Behind The Scenes: The Grief Practice Book

I find myself in an awkward spot these days, a few months out from self-publishing my second book.

I am afraid to fail and I am afraid to succeed.

That’s how I know I’m right where I should be.

This book has had a life of its own. There have been major delays, hiccups, crash landings and revivals. It lay dormant for years until the tiniest light warmed up the idea again in my heart.

Witnessing the twists and turns of how it’s come to be what it is has reaffirmed my trust in the process of things. Not that they always work out, but that I do my small part and the rest is out of my hands.

2002: THE CRASH: One of the first things I did after my husband died was go to my local bookstore. I was looking for a book to show me the way because books had always shown me the way up until then. I came empty and left emptier.

2006: THE HEAL: I listen to my first body scan and have my first AHA moment of being present. That same year I start going to yoga every week at Birdrock Yoga. I cry at the end of every class in the final resting pose. I begin to wonder what is happening in yoga that didn’t happen in my years in talk therapy and my decade on antidepressants…

2009: THE MEND: My brother gives me a dog and I meet my now husband. Our relationship and his support allows me to explore areas of my grief I never felt safe enough to explore alone.

2010: THE STORY: I start writing publicly about my grief. I intern with a Los Angeles yoga teacher and writer and learn the ins and outs of online magazines, blogging and publishing. I start feeling the tug to write a book about grief and about how yoga helped me.

2013: THE PUZZLE: I take my yoga teacher training. Shortly after I take a trauma-informed yoga training. I begin to understand why yoga was able to help me through my grief when nothing else could. I begin my exploration into trauma and emotions in the body and how it all relates to grief. The puzzle starts to come together…

2015: THE PARTNER: I read an article by a writer and yoga teacher I admire about her experience of grief. I reach out to her to see if she’d like to collaborate on a book project. She says yes! We start planning and create the first version of the website. I realize this is not meant to be a book about my story. It is meant to be a book about OUR stories.

2016: THE PATH: I start teaching a weekly grief yoga class at a local hospice center. People are coming to class weeks out of tremendous loss. I begin to see how the body responds to movement and mindfulness at different times in grief and what is useful and not useful for humans in their suffering. I tell my story publicly for the first time when I present on The Grief Practice at Camp Widow in San Diego.

2017: THE LETDOWN: My partner advises me she cannot continue with the project. I don’t think I can finish this book alone while at the same time feeling that I have to find a way forward.

2018: THE PUSH: January: I begin to offer Grief-In-The-Body workshops as a way to condense all the information I’ve gathered over the last five years into a comprehensible, useful format for humans who are grieving.

July: I realize I need to pull other people in to help me make the book the best it can possibly be. I recruit a local artist, attorney, photographer, fellow yoga teacher, website design crew and begin to jot down my ideas on how I will share this project through a video. I reach out to a 20-year hospice nurse, neuroscientist, and 18-year yoga teacher and author to review the book. We make the video.

November: I receive the final edits for the video, ironically, the week before Thanksgiving. I launch the Indiegogo campaign.

Here we are. I am finalizing the book, receiving some last reviews, and working out details on how to get this photo-heavy book printed in the most economical way.

Creating something that matters is hard work. We often think if it doesn’t “succeed” by today’s standards that it’s not worth it.

That is a damn lie. In my book failing is not trying.

We need more people creating things that matter, that make a small shift in a big world. We need people willing to do the heart work and the hard work of showing up no matter what.

You’ll be the first to know when the book and companion website are ready!

ps. I got this little book when I knew I was on the path to shipping something that mattered. If you have an idea in your heart you want to bring to life, I highly recommend taking a look at Seth Godin’s body of work. It’s taken me from can’t-do-it to doing-it every time.

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Mother’s Day Tribute Practice

“One of the things this society is most deficient in is safe spaces for truth-telling about the condition of our souls.” – Parker Palmer

Last Mother’s Day, as an alternative to the typical Mother’s Day celebrations, I offered a commemorative yoga practice at my local yoga studio to honor the mothers who are no longer with us.

