use Healing Peppermint Over the Holidays

The holiday season wouldn’t be the same without a little peppermint. It’s a classic holiday flavor and scent that conjures up festive memories for many of us. But did you know that peppermint can actually aid digestion, sharpen concentration and soothe tight muscles?

A hybrid of water mint and spearmint, peppermint is one of the oldest herbs to be used for therapeutic purposes. It’s thought to have originated in Asia, though evidence of peppermint has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BCE.

Peppermint oil has long been known for its digestive and anti-nausea benefits. The flavonoids found in peppermint leaves increase bile production, assisting digestion. Peppermint also has a soothing effect on the colon and can reduce muscle spasms.

Tea made from peppermint leaves has a high menthol content, which can soothe a sore throat and relieve an overburdened, irritated digestive system — as well that “I wish I hadn’t eaten that last brownie” feeling.

Here are 3 creative ways to use peppermint this holiday season:

1.  Boost your concentration and focus. Place 1 or 2 drops of peppermint essential oil on a Kleenex, and sniff as needed. (This is great for a stuffy nose too.) Just be sure to keep your eyes closed as you sniff — the menthol properties are strong.

2.  Make time for a long bath and add a little peppermint oil. Mix 3-4 drops of peppermint essential oil with 1 oz. of whole milk — the fat content in the milk will act as a dispersant for the oil. Or try putting a few drops on a face cloth and laying it on the shower floor while you take your morning shower. The vapors will rise with the steam and leave you refreshed in mind and body.

3.  Whip up this handmade peppermint muscle rub for a unique gift to share with your loved ones:

Peppermint Muscle Rub
(makes 3/4 cup)

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup
1/4 cup grated beeswax
2 tsp organic cayenne powder
2 tsp organic ginger powder
15 drops peppermint essential oil
15 drops lavender essential oil
Large glass jar
Small jelly jars

  1. Put the coconut oil and beeswax into the large glass jar. Heat 2 inches of water in a saucepan until hot but not boiling, then remove from the heat.
  2. Place the glass jar with the beeswax and coconut oil mixture into the hot water bath. As the coconut and beeswax melt, stir with a disposable spoon or spatula until incorporated.
  3. Add the other ingredients and stir until combined.
  4. Pour the mixture into small jelly jars while it’s still warm. Set aside to cool and set.
  5. Gently massage the peppermint rub into tight muscles to ease pain and tension. As with all topical creams, test on a small area of skin first to make sure your skin is not sensitive to the ingredients.

DISCLAIMER: This rub has not been approved by any government authority and is not meant to be used as a substitute for medical care.

 

Image credit: Zach Bulick via Flickr (CC)

Responding to Change With Compassion

Change is the only constant in life. It’s an unpredictable, non-discriminating energy that can at various times be likened to a slow trickle, or a raging storm.

Small changes occur in our lives almost daily, and we adapt to them quite well. We compromise, make a mental shift or just go with the flow; and over time, almost without noticing, we become conscious that we’re facing a different direction. We can only see the change by comparing where we are now to where we were then.

Conversely, change can also come raging into our lives like a perfect storm, pulling the rug out from under our feet as the bottom falls out of our expectations. It shakes the very foundation of our carefully constructed beliefs and reveals that the world is not as we perceived it to be. We experience primal fears of abandonment, separation and insecurity.

The gripping fear that we may experience in times of change is generated in a deep brain structure called the amygdala (pronounced “uh-MIG-duh-luh”). Part of the limbic system, the amygdala stimulates the fight-or-flight response. Its central nucleus is correlated with the brainstem and hypothalamus, two other areas associated with fear and anxiety.

The amygdala also plays a primary role in processing emotional reactions, decision-making and memory. This area is thought to be responsible for nightmares and disrupted sleep during stressful periods in our lives.

So fear of change and the emotions that surface are a result of primal survival impulses encoded into every brain. Untamed, the mind indulges in cyclic thought patterns, perpetuating waves of anxiety and fear.

If change is the only constant, then we can “change” the way we react and deal with change itself. Even the amygdala’s reactionary impulses can be moderated through the practice of compassion meditation. Research has shown that even novice meditators can decrease activation of the amygdala by measurable amounts after only eight weeks of practice.

In all chaos, there is the potential for growth and new beginnings — indeed, for a complete remodel of life as we know it. We have to be prepared to put in the effort, to sit with all the different sensations as they arise, and “be curious,” as my meditation teacher often reminds me.

Look for new meditation classes appearing on the Yoga Nook schedule in January 2017.

