Anxiety and Expansiveness

In this blog post, I share a little glimpse of my experience with anxiety. In doing so, I feel the weight of this and want to start out by stating a few things. Anxiety is no small thing. I don’t share the entirety of my experience with this really hard issue here. That would be an enormous blog post. Although I have overcome a lot in my experience with anxiety, there are still times when it’s really hard and I shrink back. But, I keep going and growing. Working with anxiety is really complex and what helps one person may not help another. I’m not claiming any answers, just a small part of my journey in hopes that it might encourage someone else. If anxiety is life-limiting for you, there are professionals that can help.


“There are always two risks. There’s the risk of trying something new, and there’s the risk of not trying it.”

~ Rob Bell (author, speaker, spiritual teacher.)

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In the spring of 2015, Jules Mitchell asked if I would join her as a student in her next round of yoga videos for Udaya.com.  Jules didn’t know, but she was giving me an opportunity to do something even bigger than traveling to Bulgaria to film yoga classes.

Let me back up and explain why…

I have lived with varying degrees of anxiety for a long time. At one point, when it was the most intense, I needed medication to help me function in everyday life. I know what a panic attack feels like. It’s awful. I’m thankful the worst of it has been behind me for years now, but working through anxiety has been an ongoing process in my life.

I didn’t really see the ways anxiety was still affecting me until I was seeing a counselor early in 2014 for a phobia I wanted to finally confront. In a hard realization, it became clear that my fears didn’t just lie in the object of my phobia. I had to face anxiety that was showing up in other areas of my life that I had learned to live with or just avoid. I wondered how I missed this. Maybe it just wasn’t as debilitating as it once was and I figured this was my normal. Occasional, mild anxiety is better than frequent, high anxiety. Or maybe I had been denying it. I think deep down I knew that dealing with this was going to be freaking hard and I hoped that I could just tuck it away and be fine. As I continued to meet with my counselor it was becoming clear that I could be living more expansively and with more ease than I was.

Part of managing my anxiety has alway been to first, feel it. With the help and guidance of my counselor, I practiced being with the anxiety and applying some new coping strategies. Through a gradual and slow process over time, I learned to notice how the anxiety manifested in my body — my heart rate, my body tension and where exactly I could feel it (it would change depending on the situation), my breathing, everything I was feeling and where it was showing up in my body. I also practiced awareness of my surroundings when I sensed anxiety coming on by using my senses (all sounds, sights, smells, touch). And it struck me: this is yoga and mindfulness, I’ve been practicing for this for years!  It renewed a deeper connection to my yoga practice that would now be an excellent primer and partner in this process of confronting another layer of my anxiety.

Having a direct experience with all the sensations of anxiety is an important part of working through it for me — and it’s so hard. I had to confront discomfort with full awareness. Sometimes I would use various coping strategies to get through an intense moment, but often, just noticing all the sensations come and go was enough to ease the intensity. I was learning to get comfortable feeling discomfort. This was the opposite of what I had done for years. Throughout my life, I trained my brain and body to avoid unpleasant feelings and sensations of anxiety. Every time I felt anxious about something and then avoided it, it actually strengthened the anxiety. It’s like I was confirming to my mind and nervous system, “You are right! This is something to be afraid of! Let’s for sure not do that!” This is helpful and necessary if there is actual threat, danger or something that is not serving us well, but not so much if you are just being asked to go to Europe with one of your favorite yoga teachers and film some videos. This brings us back to the Bulgaria trip.

By the time Jules approached me about filming I had made a lot of progress. However, when she asked I felt that familiar nervous, reluctant feeling and initially wanted to say no. Years ago I wouldn’t have gone. But this “no” was that old familiar disproportionate fear that had kept my life a little smaller and I knew this invitation was a way to continue making progress expanding — so I decided to go.

A few months went by and I missed a subtle, anxious voice that crept in and started whispering things… “I need to step-up my physical practice if I’m going to be filming multiple classes a day for 4 days!” So I started adding more days of challenging practices. In the increasing concern of my physical ability, I was laying aside some key aspects of my yoga practice — awareness, contentment, acceptance, ease of breath and movement. I was fixated on only the physical aspect of a multidimensional practice. And I was hurting. If the body and breath are tense and not at ease, it makes it much harder for the mind to be at ease. What I was doing was elevating anxiety.