I knew I would be marketing an unconventional idea on an uncomfortable subject, but I believe there is a need for safe spaces where we can be alone together through our deepest and most difficult emotions; grief being one of them. Holidays such as Mother’s Day are a perfect example of a time when people who have lost a loved one can feel even more alone, ostracized, or misunderstood.

This Mother’s Day I will once again offer a safe space for honoring our mothers. The ones we have with us and the ones we have lost.

Grief is seldom welcomed in our public places the same as love is, but I invite us to honor both love & grief, to move with both and to create some space for both to coexist more comfortably under our skin.

Led from a trauma-informed yoga approach, we will move through asana, breathwork and mindfulness practices specific for love & grief.

No public sharing, speaking or journaling will be required.
No hands-on adjustments.
Just space to be & breathe.

Sunday, May 8, 2016 at 4:00 p.m.
San Elijo Dance & Music Academy
1635 S Rancho Santa Fe Rd #102

(See my Huffington Post piece Exploring the Body of Grief for the concept behind this practice.)

Restoring the BodyMind Through Yoga

Early on in my yoga practice I would often experience an emotional reaction during corpse pose (savasana). Lying still, I would get a lump in my throat and suddenly find tears quietly rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t know it at the time, but my yoga practice was releasing long-held grief from my body.

When grief and recovery from trauma have been processed by the mind, life may begin to seem approachable again and many people feel they can move forward; but the same processes of recovery and healing are essential to the body as well.

Feeling a strong emotional release in a yoga pose or during final relaxation is far from uncommon. One of yoga’s most powerful side effects is its ability to release and heal the BodyMind. Not just the body. Not just the mind. The combined, interconnected, undivided BodyMind.

BodyMind is a term coined by Dr. Candace Pert, a neuropharmacologist who pioneered scientific research into the field of Mind-Body Medicine, advancing our understanding of what are called neuropeptides, or messenger molecules that carry information from the mind to the body and back again through body fluids. These neuropeptides are found throughout our bodies in the heart, sexual organs, and the limbic system, to name a few.

Dr. Pert breaks this concept down with an example of the gut. The entire lining of our intestines is lined with these particular transmitters. She posits, “It seems entirely possible to me that the richness of the receptors may be why a lot of people feel their emotions in their gut – why they have a ‘gut feeling.’”

She further comments: “I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged in the body. The real true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed.”

When we move our bodies through yoga, our BodyMind is allowed expression. It can begin to release emotion and tension that’s been stuck in our bodies perhaps years after we think we’ve mentally processed the event.

Exploring these heavy emotions in our yoga practice, whether intentionally or accidentally, might feel intimidating. Resourcing is a technique that helps us stay present during uncomfortable or overwhelming sensations by finding and connecting to a resource, such as the breath or one of the five senses. This connection works like an anchor for a boat and we can begin to observe sensations safely, without fear of getting lost in the sea of our experience.

(I explain this process in a recorded interview I gave in February 2016. Contact me if you’d like access to the interview.)

Everyday Enlightenment

yogaAt yoga recently the teacher suggested this intention for our practice:

I will not take things personally.

This didn’t really resonate with me, so I chose an intention that rang more true to me:

I will take things personally.

As in I will get up close and personal with my dreams, my loves, my life and my fears. I will smell their sweat and place their sticky cheek next to mine and breathe in their outbreath. I will inhabit every ounce of this human body as I rest in the hammock of being and awareness that holds it up.

I sometimes get the sense in the yoga world we’re all trying to detach and be perfectly balanced, enlightened beings. I’m all for enlightenment, but in striving for that perfect state we can miss a lot of wonderful imperfection along the way because we consider it “in the way.”

For a long time I approached my practice and my life as if it were in the way of where I was going. I wanted to get “there” because getting there seemed to mean I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. I envisioned a state of being where stress wouldn’t sway me, family wouldn’t bother me, loss wouldn’t shake me, and life wouldn’t hurt me.

