Finding Contentment in Unusual Times

A message that has resonated so much with me recently has been this: “We are human beings, not human doings”. And yet, we are always doing something. We sometimes forget to take the time to just be here in the moment, to be present, and to appreciate what we have, even through its obstacles, struggles, and uncertainty.

This pandemic has brought so much uncertainty with everything that it can feel unsettling at times. But this also may allow for us to find the gifts that may be hidden in the shadows.

I like to (maybe inappropriately) joke that Covid-19 happened because I wished so hard for change in my life that we are just getting what I wished for.

I was experiencing some feelings of stagnation in my life and was wishing for some sort of change – but when Covid-19 happened, I was like, “No.. not like that!”

So, if the world is in it’s current state because of me and my reckless wishing, I am sorry!

However, through all of the economic loss, including of my primary job and source of income, I have learned to cope significantly through the gifts of yoga, and have revisited the Yamas and Niyamas of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and have resonated with the specific observances of Contentment (Santosha) & Surrender (Isvara-pranidhana) to get me through all this.

Contentment means to look to yourself and your own innate goodness for happiness; that is the only place you will truly find it. It also means being present. Rather than wishing for things to be different in your life, accept and appreciate the reality of what is. Do you really need things to be different to be happy? Choose to be happy now. Cultivate contentment by making gratitude a daily practice. Notice the moments you are happy, even if they seem to be few and far between. Keep a gratitude journal. Count your blessings. Remind yourself often, “I have enough. I am enough.”

The sutra of Surrender can be described in a few ways, in this case as a means of letting go of doubt and making room for faith.

When combining the sutras of Contentment and Surrender, I have found it easier to live life more spontaneously and through a positive, more present approach. I took these two concepts on the road with me recently on a spontaneous trip to Utah. This trip was initially planned to be a rock climbing trip on the north coast of California, but evolved while my husband and I were on the road, finding on our way that the plans needed to change due to Covid-19 closures of many parks and campgrounds. So then, we drove on our way to Idaho, also finding out on the way that there too were many Covid-19 closures. And so, we ended up wandering the deserts of Utah, accepting places to climb that met our ability levels, camped where is was open and welcoming for us, and learned to enjoy the excitement, spontaneity and uncertainty of where to go next.

This pandemic has brought so much uncertainty with everything that it can feel unsettling at times. But this also may allow for us to find the gifts that may be hidden in the shadows. When things become unattainable or closed off, instead of feeling limited, can we find ways to let go of the old and embrace the unknown of the new?

Cup of Change: I Practice Seva Because I Will Never Forgive Myself for Dropping the Ball at the Starbucks Drive-Thru Again

Several years ago during my undergrad, I was often seen wasting my student loan funds at Starbucks buying my morning’s overpriced coffee before class because I needed it. I don’t even want to think about how much money I had spent in Grande Almond Milk Lattes during those years, but one thought that I could never ignore was the time I broke the chain of paying it forward at the Starbucks drive-thru.

For those who may not be aware of the phenomena, sometimes when you go to the Starbucks drive-thru, a customer in front of you may have a spontaneous urge to act in kindness and will pay your tab, so that when you pull up to the window to pay and get your order, the barista will say the car in front of you paid your tab. There is then the opportunity to pay the tab for the car behind you, and so on and so forth. There have been many occurrences of this happening at Starbucks drive thrus across the United States, one setting a record of paying it forward 160 times in a row!

So on one of my excessive coffee run days, I was delighted to find out that the car in front of me had paid for my drink. Unfortunately, I did not know about the pay-it-forward gesture at the time, and didn’t even bother to think about maybe offering to pay for the person behind me. I could blame it on the barista for not asking me if I wanted to pay-it-forward, but honestly I believe that my inability to consider returning the gesture to someone else speaks to my level of selfishness and lack of awareness at that time in my life.

I have no idea how many people had paid-it-forward that day until I broke it, and I’m also embarrassed of how many years later it took for me to one day realize how I dropped the ball on this. But then I realize that I’m not even the same person I was those several years ago. I have gone through many cell deaths and regenerations since then, have created new neural pathways in my brain, and I have learned from my mistakes, this being one of them.