I did this despite the wisdom I got from Jules early on when I questioned my ability to keep up with the long days of filming. She said that she didn’t want Instagram stars, she wanted real people. Taking care of my needs, resting and modifying my poses would serve as a positive example for those who need to do the same. This is advice I would give anyone else as well. That’s some of the essence of yoga. But, sometimes we are so close to ourselves, we miss it. I missed it.

It was a blind spot that Shelly Prosko, physiotherapist and yoga therapist, helped me see.

I had been connecting with Shelly around this time and told her about the upcoming Bulgaria trip and that I was having some trouble with my practice. She immediately saw what I was doing. My desire to “train” for the filming was overpowering my body’s need for rest, ease, and breath. She encouraged me to have the courage to do what I need to do during the filming. She said that what I can do is less important than who I am and allowing that to shine through me with joy — no matter what pose that’s in.  All of this clicked. Courage. Joy. It spoke right to my heart. In the beginning I thought the courage was just making the decision to go to Bulgaria. That was only part of it. The courage is to go exactly as I am. 

I felt once again more at ease. I went back to a practice that served me well.

I headed to Bulgaria, with all my anxiety and courage and joy. I remember very clearly practicing under the cameras and lights and film crew and repeating a simple mantra to myself in each class — “Joy”. It was wonderful.

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While there, another opportunity to experience something with my anxiety presented itself. Jules  asked if I wanted to film my own class. That same “no” came up in my mind. Actually, it was “HELL NO.” That night as I thought about it, the anxiety was big. As I sat with it, my husband came to mind. He desires a more expansive life for me more than anyone. He’s had a front row seat watching anxiety rob me of opportunities. I knew exactly what he would say. Yes, there were risks in doing it — I could fumble my words or people may not like it. But, I knew the risk of NOT experiencing it was greater. I knew I had to do this.

The day of my filming, the anxiety was there. I felt it, I noticed my breath, I felt my heart beat a little faster, and I knew that it was all a part of this unique experience. This was a practice in expansiveness. I was not under any threat or danger, so I filmed a yoga class — the very practice that was an aid in helping me actually work through the anxiety to get to that moment.

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I must close by stating that I realize how very fortunate I am to not live in perpetual threat or danger. Sometimes it feels trivial talking about what has triggered my anxiety when people live their lives facing actual threats on a daily basis. Nevertheless, my experience with anxiety has been real and it’s very real for many people. My hope is that as we heal, we become more expansive and move into spaces to bring safety, security, hope and love to all beings around us who need it.


I also feel that I should add something about the tools for anxiety I’ve used along the way. I mentioned that I have taken medication in the past. The fact that I no longer take medication does not mean that I am against it. Not at all. It just was a tool needed then that is not what I’m using now. And who knows if I will ever need it again. I am so thankful for the medication because without it, I wouldn’t have been able to even access other tools, like Yoga and mindfulness. As I said in the beginning of this blog post, I’m not an expert, just someone sharing my personal experience and there are professionals that specialize in helping you find the right tools for you. 

 

 

 

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Ocean Motion

Ocean Motion

“The ocean stirs the heart, inspires imagination and brings eternal joy to the soul.” ~ Robert Wyland

Photo by Brian Link – Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia

Fellow yoga teacher Jules Mitchell goes to Bulgaria every year to film a large number of classes for the online yoga service, Udaya.com. This past August, I made the long journey to Bulgaria and spent four days filming several classes a day as a student of Jules’.

During that time I got the opportunity to film my own class! I decided to share my exploration of the fluid potential of movement. This is something I practice and teach and is inspired by my love of the ocean and my own need to remember to move fluidly. I called the class, Ocean Motion.

Now, much of this fluid movement is about the spine and there are technical things to talk about regarding the proper function of the spine which I also teach, but that wasn’t the focus of my class or this blog. My focus is to introduce some imagery to connect to the fluid movement capabilities of the spine and body. However, one might find some “sticky” spots in this practice as we don’t often move our spine in the variety of ranges it has. We may want to work on gaining some more movement in those sticky areas. For example, my upper and lower spine can feel quite rigid and don’t move so easily at times and I can feel that when I perform this fluid spinal movement. I continue to improve with some skillful practice, breathing, mindfulness of daily habits, etc.  Is my spinal movement perfect? No. But if I get caught up in thinking everything has to be perfect, I actually get more rigid — mentally and physically. So it’s a balance to work on the skills that allow for movement in this fluid manner without looking for perfection.