What I was doing was detaching from my reality and skipping out on my own life. I was missing the point Peter Rhodes makes when he says:

“We make a mistake when we wait for heaven, wait for enlightenment, wait for change. It is not going to happen in the future. It is happening. It is within our experience. Now is the time.”

Yoga and meditation are tools that help us bring a quality of awareness to our lives so that we don’t suffer unnecessarily. It is just so easy to use these valuable tools to bypass what’s happening right now, what’s living and thriving in our bones and bodies and lives right now; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Life is not always love and light. Sometimes it’s pain and darkness. They are the two poles of life that together light up our lives as the full experience it is.

It’s easy to fall into a practice of seeking enlightenment on a mountain top while the everyday enlightenment passes us by. Lorin Roche reminds us of this in The Radiance Sutras:

Wherever, whenever you feel carried away,
Rejoicing in every breath,
There, there is your meditation hall.
Cherish those times of absorption—
Rocking the baby in the silence of the night
Pouring water into a crystal glass
Tending the logs in the crackling fire
Sharing a meal with a circle of friends.
Embrace these pleasures and know,
This is my true body.
Nowhere is more holy than this.
Right here is the sacred pilgrimage.

I’m so grateful to that yoga teacher for her offering and for sharing an intention that was relevant in her life. It helped shed light on my own process and revealed to me an intention that has been marinating in me all year.

I will take things personally. I will live life fully. I will love more than ever before.

Originally published on YogaOneBlog.

4 Ways to Go Deeper in Yoga

aumI attended an amazing yoga teacher training a couple years ago. Among the many things I learned from it was this:

A yoga teacher training may deepen your knowledge of yoga, but only you can deepen your practice of yoga.

That deepening, sifting, observing, and growing happens subtly, over time, and often through your own home practice. The doorway to a deeper practice may turn out to be your own and not the one into a yoga studio.

Here are four practices  I routinely return to when I feel the need to dive deeper, long to feel connected or want to jumpstart my heart and soul.

Skip the Music

Music is a powerful addition to yoga, but so is subtracting it. When I practice without music I have to hear my bones creak and crack. I have to hear my breath start out uneven and slowly deepen, slowly lengthen. I have to hear both the silence and the noise that I often try to escape. In short, I have to practice alongside myself as the yogi I am and not the yogi I hope to emerge as after my practice.

Practicing without music gives my heart the space to speak up, and when my heart speaks I want to be able to hear it loud and clear.

Try: Noticing the natural noises in your surroundings. The birds, the traffic, the fan, the dishwasher, the silence between your inhale/exhale, and eventually the beating of your own heart. Follow those sounds into the present moment. Linger here, you the teacher, you the student.

Slow it Down

Slowing down our yoga practice means allowing the poses to work on us instead of us working so much on the poses. A more deliberate, slow practice lets us find and focus on gems that are easy to miss when we move quickly. Our breath gets to become our endoscope, exploring our insides for tightness, patterns of holding, and muscles locked in fear and habit.

Try: Holding each pose for at least a minute after warming up. Pay close attention that each movement corresponds with a complete inhale and exhale. Instead of letting your exhale taper off at the end focus on keeping it strong and steady the entire time. Notice when and how your internal dialogue kicks in. Allow what already is to rise to the surface.

Practice When You Don’t Feel Like It

Reasons I often hear (and use myself) for skipping yoga, especially a home practice, is I’m tired, I’m too busy, or I don’t feel like it today. Ironically, these are the most fertile times for us to practice. These are the times we can observe our internal dialogue as we practice and start doing the deeper work of yoga; that being unifying our mind and body and stepping into a more honest relationship with our true self.

If time is the problem, commit to a 10-minute practice once a day. A consistent practice doesn’t have to be a long one. The consistency is the important thing.

Try: Starting with an exhale instead of an inhale. Empty yourself out completely. Now there is space to begin. Instead of “adding” breath and movement, try observing the layers of stress evaporate until all that’s left is breath and movement. Stay focused on linking your breath with your movement instead of trying to get through a certain routine or number of poses.

