Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mindfulness Meditation Changes Brain Structure in 8 Weeks

More good news about mindfulness meditation. A study that's about to appear in the next issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging shows that participants in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program exhibited real changes in brain structures associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Check it out:

Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yoga for Anxiety

Let's face it, anxiety is a part of modern life. In small amounts, anxiety can be motivating, but when it becomes excessive, it can be downright debilitating. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems, and often leads people to seek help through counseling and medication. While yoga may not be a replacement for medical treatment, it is quickly gaining a reputation as a way to manage anxiety and stress-related symptoms safely and effectively.

Many studios offer yoga classes specifically for relaxation and anxiety reduction, which are usually slow-paced, meditative, and excellent for reducing stress. For students with a lot of anxiety, however, staying still in a pose for a long time can be difficult or overwhelming. In this case, it may be more beneficial to begin with a more vigorous practice, which directs the mind away from the experience of anxiety and burns off nervous energy and agitation. The student can then end the class with more relaxing, restorative poses and often will find it easier to relax at that point.

One of the ways yoga helps anxiety is that it helps us focus our attention away from our feelings of anxiety and anxiety-provoking thoughts, and on to our breath and the way our body feels in the various poses. There's no way to worry about that big presentation you have to give tomorrow when you're trying to do a handstand! We're also reminded to come back to our breath, time and time again, and to let go of the various mental distractions we encounter. We learn to be in the present moment - and by focusing on keeping our breath smooth and steady - we learn to relax in the present moment. This is a practice that takes time, but many people experience a glimpse of relief almost immediately. And, whether you are in a yoga class or in your daily life, you can practice bringing your attention back to your breath, and letting your exhalation become longer than your inhalation, which helps your body (and your mind) relax. Another breathing exercise you can try: inhale for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. Do this several times, without strain and see if it helps.

Meditation is another effective way to manage anxiety, but it can be challenging in the beginning. Often new meditators are overwhelmed when they sit down to meditate and realize just how busy their minds are. This is a normal reaction and sometimes it helps to consider that even experienced meditators have busy minds - and, as much as they have learned skills to quiet all that business, they have also learned to accept it and do not let it bother them anymore. So how do you quiet a busy mind? Having something to focus on while meditating is helpful. Try counting your breath; with each breath, silently count to yourself ('inhaling - one, exhaling - one') from one to ten, then begin again. If (or when) you get distracted and lose your place, gently let go of your thoughts and come back to counting your breath - as many times as you need to. Notice how you react when this happens - do you get frustrated, angry, or can you be gentle with yourself? If you haven't tried meditation before, it's good to start with short sessions - 5 minutes or less at first, and gradually build up to 20 minutes or more. Guided meditation can also be a good way to begin - and there are countless CDs for sale and download available that make it easy to start.

If you are prone to anxiety, it may surface during yoga or meditation (or elsewhere for that matter). If this happens, acknowledge it ('Hmmm...I'm feeling anxious right now') and return your attention to your breath. If it persists, try examining the anxiety with a curious attitude: where does it start? Where does it reside? What does it feel like exactly? Does it stay steady, or does it fluctuate? Usually when we approach intense feelings with an investigative attitude, they start to lose their intensity. We learn that they are not as awful and scary as we thought they were, which is half the battle; so much of our anxiety is anxiety about anxiety. When we can learn to live with and accept unpleasant emotions instead of trying to push them away all the time, they have much less power over us.

Neither yoga nor meditation will probably eliminate anxiety from your life completely; that's not really the point. But if practiced regularly, they will help anxiety become manageable, and less distressing - and provide you with other benefits you wouldn't have expected.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Yoga Day in San Antonio - Free Classes!

With almost 16 million Americans already practicing yoga, and 14 million people reporting that a healthcare professional has recommended they take up the practice, yoga is quickly becoming recognized as an excellent way to improve one’s health - both mental and physical. If you haven’t tried yoga yet, Yoga Day is a great opportunity to try it for free. On Saturday, January 22, several studios around San Antonio will be offering free classes to encourage newcomers to try yoga for themselves - and to give yoga teachers an opportunity to give back to their community.

The Synergy Studio, Nydia’s Yoga Therapy and Yoga Shala will join together to offer a free class at 9:00am and a posture demonstration at 10:30am. Classes will be held at Yoga Shala, 18585 Sigma Road. Each studio will be be offering additional free classes in the afternoon; check their websites (links below) for more information. Each of these studios will also be accepting donations to the San Antonio Food Bank.

My home base, Two Hearts Studio at 5309 McCullough (between Olmos and Basse Road), will be offering a free Intro to Yoga class for beginners and newcomers at 3:30pm, and a free Vinyasa yoga class at 5:00, both taught by Becky Trantham and Yours Truly. For more information feel free to contact me at


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

How to Get the Most Out of Your Yoga Practice (and Life)!