Thankfully, Jules ended up filming a fabulous class called “Slinky Spine” that broke down the specific movement of the spine and gave some fantastic ways to work on finding articulation through the whole spine. I don’t have that video to share here, but here is Jules sharing something similar. If you discover some parts of the spine that don’t move as much as others, perhaps practice these great skills from Jules some days and on other days do some Ocean Motion play. It takes some practice but if you stick with it, your brain and body will start to remember. After all, this fluid movement ability is built into us. We just need to be reminded.

Back to my inspiration for Ocean Motion…

I have always felt very connected to the ocean and everything in it. I’m fascinated by the world under water. It’s comforting, peaceful and sacred to me. (Which is funny that I live in Phoenix Arizona!)

When I was a little girl, I would spend hours in the water. Even as a y0002698-R1-006-1A_003oung girl I remember having great awareness of the fluid like movements I could make as I glided and moved my spine, arms and legs under water. My parents would call me a little fish, and I truly did like to swim like an ocean critter! One of my favorite animals are dolphi
ns. I would dive down into the water and try to swim like a dolphin – putting my arms at my sides and making the wavelike undulations of a dolphin as it swims. Oh the joy when I got to swim with them as an adult — Observing them as they played and connected with us and each other in their natural habitat.  Heaven!

Several years ago when I was playing in the ocean in Cancun, Mexico (because I never stopped playing in the water!), I was kneeling on the ocean floor with the water up to my shoulders looking through the crystal clear water at the fish swimming around me. The waves were very gentle. I let my body get loose with just enough support of my legs to not fall over. What I felt was the fluid like motion of my body being moved by the water. My arms and spine made sweeping movements like seaweed. It reminded me of our fluid movement ability and I began connecting to that ability more in my yoga and pilates practice.

Exploring Ocean Motion

“…the movement of the fish and the movement of the ocean are one.” ~ Emilie Conrad, Continuum Movement

Imagery is an important aid in helping us get in touch with our anatomy and movement. It enhances your minds ability to gain an awareness of your body’s function. Our early learning of movement is by observing and exploring. In the movement practices I’ve included some images from the ocean so that you can explore movement from observation and imagery. Since a large percentage of our body is made up of fluid, using images from the world under water seems fitting.

As much as I love the details and specifics of anatomy and function, this is more to find an imagery that connects to movement without being overly technical. Try to feel more than think for this practice. If you cannot feel anything it’s ok. For now, just imagine, notice and explore.

Jellyfish Breathing

Why jellyfish? Last year while in Australia, I spent a lot of time in the amazing ocean including the Great Barrier Reef. An absolute dream for this ocean lover. Jellyfish are abundant in Australian waters certain times of year. Because the jellies were on my mind often (meaning, I’d hoped I wouldn’t receive one of their infamous stings!), it occurred to me one day how they resemble our big breathing muscle, the diaphragm. So now when I describe the diaphragms’ function in breathing, I use this graceful, fluid creature for imagery. It’s my very favorite image and I find it quite calming. 

You can see that when the jellyfish expands it has the appearance of descending slightly. As it folds back in, it ascends. This is very much like the movement of your diaphragm. On inhalation, the diaphragm descends and flattens, gently opening the lower circumference of the ribs. On exhalation the diaphragm lifts back up and the ribs release back in. The jellyfish tentacles even resemble the muscular attachments underneath in the center of our diaphragm that connect to the spine. Compare the jellyfish with this cool animation of the diaphragm.The diaphragm has connection to the spine, ribs, muscles and tissues surrounding the spine. With normal, full breathing, there is a harmonious interplay in all this connection to support the stability and mobility of the spine.

