Yoga Therapy – A Path to Healing and Connection
Written By: Courtney Strong, LMHC, CDP- Director, Clinical Manager
Yoga is a practice of many elements focused on the physical, mental and spiritual. In EHN Seattle’s Yoga Therapy group, clients cultivate both a sense of integration between physical, mental and emotional experience. In addition, clients learn how to differentiate between one’s self and an experience.
The Connection Between Yoga & Recovery
Yoga offers several benefits towards recovery. Practicing yoga allows you to be present and attentive to an experience while simultaneously providing you the ability to observe, not react to or feel controlled by the experience. Often with addiction people become adversaries to themselves. Individuals can physically and emotionally become disconnected. Yoga can give you the opportunity to create a connection using mindfulness, breathe awareness and body awareness.
Mindfulness is a foundation to yoga and essential to the yoga groups at EHN Seattle. By using mindfulness, a person can observe experiences, thoughts, emotions and sensations in real time, as they happen without judgment or reaction to them.
Author and spiritual teacher Pema Chodron describes this experience as, “You are the sky, everything else is just the weather.” Individuals often forget that they’re not their thoughts. Thoughts are just a part of them. People tend to get caught up in a thought or a feeling and lose perspective beyond it. When it comes to addiction, cravings are an example of that. It’s a sensation and a series of thoughts. Part of the work in recovery is to observe cravings as they arise with the perspective that they are an experience that will pass. When individuals get caught up in the experience itself they react impulsively. People will use behaviors that are automatic instead of responding with a sense of perspective and understanding for what’s really need.
In EHN’s yoga therapy groups, the practice of mindfulness is developed through breath and body awareness. We observe the quality of how we breathe and realize how we feel in our own skin, taking note of where there is physical tension or pain. Our bodies carry memories of experiences from our history and impact our choices about how we treat ourselves.
David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD, authors of Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body, wrote about the effects of movement and breathing practiced in yoga and how they facilitate the healing of physical trauma that has been stored in our bodies as physical tension, restriction or pain. According to this book, individuals become physically and mentally hard, increasingly restricted and judgmental over time, because instead of compassionately paying attention to their experiences they run from themselves through addictions.
Practices of breath and body awareness create the possibility for softening, releasing and healing because they cultivate space in our experience to observe and pay attention to experiences without collapsing into judgment or reaction. Out of that space of attention and observation we come to a sense of connection, of care for ourselves, and find ways to address what we really need in order to heal.
The Unexpected Benefits of Yoga
Often what initially draws individuals to explore yoga is the physical side of it, increasing strength and flexibility. Yoga has a profound physical impact. It can increase flexibility after a single class, decrease chronic pain and improve strength within a few months. Yoga philosophy conceptualizes the self as composed of layers (physical, psychological, breath, spiritual) and therefore has a profound impact on all aspects of our experience.
Harvard Medical School has been studying the impact of yoga on physiological and mental functioning since the 1970s. They have produced studies on Yoga’s ability to improve cardiovascular health and significantly decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression resulting from a consistent yoga practice.
Yoga groups at the Edgewood Health Network involve two parts. First, a gentle yoga practice that includes stretching, mild strength-building, breathing practices, mindfulness and meditation. The second part is to provide a time to process. Following the yoga practice group members are invited to reflect on their experience and discuss insights into their recovery process.
Paramanhansa Yogananda, one of several teachers to introduce yoga to North America in the early 1900s, describes the purpose of yoga to condition the body to be able to sit and be still. Yoga therapy groups at EHN Seattle features a combination of movement and stillness, self-reflection and group processing with four goals in mind:
- Cultivate a sense of integration between body and mind;
- Build a sense of compassion and acknowledgement of our experience that will allow one to reflect on judgments and reactions;
- Develop a healthy sense of differentiation between our deeper selves, our thoughts and emotions;
- Encourage a positive relationship with our physical selves while giving gracious attention to areas of tension and physical restriction.
If this sounds like something you’d like to try, give us a call at 206-402-4115. Our Yoga Therapy Groups currently run on Tuesdays throughout the day and evening.
A part of Edgewood Seattle since the summer of 2012, Courtney Strong specializes in the treatment of trauma and addiction, as well as other related mental health disorders. Courtney is passionate about the opportunity Edgewood offers individuals in the Seattle area, regularly revamping services to provide the highest sophistication in treatment of substance use disorders.
Bringing Mindfulness Into Everyday Living
Five Ways to Zen Your Food Experience Written By: Nicole Makin, MACP, RCC
Mindful eating is an ancient practice of eating with the intention of taking care of yourself and of giving the experience the attention required to notice the flavors of the food and experience its effects on your body. In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, let’s take some time to reflect on our personal relationship with food.
The more we learn to pay attention to ourselves and connect with our emotional and physical needs and experiences, the better equipped we are to make healthy choices with food. The benefits of mindful eating include:
- – Reduced anxiety around food
- – Improved digestion
- – Less frequent binge eating
- – Coping more effectively with eating disorders
- – Better managing diabetes and other chronic diseases
Since we all spend time with food each day, eating is a natural opportunity to practice mindfulness in daily life. Here are some tips to zen your food experience!
1) Be compassionate with yourself. Eating is an activity that allows us to connect intimately with ourselves and our bodies. Registered dietician Marsha Hudnall, with the Center for Mindful Eating, says, “The more understanding and forgiving we are of ourselves, the more motivated we are to do what we need to do to take care of ourselves, including eating well.” Our attitudes and feelings about ourselves influence how we eat. Food is a way to care for ourselves and nurture our well being in a very direct way.