So as I have grown into a more conscious way of living, I realized that I owed a great debt to others I have not even met yet; to give back to those I have received from with no expectation of receiving anything back. Basically paying-it-forward in this Starbucks drive-thru of life.

That is why I practice Seva – the act of selfless service in Karma yoga. Its not that I feel guilty about not paying-it-forward in itself, but because I was not consciously aware at the time of my connection to others, and what others have selflessly given me, whether through their time, energy, money, love, thoughts, etc. At that period in my life, I was a just the typical self-absorbed college undergrad with an inflated ego (no offense to other college undergrads, I also know college grads, post-grads, and those with no college education with inflated egos as well). I recognize now how to live conscious and be present, Be Here Now, as Ram Dass would say. And part of being more self-aware in this moment meant for me a recognition for those who have given to me not so that I would pay them back one day, or just forget them and their gestures, but to shape me into a person who would give back to society.

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”, I know I am who I am because of all who have in one way or another shaped and influenced me into the being I am, who have shared this path of life with me and helped guide the way. This includes my family, my teachers, mentors, friends.. and this also means those who have hurt me, caused me harm, or ignored me completely – for they too offered me learning lessons and opportunities for growth, despite their negative influence. Negative influences have taught me lessons like identifying toxic friends, family, relationships, workplaces, etc., as well as lessons on how to face adversity head on without being destroyed by it.

This had me think about my influence on others and society. That person behind me at Starbucks could have been financially strapped or even recently homeless but needed some source of energy to get through their work-day (as a sufferer of chronic fatigue and low energy I do believe that coffee is an essential item just like other foods). Or maybe they had a rough day and a kind gesture would at least offer them a sense of love and belonging – it feels good to be taken care of every once in a while. This is why I practice seva – it reminds me to get out of the bubble of selfishness and to practice extending my gratitude for what life has given me – both the good for nurturing my soul, and the bad for its learning opportunities and its catalyst to personal growth.

So whether its coffee for a stranger on me, a warm hug for a friend, or telling someone causing harm to go love themselves, Cheers.

The Inner Warrior Method: A Comprehensive Guide to Trauma-Conscious Yoga

These classes are built with empowering, relatable, non-religious, and non-esoteric themes that emphasize the experience of the discovery of The Inner Warrior within each of us.

What is Trauma-Conscious Yoga?

Trauma-Conscious Yoga, also commonly known as Trauma-Aware, Trauma-Sensitive, and Trauma-Informed – is more than just another style of yoga. Psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes trauma as, “not just an event that took place sometime in the past; but also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” With a mindful approach to understanding trauma, this approach to the teaching yoga takes into consideration the understanding of the various forms of trauma and how to safely guide a class into a mind-body connection without the risk for triggering or re-exposure.

This style of yoga offers a gentle, non-religious, non-esoteric approach that is great for those who may be new to yoga or may benefit from a simple activity without feeling over-stimulated or intimidated. It emphasizes on promoting deep breathing, easy-to-follow mindfulness techniques, and slow, gentle movement – all aimed to building healthy coping skills, increased self-awareness and self-acceptance.

Trauma-Conscious Yoga is often taught teachers with extensive education in a social science related field, and/or the addition of a trauma-informed training. Having the background knowledge and awareness is crucial when serving an at-risk or underserved group within the community. Though this type of yoga does not replace the work of experts such as therapists and social workers, it serves as a great supplement in the trauma-recovery process.

The Inner Warrior Method

The Inner Warrior is a supplemental program developed to address the regulation of the nervous system, which can be activated through acute or chronic stress, including the affects of trauma. It focuses on the benefits of yoga that could aid in developing healthy coping skills, increased self-awareness, and self-acceptance through activities such as deep breathing, gentle movement, and focusing on the present moment – known as mindfulness. These three activities offer a method for self-calming of the of the nervous-system response to stress and trauma, by consciously slowing down the breath rate, and focusing on the body rather than preoccupations or troubling thoughts in the mind. Thus, The Inner Warrior method allows those practicing these skills to reclaim control of their emotions and sensations of the body.

This program was intentionally titled The Inner Warrior because it can allow those to comfortably process their internal sensations and traumas through a casual activity like yoga – and discover their inner strength to take control of their emotions and sensations, instead of being controlled by them. These classes are built with empowering, relatable, non-religious, and non-esoteric themes that emphasize the experience of the discovery of The Inner Warrior within each of us. It acknowledges that each of us are on our own version of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”, in which despite facing a crisis, we can manage to overcome and transform from that experience.