Practice:
Watch the videos of the diaphragm and the jellyfish. Then sitting in an upright but relaxed position, close your eyes and take your awareness down to the bottom circumference of your rib cage. On your inhale, image the jellyfish (diaphragm) gently moving down allowing the the ribs, front, back and sides, to expand. On the exhale, imagine the jellyfish (diaphragm) floating back up and ribs gently releasing back in.  Allow this to happen without force or effort. The movement is subtle. If you don’t feel the ribs moving much, that’s ok for now.  Just let your mental image of our friend from sea take hold of your feeling of the breath.

You may also try this lying on your back and on your stomach. Explore how the feeling is different in each position.

Can you imagine the spine being very subtly moved or lengthened as you breathe?

Invite this image of the breath into other movements and throughout your day.

Spinal Wave

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Photo by Tami Link – Whitehaven Beach, Queensland, Australia

This movement takes the spine through flexion and extension in a wavelike motion from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Imagine a gentle rolling wave more than a crashing wave.

Practice:
Begin on all fours. Start the wave in the lower spine by curling the pelvis under so the tail bone moves toward the floor. Spinal flexion (spine rounding up) moves through the lower spine, mid spine and upper spine/neck ending out the crown of the head. Imagine each vertebrae moving one at a time but allow it to be continuous and fluid like a wave rippling through the length of the spine. Then reverse the motion of the pelvis by Brian 262 - Version 2tilting the tailbone up creating the spinal extension (spine curving down) rippling from the lower spine all the way through the rest of the spine to the head. As soon as the wave finishes at the top of the spine out through the head, it immediately starts in flexion again in the pelvis. (See video)

The key with this and the other movements is to not think too much about it for our purposes here — Imagine and feel. Allow the imagery to move your body.

Seaweed

Check out this beautiful video of a kelp forest.

I love the image of seaweed or kelp for the spine. The spine is like the long stem (stipe) of kelp — strong but flexible.

This image occurred to me some time ago spontaneously in my movement practice. I closed my eyes and just imagined the seaweed and found the movement so relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve used it ever since.

Practice:
Kelp is rooted to the ocean floor and the varying movements of the water move the kelp stipe and it’s leaves. The video below shows me in Hero’s Pose but I also practice this sitting in a chair as well. When seated in chair, start on the sit bones with feet grounded, legs hip width or wider. Imagine that your feet and/or legs are rooted to the ocean floor and that your pelvis and spine are being moved by the ocean current. Explore all the directions that might move you in, front to back, side to side, diagonal. You can even add the arms moving them like the leaves (called blades on kelp) off the stipe flowing with the movement.

The movement is the same wavelike movement you found in the Spinal Wave, just vertical with various directions. The movement begins at the base of the spine (pelvis) up. If you are allowing the movement to start in the pelvis, you will feel the sit bones gently rocking underneath you as you move. But don’t get too caught up in the specifics. Just try to let the image move you. I usually close my eyes to get a better mental image. I suggest watching the kelp forest video first to really see the movement you are looking to embody. There are even sea lions at the end who display some delightfully beautiful fluid movement for more inspiration. 

Spinal Wave in Downward Facing Dog Pose

Try some fluid movement with your Down Dog Pose (or Elephant in Pilates).

Practice:
In Down Dog/Elephant, I start with some flexion/extension (think Cat/Cow or Arch/Curl). Rounding the whole spine then extending the spine. Bending the knees a bit on the extension can help allow the pelvis to tilt and aid in the extension. Then move into that wavelike spinal movement from the pelvis rippling up through the spine. Allow the movement to be continuous. As soon as the wave finishes at the top of the spine out through the head, it immediately starts again in the pelvis.

The video just shows my spine and torso so herIMG_2060e is
a photo of the position this is done in. It’s actually me teaching my Ocean Motion class in Bulgaria!
The ladies are on a chair to
show a modification that is helpful if your shoulders or hips are less mobile. Place the chair against a wall so it doesn’t slide away from you.

I also occasionally add this in transitioning through Downward Facing Dog/Plank/Upward Facing Dog and back with a spinal wave. Cameron Shayne, creator of Budokon Yoga, shows this fluid flow here.  Another variation I like is spinal wave through Down Dog/Plank and back (minus the Up Dog).

These are just a few of the many ways you can play with fluid motion.  If you have always viewed your spine or body as a rigid structure, perhaps invite a little inspiration from the ocean into your motion.   Enjoy!