 

Image credit: Send me adrift via Flickr (CC)

Making Space for Peace

As many of you have noticed, I’ve been away from the studios for about two weeks. I’ve been exercising my design skills in my latest project, a new vacation rental on the Oregon Coast. For several months, my Simi home (and my mind) have been occupied by mountains of soft furnishings and a chaotic whirlwind of negotiations, with boxes and packages arriving daily.

I thought I had become accustomed to the clutter until I came home from my trip last Monday. After the long drive south from Oregon, I walked into my bright, lightly furnished home and felt instant relief — a weight lifted, a lightness in my head, and a deep sense of gratitude for this happy, calm space.

I saw my home with new eyes, relishing its simplicity and lack of clutter. I sat for a few minutes in meditation on the couch, the late afternoon sun glowing gold through the windows — and I felt deep contentment.

I think it’s always comforting to arrive home after a long trip, but for me this homecoming was more than that. It was a strong affirmation that this is where I belong, that this is home for me and my family.

As we enter midlife there is a need for us to declutter, to get rid of things that at one time seemed to hold value for us, but that no longer serve us. Clutter is a form of agitation that distracts the eye and creates a multitude of inputs for the brain as it scans the varied shapes and colors. The mind, then, is not allowed to rest.

When we simplify and clear out what is not needed, there is more room for the spaciousness of peace and bliss. Our living space becomes a calm, tranquil retreat.

If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of clutter in your home, simply start where you are. Focus on one small area at a time, and do whatever you can in 30 minutes, one hour, or however much time you’d like to dedicate. Getting started is often the hardest part but if you focus all your attention on just the first step (and then the next, and then the next), you’ll likely find it much more manageable.

Our new house in Oregon will be on the VRBO market very soon, and I am planning a couple of yoga retreats up there for next year — one in April, one in late September 2017. Watch this space for more information. (Even better, sign up for our email list below.)

In the meantime I’m back to teaching my scheduled classes, plus a few guest appearances. I’ll see you in class!

 

Cracking My Own Case

This week we’re featuring a guest post from Kim GalbraithYoga Nook teacher and creator of Little Dog Yogawhich offers yoga classes for athletes in competitive sports. Read on for Kim’s story about a rough trip to the dentist, playing “yoga detective,” and not being afraid to ask for a helping hand.

Having completed 500 hours of yoga teacher training at Yoga Nook, I am well aware that holding tension in my body will create contracted muscles. I am also aware that contracted muscles lead to imbalance and dysfunction in the body, which in turn create pain and discomfort.

So when I had dental work done and woke up with severe pain the next morning — not in my mouth, but in my shoulder! — I set out to solve my own case.

Why the heck does my shoulder hurt? Even just standing was painful. My collarbone (clavicle) felt as if it was being pulled down by a 100-pound weight. No matter how hard I tried to relax my right shoulder, the pain would not subside.

I wondered if this was the result of how I held my right arm during the procedure. So I channeled my favorite Forensic Files character and performed my own reenactment, sitting in the front seat of my car to mimic the reclined position at the dentist’s office.

How was my body positioned during the procedure? My right arm was bent at the elbow, and since the armrest was too low, I was holding the arm up and away from my body slightly by lifting my right shoulder. Since the IV was attached to the inside of my forearm, my knuckles were facing out, adding a degree of external rotation in the shoulder joint.

What muscles were responsible for helping me hold this position? Well, the biceps bend the arm at the elbow, while infraspinatus and teres minor help with external rotation. The trapezius and levator scapulae are the primary movers in elevation of the acromioclavicular (AC) joint, which connects to the clavicle; and pectoralis major and deltoid lift the arm away from the body.

Other factors: Since I’m a yoga teacher and I practice pretty much daily, I do a lot of Adho Mukha Svanasanas (a.k.a. Downward Facing Dog). I also broke my right clavicle and dislocated my right shoulder when I was a teenager, so I have some instability in that arm already. I tend to have tight pectoral muscles that try to do more than they should to keep me stabilized in arm balance poses.

So what did I do? I tried to think like Jeni! I implemented my own plan to release the muscles that I identified as tight and contracted. But after attempting this on my own, I wasn’t getting the results I needed. I wasn’t really able to add the resistance necessary to release the tight areas. I needed help.

Thankfully, after only two sessions with Jeni, my pain was 95% gone. Together, with her guidance and my focused awareness, we got those heavily contracted muscles to soften and relax.

The moral of the story? I realized that even though I’ve learned a ton about the human body through teacher training — knowledge that has empowered me to heal myself and support my students — we all need a little help sometimes from our friends and practitioners to promote the healing process.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it. And don’t wait until your pain gets worse — call Jeni!

 

Image credit: University of Liverpool Faculty of Health & Life Sciences via Flickr (CC)