Explore Mantra

Some of the most revealing insights I’ve experienced in yoga have come through mantra. There are a multitude of mantras to choose from, but let’s focus on the most common one we hear in yoga, om.

Om, or aum, is a sanskrit syllable also called pranava or “deep sound.”

The three letters correspond to three states of being. The A being the waking state, the U being a dream state, and the M being a state of deep sleep. The ensuing silence is referred to as a fourth state, Turiya, or consciousness itself.

Try: Beginning and ending your practice with an aum. Notice how each feels different. Observe how the sound physically emerges from you, with the A beginning at the back of your throat, the U rising to the roof of your mouth, and the M holding steady with the lips closed.

Deepening our yoga practice doesn’t always mean mastering a harder pose, taking a teacher training, or practicing more. Often it just means opening the door to your heart and courageously choosing to enter with awareness, commitment, and compassion.

Originally published on elephantjournal.

The Secret to Staying Free

Rachel's skeleton
the spine

My chiropractor once shared with me that he took part in a study that observed what happened to the bones after a chiropractic adjustment.

What he saw was that 30 minutes after being adjusted the muscles pulled the bones back into their old, incorrect spot. Then 30 minutes later the muscles moved the bones back into the correct position.

It’s as if they were reminded of where they were supposed to be and then the body corrected itself.

This reminded me of what happens through yoga. We go to yoga for a metaphorical adjustment. We intentionally adjust our bodies and minds to realign them and we leave feeling great.

But our ingrained habits and traits are very strong. Yogis call these habits samskaras. They’re like the muscle that pulls what we’ve just aligned back into its old patterning over time.

Years of reacting in a certain way can reach out and grab us just when we think we’ve left them behind for good.

Longtime yoga teacher Christina Sell puts it this way: “One fun (and humbling) thing about growing up is seeing how many times I thought I was changed only to realize what I thought was lasting change was simply a moment of freedom.”

Years of practicing yoga, instituting good habits and cleaning house internally can improve our lives externally so much that we sometimes think we’ve been cured. We’re past whatever it was we wanted to get past. We’re free of whatever it was that had us in its grip.

Life has a way of testing the new-and-improved us to see if we’re really walking our talk. How we respond when life meets our expectations is not as revealing as how we respond when it doesn’t.

The practice of yoga is a unifying one, not one of disunity. Through yoga we begin to unveil the inherent unity of our mind and spirit, of our head and heart, of our body and soul.

It’s not that we create the union, it’s that we become present and still enough to observe what’s already there, thumping in our hearts and rushing through our veins.

We are already whole. We are already complete. We are already free.

The more we remind ourselves how to stay aligned, the easier it is to return there when our samskaras pull us out of alignment. This is how we find the freedom hidden in the most compressed situations and how we maintain that freedom when life becomes challenging and intense.

We keep reminding ourselves. We keep creating healthy samskaras. We keep holding space for our self to grow in, whether that means digging through dirt or blossoming in the sunlight.

When our old habits show up we allow for them, we forgive them, and we learn from them. We bathe in the freedom of being ourselves.

Tap into Your Life Force to Re-Energize

“A yogini is a professional of the interior landscape, an expert conservationist of the vital life force, Prana.” -Tenzin Palmo

Maha Prana, or the “great Prana,” is that vital life force.

I think of it as my raw aliveness.

Many of us first experience Maha Prana on our yoga mats. If you’ve ever been unable to sleep after an intense backbend class, found your body shaking midway through a powerful Vinyasa flow, or experienced a strength you didn’t know you had after holding standing poses longer than you thought possible, that’s the pranic energy flowing through you.

As Tenzin Palmo advises, the longer we practice yoga the better we get at containing, conserving, and managing this magnificent force within us.

Although we often feel great after a yoga practice, in the rest of our lives we might find our energy waxing and waning and seemingly out of our control or feel out of touch with our Prana.

When we reclaim our Prana, we reclaim our life. We tap into that great energy within us and guide it where it is most nourishing, most sustaining, and most beneficial for us and the world we live in.

wind powerMaha Prana can be broken down into 5 principle energetic functions. These are called vayus, which translates to “wind.”