As a yoga teacher, I often wonder if my students are "getting it." Having so much passion and confidence in yoga, I want all my students to get a glimpse of what is possible. But, since there's no way to convey everything useful about yoga or mental health in one single class - even if this were a good idea - I have to trust the process and the student to "get it" when they are ready. Still, a few words can help the process along.

Here are a few ideas to help you get the most out of your yoga practice (and life!):

*Show up consistently. Sometimes students wonder why they aren't getting stronger or more flexible and the simple reason is that they don't practice often enough. Committing to practice doesn't mean you have to spend several hours every day at it, but as with most things, the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. I encourage students to try for at least 3 full practices a week if they want to see results - and beyond that, to fit in some yoga whenever they can. The good thing about yoga is that it can be done virtually anywhere - if you can't make it to class, you can practice at home, or wherever you are. This might mean doing a spinal twist at your desk at work, a quick child's pose before bed or a downward dog before getting dressed. It all adds up.

Similarly, in life, sometimes we wonder why things aren't happening for us - why we aren't making more progress. When we examine what we're doing we realize our efforts are sporadic at best. Like yoga practice, life progresses when we actually show up and do the work. Make a commitment to what you want to happen in your life, and do something - anything, no matter how small, every day toward that goal. If you skip a day (or yoga class), no big deal. It happens. Start again tomorrow.

*Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness describes the nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations we practice in yoga and meditation. Practicing mindfulness, we learn to acknowledge our constant stream of thoughts and feelings, and let them go without getting caught up in them. We learn to notice how our experience is constantly shifting - and that no thought or feeling is permanent, or really has control over us.

In yoga class, we are often reminded to 'come back to the breath.' We are encouraged to bring our attention back, time and time again, to the quality of our breath, to bring awareness to our body from head to toe, and to let go of our thoughts and come back to the present moment. In other words, we practice mindfulness! This is what makes yoga a moving meditation - by learning to listen to our breath and bodies, we learn to see what's really going on in the present moment and to do what's called for - and to get out of the endless cycle of thinking and reactivity that we're usually caught up in. This is one reason we feel better after a yoga class - we've gotten a bit of a break from ourselves! Wouldn't it be great if we could maintain that calm, aware state of mind off our yoga mat?

The good news is that we can. Mindfulness is a skill that gets better with practice. And since it's so easy to go an entire day without remembering to practice (as I can tell you), it can help to use things around us as a reminder. A ringing phone or a red light can be used as a reminder to be mindful. Use whatever is around you to remind you to come back to your breath, to acknowledge and let go of thoughts and feelings, and relax into the present moment. If you have to put a sticky note on the phone receiver to remind yourself, no problem!

*Approach intensity with curiosity, intelligence, courage and compassion. We all have yoga poses that challenge us - and sometimes make us want to walk out of class! For me, a long hold in any of the Warrior poses is a real challenge - physically, mentally, even emotionally. But this challenge is exactly what I need - to strengthen my body and mind.

It helps to approach challenges like this with an open mind - acknowledging and letting go of expectations, thoughts and judgments about them ('I hate this pose!'). We can remind ourselves of the value of the challenge and stay with it as long as we can, but with intelligence and compassion. This is where mindfulness comes in: we learn to pay attention to what's really going on in our bodies, and to know when it's appropriate to push on, or pull back. We learn to differentiate between actual pain and our lazy mind saying 'eh, enough of this already, shouldn't we be at home on the couch?' We approach our edge and back off enough so that we don't hurt ourselves, but learn to accept a certain amount of intensity - even if it's uncomfortable. What happens when we do this? We make progress. This is the practice of tapas - the discipline, or heat that fuels transformation.

Life off the mat gives us plenty of chances to practice tapas. So often we view challenges with irritation and resentment, when they are great opportunities for transformation. Whatever the situation is, be it an emotional challenge, a new opportunity that brings with it anxiety, or just a traffic jam, try the yogic formula. Take a deep breath. Let go of your expectations, judgments and thoughts and approach the situation with an open, curious mind. Take another breath. Then, make a decision about what to do that is based on intelligence, courage and compassion, and not your fear/resistance (or other negative emotion) based mind. See what happens!

*Forget all of the above and just enjoy the moment. You may have experienced it in class or elsewhere - out of nowhere, when you least expect it, that feeling of bliss sneaks up and overtakes you. And you weren't even trying! Ahhh, the yoga buzz - it's what keeps many people coming back. You work hard, you let go, and it comes.

In life too, there's a time to work hard, and a time to let go of all the effort and just savor the moment. Or at least have a sense of humor. We don't have to be grave and white-knuckled about life all the time - it's all about balance. But that's another blog post!

These are just a few things to consider - what helps you get the most out of your practice and life?