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Why I’m Here

Hi. Welcome. Thanks so much for dropping by this little corner of the internet. Here’s a story about me and why I started this site.

In the summer of 2010, I had just graduated from Teacher’s College. Before that, I had finished a master’s degree in English Lit., as well as my undergrad. I had just gotten married two years earlier and my husband and I moved into an in-law suite at my sister’s house. Life was going beautifully: I was living with my wonderful husband and my sister’s family (who are our best friends), I was about to start a great career, and I had finally finished university.

If this portion of my life were a movie, this is the part where the ominous music would start playing over the idyllic scenes of domestic bliss. Nothing outwardly tragic happened: no one died or contracted some rare disease, but suddenly, life as I knew it got turned inside out. I started having panic attacks. Like waves on a stormy beach, they started off small, but eventually became huge, engulfing, and terrifying.

I had no idea what was happening to me. Nine years ago, people didn’t talk about anxiety nearly as much as they do today. I had never experienced anything like it and had never talked to anyone who had either. Later of course, I would meet scores of people who have gone through this, but at the time I felt utterly and terrifyingly alone. I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t think straight. It was the hardest thing I have ever endured, and though I would continue to struggle with anxiety over the next few years, that summer was the lowest point of my life.

Like a lot of the pain we experience, however, that low point ended up being the catalyst for enormous learning, healing, and transformation over the years. A couple years later, ten months after giving birth to my first child, I enrolled in a Yoga Teacher Training. There, I began to unravel some of the mystery of this pain I had been carrying. Through the practices and teachings, as well as listening to other people’s stories, I began to gather beautiful tools for recognizing and healing pain.

I started teaching yoga and began ravenously consuming as much information as I could about yoga, anxiety, relaxation, stress, and the nervous system. I read articles and books constantly, enrolled in online trainings, and eventually took a second Yoga Teacher Training. Along the way, I decided to leave my teaching career (while my babies were babies) and opened a yoga studio, Shine Yoga. I taught classes, workshops, and retreats. It was beautiful. Then two years ago, I felt called to return to the classroom. I loved teaching yoga, but I knew it was time to shut down the studio and return to teaching (that’s a story for another day).

So here’s the crux of it: I started this site for that lost girl from nine years ago. For anyone who is feeling lost, scared, overwhelmed. Let this site be a light, a guidepost. I want to share what I’ve learned about anxiety, yoga, stress, the nervous system… all of it. I stopped teaching yoga, but didn’t stop loving it or practicing it. So here’s to the next step on the way back home.

In My Feelings: How to Navigate and Heal Anxiety and Overwhelm

When we feel anxious, overwhelmed, or highly stressed, we tend to do anything to avoid feeling those difficult emotions: we might drink, go for a run, paint the kitchen, or scroll Facebook. But here’s the thing: anxiety is like an emotional toddler who needs some comfort from mom. The more you ignore the screaming toddler, the louder they will yell, eventually throwing themselves on the ground in a fit of rage.

All emotions are felt both in the mind as thoughts (example: “I’m so scared”) and in the body as sensation (example: clenched stomach, fast heartbeat, etc). The only way to heal the difficult emotions that are felt in the body is to allow them to be felt. The more we ignore those emotions, the more they will cry for our attention.

So when you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed by anxiety/anger/stress/sadness, try this Compassionate Awareness Exercise:

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably.
  2. Relax your shoulders and jaw. Breathe more fully into your belly and low back. Ground yourself by literally feeling where your body touches the ground/floor/chair.
  3. Invite in a sense of compassion for yourself, as if you were the most loving, patient, empathetic mother. You can try picturing holding a small animal or child who isn’t feeling well, pouring your love and attention on that little creature.
  4. Begin to mentally scan your body, simply noticing sensation without telling yourself a story about it. How do your hands feel? Do your legs feel heavy or light? How does your face feel? (tight? relaxed?)
  5. Keeping that sense of compassion for yourself and this pain you’re currently in, bring your attention to the part of your body that is feeling discomfort from this difficult emotion. Does your stomach feel tight? Is your heart racing? Does your face feel hot? Try to simply feel that discomfort, without telling a story about it (such as: “I’m feeling this way because…” or “my breathing is so uneven”. Instead, let your body speak by just feeling, not thinking.). If it becomes a bit overwhelming, feel the ground beneath you again and notice your surroundings (what can you see in front of you right now?)
  6. With infinite patience and compassion, see if you can simply sit with that discomfort. What happens to the difficult sensation? Does it pulse or move in waves or come and go? Be a curious, open-minded observer.

This practice takes a huge amount of courage to be willing to try, but I believe that feeling your feelings is the only way to truly process and heal them.

The amazing thing is that when you simply turn toward your fear instead of running away from it, the fear tends to dissipate and you return to a sense of ease. When you continue to practice this, over time the trauma/stress that your body is holding can eventually slowly release and heal. As a result, you begin to develop a strong sense of strength and trust in yourself.

If you’re curious about how trauma and emotion is stored in the body, check out the work of Hala Khouri and Jeff Brown, as well as Bessel van der Kolk, who wrote the amazing book, The Body Keeps the Score.

On Healing

I’m really not much of a social media person, but on Instagram, I follow Elena Brower, yoga teacher and amazing human. Today I saw a meme she posted that said this:

4 things to remember during moments of inner turbulence and tough emotion.

do not hide from what you are feeling

this current discomfort is not permanent

rest is an important way to calm the mind

struggle can be a space of deep growth”

–yung pueblo

If you happen to be struggling right now, please re-read that quote. That quote contains all that I have learned in the past ten years of studying yoga, trauma, and healing. In a few words: feel your feelings; I promise it won’t be this way forever; learn how to truly rest; this pain can teach you so much.