If you think about the power of the literal wind when it’s wild and free versus when it’s contained, funneled or focused, you can start to get an idea how powerful these vayus can be.

Cultivating awareness of these vayus can help us stay in touch with our Prana off our mats and in our lives.

The vayus govern, not only our physical energy, but also our emotional and mental energy. Without getting into too much detail, here is a brief summary of the energetic qualities of each vayu:

  • prana-vayu is a receptive, receiving energy that moves inward, towards the center of the body. Think Inhale.
  • apana-vayu is an energy of elimination that moves downward and outward. Think Exhale.
  • samana-vayu is a unifying energy that moves from our periphery to our core.
  • udana-vayu is an expressive energy that moves upward from the throat.
  • vyana-vayu is a coordinating, connecting energy that integrates the whole body and extends from our core to our periphery.

Getting sensitive to the energy we experience in our bodies allows us to then find ways to redirect energy that’s not serving us or unblock energy that is stuck.

I see these vayus most clearly at work in yoga poses. For example, in Warrior 2 apana-vayu grounds my legs and pelvis while prana-vayu lifts and expands my torso and arms. When I hug into my core I tap into samana-vayu and when my head is balanced on my spine and my eyes softly focused over my fingertips I sense udana-vayu. Through vyana-vayu I feel the energy radiating from my core to my fingertips.

Knowing the names and details of the vayus is not the important thing. Sensing them at work in your body is what matters.

How do certain yoga poses and sequences make you feel and how do they affect your mental and physical energy? How does your body feel when you’re depressed or when you’re joyful? What happens to your breath?

Becoming sensitive but not judgmental is the balance we strive for when stepping into our skin.

I’ve found the sequencing of yoga poses and the quality of my breath has a major effect on my overall energy after my practice and through the rest of my day, sometimes even the rest of my week.

To that end I try to first listen to what my body actually needs on any given day and respect that by choosing a practice that will balance my energetic body as well as my physical body.

Sometimes that means just breathing without additional movement; sometimes that means a strong moving practice; and sometimes that means an evening of restorative yoga. (Two online resources I love for balanced energetic practices are here and here.)

Reclaiming our Prana is not a matter of charging in and demanding it obey us.

Reclaiming our Prana is a matter of stepping into our body with awareness so we can hear the quiet wind that blows through every cell of our being and gracefully and gratefully navigate the river of life that flows through each of us.

 

photo credit: Chuck Coker

4 Bedtime Poses to Help You Sleep

30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia.

5,000 to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.

Sleep disorders are associated with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer and high blood pressure.

At the end of the day our minds are often wired while our bodies are tight and fatigued.

“Active relaxation” is what happens when we use restorative yoga poses to both stimulate and relax the body so that it moves towards a more balanced state.

These 4 poses can easily be done in bed to calm your central nervous system and prepare your body and mind for deep, quality sleep.*

*****

Legs up the Wall (Viparita Karani)**

This is a gentle leg inversion that allows gravity to work on your lymphatic channels (an important part of our immune system) encouraging lymph fluid to circulate.

  • Viparita KaraniLay on your back and rest your legs up against your headboard or a wall. Alternately, you can lie on the floor and rest your bent legs on your mattress. (This option is great if you have very tight hamstrings.)
  • Bring your attention to your breath and try to lengthen the exhales.
  • Rest here for 5 minutes.

Child’s Pose on a Pillow (Balasana)

This forward fold calms the brain and gives your hips and thighs a gentle stretch.

  • Supported BalasanaCome into a wide-legged child’s pose on your bed with your feet touching and knees wide.
  • Stack one or two pillows in between your upper thighs and walk your torso out over the pillow.
  • Turn your head to one side and rest here 5 to 10 minutes.

Reclined Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)

Twists are detoxifying and rejuvinating. They release tension in the back and are energizing for the spine.