Many whom have experienced trauma develop defense mechanisms that may show up in ways such as social defensiveness, barrier building, dissociation, and isolation. These are mechanisms developed in response to wanting to protect against experiencing more trauma, but can be unhealthy when building interpersonal relationships or working toward recovery. Thus, yoga teachers must be able to identify and react appropriately when faced with students who may exhibit one or more of these defense mechanisms and know how to respond appropriately. This includes using non-reactive approaches such as re-direction or offering alternatives. Teachers must know how to speak to others not by a place of authority or superiority, but at the same level as them. This means maintaining a high level of respect toward their students, and allowing those students to feel acknowledged, welcomed, and encouraged – so that they can let go of any barriers they may be building, and become more open to their treatment methods, and more flexible to changing any harmful thought patterns they may be putting themselves in.

The Benefits of Yoga for Mental Health and Psychiatric Care

Why Teach Yoga in Psychiatric Settings? 

Generally, many have found that practicing yoga can improve quality of life, as it provides several beneficial physiological effects to the body and nervous system.  These effects include: increased body awareness, stress relief, reduction of muscle tension and inflammation, sharpened attention and concentration, calming of the central nervous system, along with providing a deep state of physiological relaxation.  Additionally, all of these effects can help to contribute to mental health treatment, through the modalities of providing mental clarity and awareness, stress management, and mood enhancement. Thus, many mental healthcare professionals have utilized yoga as a supplemental treatment for psychiatric disorders.

What is the Science Behind Yoga in Psychiatric Settings?

There is a growing amount of research that supports the use of yoga in psychiatric care facilities.  Research by Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, a neuroscientist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has found through several studies, that yoga targets unmanaged stress, a main component of chronic disorders such as anxiety and depression. It does this, he says, reducing the stress response, which includes the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The practice enhances resilience and improves mind-body awareness, which can help people adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they’re experiencing in their bodies, according to Khalsa (American Psychological Association).

As Dr. Khalsa supported in his findings, yoga can help to regulate the stress response in the central nervous system.  In further detail, it is important to understand that the central nervous system is comprised to of two parts, which control how stress is regulated in the body; the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the production of cortisol (stress hormone) and the fight or flight response.  The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our autonomic functions, such as breathing, heart and metabolic rates, and restores balance of cortisol levels.  As stress activates the sympathetic nervous system to increase cortisol production and the body’s stress response, yoga helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system to then regulate cortisol production, increasing the coordination between our minds and our bodies through the physical postures, breathing techniques, and conscious relaxation.

Additionally, yoga helps build for a better sense of self through increased mind body awareness. With this, inpatients may find it easier to control certain behaviors, such as impulse control. They may also develop a stronger sense of awareness and connection to their peers, and be more present in the moment, rather than thinking about the past or the future.

How Do You Measure Results?

In yoga and mindfulness classes provided in a clinical setting, inpatient adolescent and adult students are often taught meditation, breathing techniques, all while holding modifiable and accessible yoga postures within a sequence. By relying on the methods of previous studies on the effects of yoga and mindfulness in clinical settings, qualitative data collection methods have been replicated, collecting data such as self-reporting measures participants to measure the effectiveness yoga has on improving mood. Using the self-reporting data of participants assessing their mood scores from before and after yoga classes, hospital inpatients in these types of programs generally report either a stabilized or improvement on mood in comparison to how they reported feeling prior to the class. Other self-reporting measures include an interview-style approach, in which participants voluntarily provide feedback about their experience in the class.

Through the methods of interviewing, many inpatients in past studies have expressed general enthusiasm about learning about yoga, often with it being their first experience to the practice.  Another benefit to offering yoga in clinical settings is the sense of community that is built through this group activity. As it widely believed that there is a stronger mind-body awareness developed in practicing yoga regularly, that offering these classes in clinical settings, the activity may enhance an increase in social awareness and connection of participants to themselves and their peers.  These classes also incorporate many breathing and meditation techniques that can be learned and utilized both on and off the mat, that may become an effective learned mechanism to self-regulate and cope with stress.