2) Practice stress reduction in preparation for meal times. Consider taking a few moments to practice stress reduction prior to food preparation or eating. Sit quietly and give yourself permission to focus on your internal experience. Sit up straight and allow your muscles in your neck, shoulders and belly to soften. Notice your breath and the sensations in your belly and chest as it rises and falls. If you are feeling especially wound up, pay attention to the soles of your feet on the floor as you continue to breathe. If you are going to prepare food, create opportunities to do so mindfully, being fully with your hands for each task such as peeling carrots or stirring soup in a pot. Give yourself the gift of quiet and simplicity before you eat. If you have a family, include them in this process. Children can help with simple tasks such as setting the table and are often attracted to mindful energy.
3) Check in before you eat with the why, what, where, and how much. Reflect on what motivates your decisions with food. Where and how do you normally eat? Do you often skip meals? How do you typically take your meals? Are you eating “on the go” every morning, shoving toast into your mouth while you put on your shoes and rush out the door? Do you regularly over eat when certain emotions or experiences arise? Explore these questions honestly and without judgment, noting what is motivating your decision to eat and why you are choosing the foods you are. Allow your body to communicate to you what it needs to eat at any given time.
4) Bring your mind and body together while eating. Create the conditions for a mindful food experience by turning off cell phones, music and TV’s. Thich Naht Hahn recommends a moment of contemplation prior to eating in which we express gratitude for the food we are about to receive, “May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude, so as to be worthy to receive this food.” Perhaps consider all that went into producing the food: the sun, soil, water and labor of growing it and preparing the meal. Allow yourself to see and smell your food before you even pick up a utensil. As you begin to eat, devote some time to each bite and notice the textures, flavors and sensory experiences. Taste the food and allow yourself whatever time you need to eat. Pay attention to your body’s signals. When you are full, allow yourself to stop eating.
5) Give yourself transition time. Stay mindful of the transition between eating and moving on to the next task. As you get up from the table, keep your mind and your body together. Pay attention to how your body feels as it is digesting this particular meal. Consider using the clean up time as another opportunity for silence and mindful reflection. Allow yourself a chance to relax while digesting your meal and continue to breathe with awareness.
Eating in this way can seem strange initially. I grew up in a family where food was eaten quickly and there were often multiple conversations happening simultaneously at the table. Eating in silence together with forty people in a hall during my first silent meditation retreat initially raised anxiety for me and I had to reassure my inner child that it was safe to experience food in that way. I have since used mindful eating to build awareness of certain foods that I need to avoid for optimal health and to reduce stress induced snacking. May you nourish yourself with love and wellness today.
Mindful Eating Definition
Benefits of Mindful Eating
Why what where how and how much?
Thich Naht Hanh quote from daily reader “Your True Home” reading 116 Be worthy of your food.
Mindfulness: From Distraction to Stillness
Stillness. The calm surface of a lake at dawn. The silence of an empty chapel. The soft quiet of a night full of stars. How we wish at times for our minds to settle, and just be still. For the pointless worries to stop, that ceaseless chatter. What we should have done, what we should be doing, what we should be preparing for. The tyranny of the shoulds. Our minds are constantly doing, always trying to fix things, change things, make things better. Trying to close the gap between where we are, and where we think we should be. From the second we get up in the morning, to the time we fall asleep at night. What should I have said to her on the phone last weekend? What can I do about my weight? All big questions, to be sure, but do they never stop? Why can’t we shut our minds off? It’s something I hear in the office all the time. I can’t focus, doc. I can’t turn my brain off. It won’t let me sleep. It must be ADHD. Isn’t there a pill you can give me?
Modern society doesn’t help. There’s always another distraction out there. Something else to do. Cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, Google. More channels on TV. More ads. Faster cars. Better hair. Whiter teeth. Another thrill, another sensation. Don’t stop, or you might miss something. A constant need for ‘more’. It isn’t hard to see where addiction fits in.
What’s the answer? How does one stop ‘doing, doing, doing’, and just ‘be’? How do we learn to control our minds, and not have them running in circles, taking us with them? For a few, the diagnosis really is ADHD, and treatment for this can help. For most of us though, the problem isn’t that we can’t pay attention, but that we’ve forgotten how to. This is where the gentle practice of mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention, in the present moment, to things as they are. It’s what happens when you start to notice what’s going on, both outside you, and on the inside, in your thoughts and feelings. Noticing what it’s like to eat an apple and enjoy it, rather than ‘scarfing’ down lunch so fast you can’t remember 10 minutes later what you just ate. Noticing what your thoughts are, but then remembering that they’re just thoughts, and that you don’t have to react to them.
A simple way to begin being mindful is to take a minute and just focus on your breathing. Try it. Let your breath be your ‘anchor’. Notice how each breath in fills you with energy, and how each outward breath lets go of tension. Sit with your breathing for a moment, and notice what happens. Let whatever happens happen. You might notice how the soles of your feet feel on the floor. You might become aware of all the sounds around you. Notice it, and then come back to being aware of your breathing. A thought might cross your mind. Just notice it, like it’s a cloud crossing the sky. Then gently let it go, and come back to your breathing. You don’t have to react to every thought. Thoughts and feelings come and go all the time, like bags coming down the baggage chute at the airport. If you choose, you can sit with them and let yourself experience them. On the other hand, you can let them go, and just come back to your breathing. You can control what you pay attention to, and for how long. You can learn to control your mind, rather than letting your thoughts and impulses run away with you. It’s a skill, which means it takes practice, but it’s a skill worth learning. And the payoff, ultimately, is stillness.
By: Dr. Charlie Whelton, M.D., FRCP(C), ASAM Certified