I will continue to explore all those ideas on this site, but here are a few other thoughts on this for now.

  1. When I was struggling, I felt like I had no guide/map, no information or wisdom to help me understand what this pain even was or how to navigate it. My initiation into the field of healing and yoga actually came from little glimpses of wisdom such as this in the form of ideas and memes shared on social media. They were like little sparks of light in the dark, but they created a starting point.
  2. There is a veritable plethora of wisdom on these topics if you know where to look. Women like Elena Brower (yoga teacher), Sadie Nardini (yoga teacher), Elizabeth Gilbert (writer), Brene Brown (researcher), Aviva Romm (women’s health doctor) and Hala Khouri (trauma specialist) are doing incredible work in the field of emotional pain, trauma, and stress management. This is a time for women’s voices; they are there and infinitely helpful if we know where to look and how to listen (so get thee to a nunnery and all that).

Trust this pain you are feeling. Let it be there. You got this.

Breathe, Baby: On Stress and Breathing

Ever wonder why almost every yoga class focuses at some point on breathing? Or why, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, people will tell you to “just breathe”?

That phrase, “just breathe” is both misleading and entirely accurate (That sentence sounds like a line from “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy”, but I stand by it). This is because breathing is the only system in the body that is both automatic (it happens all the time, even when we’re unconscious) and controllable. We can’t, for example, tell our heart rate to speed up, but we can slow or deepen our breathing at will. Telling someone in a stress state to “just breathe” comes from the right place: hoping that by reminding your friend to slow down their breathing, they will calm down. This is good advice: slowing and deepening our breath does indeed signal our nervous system to calm down, but without more instruction, it’s possible a stressed out person might start simply breathing faster and higher in their chest (i.e. hyperventilate), which would signal their nervous system to remain on high alert.

The way we breathe can be an interesting window into our internal state. In general, when we are in a stress state, our breathing is quick, shallow, and high in the chest (sometimes called chest breathing or clavicle breathing). This response occurs when our nervous system is in a sympathetic state, i.e. Fight, Flight, or Freeze. This is super useful for helping you escape or navigate dangerous situations (think of our ancestors escaping from a lion, for example). That stress response is necessary for survival, but our bodies are not intended to remain in that state for very long. Ideally, the sympathetic nervous system will dominate for a few minutes to help you navigate a difficult situation, such as a near car accident, with all your senses firing: your heart rate quickens, your pupils dilate, your breathing quickens, and your other systems (such as the digestive system and the reproductive system) turn down, as they are not helpful in this scenario.

So, great, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) has helped us escape perils for thousands of years and continues to be a necessary player in situations like hearing your children suddenly start crying. The problem is not stress or the stress response or fast, shallow breathing – all of those things are vital to your survival. The problem is when we stay in this stress state for extended periods of time. Our bodies are designed to quickly shift into sympathetic nervous system mode briefly and then return to a more neutral state or, more blissfully, a parasympathetic state.

We know the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge when our breathing is slow and relaxed. When we feel at ease, calm, and in flow. We might experience this when we get a massage or walk on the beach, for example. We need to be in this state in order to fall and stay asleep. PNS is often referred to (at least by yoga teachers and the like) as the Rest and Digest response or the Heal and Feel response, as our bodies need to be relaxed in order to digest food well, heal wounds, etc.

So here’s the thing about breathing and stress: it’s circular.When we’re chronically stressed (from say, long hours at work or the demands of parenting), we will naturally breathe quickly and shallowly up high in the chest. This shallow breathing continues the feedback loop of signalling to your nervous system that you are in danger, so your system stays in high alert and you keep breathing quickly, ready for action (our nervous system doesn’t understand the difference between escaping a predator in the wilderness and a belligerent boss). But it works both ways: when we spend more time in a parasympathetic state, our system gets the message that all is well and right in the world, and our breathing deepens, which signals that we are at ease, and around and around we go.

Okay, so we’ve established that it’s important to focus on regulating our breathing in order to maintain lower stress levels and all the juicy goodness that goes along with it, like better appetite/digestion, improved sleep, and a sense of ease. But how, exactly, do we achieve this breathful bliss?

I’ve spent years studying this question. Many yoga teachers will instruct things like, “take a deep breath and make your belly big like a balloon”. This is…okay, but not great, as this instruction ignores the way the diaphragm functions. The diaphragm is the dome-shaped muscle attached to your low ribs that expands downward as you inhale and the rib cage expands, and then relaxes back upward as you exhale and the rib cage and lungs contract. The thing that the “belly-like-a-balloon” instruction misses is that the diaphragm attaches all the way around the rib cage, not just the front, and that our lungs are actually the largest at the back of the body, not the front.

Also, most yoga and meditation classes teach breathing while sitting upright (usually cross-legged), which is a position that is not comfortable for the majority of adults, and if you’re uncomfortable, you will likely find it difficult to breathe well.

Instead, try this:

  • Lie down comfortably
  • Relax the muscles of your jaw, tongue, and sides of the neck
  • Breathing through the nose if possible, notice how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your nose
  • Place your fingertips on the sides of your lowest ribs (just above your waist)
  • As you breathe in, try to expand the low ribs out to the sides, front, and back
  • Relax as you exhale
  • Continue for as long as comfortable

This type of breathing engages the diaphragm (i.e. the main breathing muscle) in the way it is designed to work: expanding softly in all directions as you inhale (front, back, sides, and downward), and relaxing on the exhale. This is how you breathed as a baby. How we breathe when we are in a relaxed state.

Re-teaching our chronically stressed, over-stimulated selves to breathe this way again can be profoundly calming and healing to our nervous system. Our diaphragms can become constricted and tight when we are chronically stressed, so this breathing technique may take time to master, but I promise it’s worth the time and effort to try.