  • Lie back on your mattress and bend your knees.Reclined Twist
  • Lift your hips and shift them an inch to the right.
  • Bring both legs over to the left and place your right palm on top of your left palm.
  • Keeping the knees stacked, lift your right arm and stretch it to the right.
  • Take 10 to 15 deep breaths here, releasing any tension on the exhales.
  • Repeat on the other side (shifting the hips an inch to the left.)

Left-Nostril Breathing (Chandra Bhedana)

At any moment we are breathing through only one nostril. Which nostril that is changes throughout the day.

Right-nostril breathing is associated with being more energized, increased heart rate and blood pressure, whereas left-nostril breathing reduces heart rate and blood pressure and helps to induce a more restful state.

If you feel very awake, stimulated, or jumpy when trying to fall asleep, try Left-Nostril Breathing to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which will help your body to calm down and relax.

  • Nadi ShodhanaPlace your pillow under your hips for a comfortable seat.
  • Rest your right thumb gently on your right nostril and your right ring finger on your left nostril.
  • Gently close the right nostril.
  • Inhale through the left nostril.
  • Close the left nostril, exhale through the right.
  • Close the right, inhale through the left
  • Close the left, exhale through the right.
  • Repeat for 10 to 15 breaths.

 

*Consult your doctor before beginning any yoga regimen.

**Do not practice Viparita Karani if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure or glaucoma.

Yoga As An Undoing

I recently attended an evening yoga class at a small studio near me that holds classes outside on a large wooden deck.

I practiced next to a large tree trunk that emerged through the deck and the ocean air reminded me to inhale fully.

At the end of the class as I set up for savasana and stared at the open sky, I remembered these lines from Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind.

The ancient Greeks had a structure they called the temenos: a four walled enclosure with no roof. The warriors would come in off the battlefield and remove their armor to lie down on their backs and open their hearts again to the sky.

Laying there I felt like that warrior. I’d spent the previous hour removing the armor I wear all day long. The safe space I was in encouraged my body and mind to soften their constant gripping.

Without the weight of my defenses and the stiffness of my judgements weighing me down I found I could easily slip into the sacred space of my own heart.

Here in my heart it’s dark and I am alone, but somehow I’m able to see so clearly and I don’t feel lonely.

I say I do yoga, but really yoga is undoing all my doing. It unravels my tension, releases my breath, and softens my mental and physical gripping. It reveals to me who I am under my armor and my judgement. It polishes my heart and reflects back to me a capacity for love that I often forget I’m capable of.

In a world where doing is praised more than being, yoga as undoing is exactly what I need to become more present, more conscious, and a more authentic human being.

Navigating the Landscape of Limitation

blacksMy 6-month-old recently figured out how to roll. He can’t get enough of it and rolls everywhere.

It didn’t take him too long to start rolling into things, like the side of our blue couches.

I would see him run into the couch and I’d think. Okay, now roll the other way! You’re not going to get anywhere rolling into the couch.

But he wouldn’t roll the other way. He’d back off and roll into the couch again.

Over and over again. He didn’t appear to be frustrated or angry about it, just kind of exploring his new territory.

I’ve been trying to bring some of his childlike curiosity to my yoga lately because it occurred to me there’s a lot of similarities between his practice and my practice.

I visit the same territory of my body and mind over and over in yoga, and there are a lot of limitations and barriers I roll up against in my practice.

It can be a physical limitation like my tight hamstrings lately or a mental block like judging how I’m doing on any given day.

I like to practice these concepts in yoga because it makes it easier to practice them in life. It’s a starting place for me.

Here in the home of my body, working with my own skin and bones, can I soften a little right where I want to harden.
Can I open a little more right where I feel myself closing.
Can I create a little more space in the most contracted, uncomfortable poses.

Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. Either way is okay if I remember to bring my curiosity and consciousness to the process.

If he keeps at it my little one is going to realize he can’t go through the couch, but he can crawl around it and he can climb over it.

If I approach my limitations respectfully and curiously, I’ll probably find a treasure buried in this terrain I think I know so well and a new way to navigate the landscape of my life.