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Sacred Ground. Happy Feet.

 I’m a big fan of the foot. It’s my favorite body part in regard to it’s brilliant design and function. The whole body coordinates as a harmonious system and your feet are no exception. They are your foundation and they have amazing potential! The more muscular support (over a hundred muscles, ligaments, tendons) and joint mobility (33 joints!) in your feet, the more they contribute to the work distribution throughout your whole body. One perspective from some movement sciences (biomechanics for example) is to think of it like a work place — If Joe Worker (your feet) isn’t pulling his weight and doing his job, his co-workers (rest of your body/joints) are going to have to pick up the slack. If he is doing his job, all the other workers get to do their job without being overworked, burned out and strained. Ya dig?

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About this blog

IMG_0690 Last May, I started a blog. I have one post. I can tend to get an idea, start it and not go through with it (sigh). However, I think there was more to it than that. Deep down, I was conflicted with what to blog about. At the time, I was reading a lot of other blogs, and studying quite a bit about movement sciences. I was excited about what I was learning and wanted to share it. But then I realized, that there are a lot of people out there writing on this stuff — and really well. I also started reading more about pain science and that has been shifting the way I think about movement. Additionally, I think people are already overwhelmed by the deluge of information here on the internet. Why be one more person trying to put something out there to make people sit in front of a computer and consume even more information? I’m not even a writer. I’m not good at it. It takes me forever to write, I am terrible at spelling and I’m not a fan of sitting at a computer (hence choosing a career that has me moving around all day). So I decided not to do a blog.

Yet, things keep coming to mind with the thought, “that might be something to blog about”. I just can’t seem to shake that voice. I’ve learned in the past that I need to follow that voice in earnest and see where it goes. Even if it goes nowhere. There is a quote I keep in my kitchen so as to see it often by Vincent Van Gogh — “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

Like I said, there are a lot of great bloggers on yoga, movement, health, etc. The people I follow are very much grounded in science because I believe it should be an important foundation of my work. My strength is not so much in reading the scientific studies and research but I’ve found professionals I trust that spend a lot of time and energy pouring over the current studies and research, interpreting it and putting it out to the public. I apply what I learn personally and to my work — my classes and clients. But, I don’t think it’s what I want to write about since others are doing that in abundance. It occurred to me that I simply want to share my stories and experiences more than information.

I am not only interested in sciences related to the body but of the mind and how we function as a whole person. What scientists that work with the body are finding more and more of, is how the mind, emotions, relationships and our whole interaction with life affect the body. This awareness has been around for a very, very long time. I first started studying this connection over 15 years ago when I was taking wellness and alternative medicine classes in college. Back then, it was still largely seen as hooey and mostly dismissed. There were some credible voices out there talking about it, but I don’t think there was enough to convince a lot of people that their body, mind, soul and relationships were not separate things but all interwoven together. This interconnection is what really fascinates me.

As much as I love science and value the logical and rational, I am also endlessly exploring and enjoying the art, poetry, philosophy, wonder and mystery of this interconnected human experience. Not just within ourselves but our connection to everything and everyone around us as well.

My experiences and stories I share here will largely be about this interconnection — how I see it playing out in my own life and in the people around me (with their permission to share of course).

Topics may also be about any of my interests and specific areas of work:

  • Movement — Yoga, Pilates, natural movement, play and anything movement oriented really — Including tips and things I find helpful or interesting that I do myself, with clients and in classes.
  • Mindfulness/Meditation
  • Chronic pain
  • Eating Disorders/Body Image

…And, whatever else informs, inspires and strikes my fancy about our experience of living, moving and being.

This blog is not intended nor should it be seen as advice (medical or otherwise). It is purely my experience, thoughts and perspectives.

I may not usually be citing scientific sources or research. Occasionally I might, but it’s not my focus. Like I said, there are others doing that brilliantly who I am influenced, informed and inspired by, but I am still just writing from my perspective.

Because writing is not a great skill of mine, I work, tend to relationships and personal time, and really because I can procrastinate like nobody’s business, I don’t know how often I’ll show up here but I’ll give it my best shot and see how it goes.

My hope is simply to get these thoughts in my head, out here in an authentic and meaningful way.

And perhaps, “that voice will be silenced.”

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