Grace in the Muck, Reflections

reflections photo by shannon mayhewSince I have been working with this method of allowing my challenging feelings, rather than fighting or discrediting them, I can tell you a few things about it.  First, this process is not necessarily a magic wand that makes all bad things good.  Well, not immediately, anyway.  But when I use it for headaches, for example, and really breathe while focusing my awareness in the areas of the pain, the pain moves.  Sometimes it moves to another part of my body, then lifts and the headache lessens or goes away for a while.  For emotional states, I have found that when I get myself feeling better in my body, I have easier access to better-feeling emotions.

Secondly, this process of allowing seems to have brought about a greater general feeling of self-acceptance.  When I become upset with my girls’ fighting, for instance, I have more empathy for myself.  This feels so much better than getting upset at myself for getting upset!

And the third observation I will note is that this practice has made it possible for me to allow my kids’ more difficult emotions, as well.  I hope that this allowing, and my modeling self-acceptance, will help my girls to understand the validity of their emotions too.  Instead of jumping into fix-it mode, I try to remember to first establish a connection through empathy.  Child development experts tell us that this process helps kids’ brains go from alarm to reasoning, just as when we acknowledge and connect with our own feelings.  Then, with the “thinking brain” online, kids are better able to learn and problem-solve.  All parents know that tantrums are not teachable moments!  This is probably a whole other blog post, but I wanted to touch on it here to illustrate how powerful allowing and acceptance can be.

Reaching out

Over the past year, I have been collaborating with my teacher, colleague and dear friend, Dee Gold, of Inner Reaches Yoga and Health.  We’ve been working to structure and refine this process for using the mud to nourish the flower… using our challenging feelings to nourish our physical and emotional wellbeing.  Dee and I have developed a curriculum we’re calling “Nourishing the Soul: Employing the Intention-Awareness Method (I-AM).”  We have been offering some pilot test classes this summer and will launch the official curriculum in a half-day workshop in January 2014.  I’ll announce details here on this blog when the date and time are finalized.  (In the meantime, if you are ready to dive into some mindfulness training, Tara Brach is offering some day-long retreats in Rockville, MD this fall: True Refuge, and Pathways to Sacred Presence).

I’m wondering what questions you have, and whether you’ve tried any of this.  Do you have any reflections of your own to share?  If so, please click on “Leave a comment” above and we can keep the conversation going.

Finding the “yes’s”

blossom release photo by shannon mayhewYes, when I am actively present, I can draw my murkier feelings through my body, bless them, and allow this process to feed the places that want to bloom.  Noticing and allowing what is holds us in the current moment, opening us to both healing and joy.

In writing, as in yoga, I find that I need to be in a state of noticing, and to stay in touch with my emotions, to express what is true and to connect with you as a reader.  Both yoga and writing are about paying attention and finding the yes’s we can open to in every moment.

It is in this spirit that I offer my first blog series… if you found some inspiration in here somewhere, please share this and help me to get the word out.  (I promise they won’t all be this long!)  And if you can, please come to one of my yoga classes or workshops.  At the end of class, we’ll rise after deep relaxation, nourished by the practice, and we’ll say to each other with our eyes, “Is it nice?”

maine flowers photo by shannon mayhew

Grace in the Muck, part 4

Tools for your lotus garden

So how do we get from the muck to the lotus flower?  How can we combine what we’ve learned from brain research with experience and intuition, to transform our difficult feelings?  From studies on mindfulness, we know that focusing on bodily sensations can help ease pain and depression.

Feeling photo by Jim Guzel

When difficult feeling states arise, rather than escaping them, we want to notice, to really focus on and allow the feelings that come up.  Yoga has taught us that breathing slowly and deeply, while observing what is, gives us strength.

With the allowing, we can also name the feeling to calm the brain’s alarm system.  Now our reasoning centers of the brain can be called upon and we can ask ourselves, “How do I want to feel?”  I think it’s important to be specific here and find the words that really express the quality of your desired feelings.  The more we breathe gently and deeply, the better we will be able to access the areas in the brain that facilitate thinking in words.

With this acceptance and expressed intention, we can build a pathway in our bodies from the current feeling state to how we really want to feel.  Rather than react as victims of circumstances, we can respond with wisdom.

How do we build this pathway?  When I first started this practice, I found that I could calm myself enough to set an intention for how I wanted to feel, but sometimes the distance between how I felt and how I wanted to feel seemed too far.  I could just “fake it ‘till you make it,” and act cheerful, but that didn’t feel authentic.  And I suspect it didn’t help my body to process those neuropeptides or nourish my cells with new ones.  So I started experimenting with tools from yoga and related traditions to get me in resonance with how I wanted to feel.


For all challenging feeling states, begin with the above practice of allowing, focusing, breathing, naming, and setting an intention for how you want to feel.  Then, choose something physical to give you a feeling of release.  Activities like stretching, running, singing, and shaking out your hands can help.  Or you could choose from yoga poses, breathing practices, meditation, hand mudras, or mantra (chanting). These are not hard-and-fast prescriptions, rather, tools that have helped me (and my students) to get to a point of feeling better in the body.  When we create a resonance of feeling better in the body, we lay a path from how we currently feel to how we want to feel.

Poses like tree pose are grounding, and child’s pose and other forward bends can be very soothing.  Both mudra (symbolic hand gestures) and mantra can be helpful with anger and sadness.  Mudras are gestures you create with your hands and fingers, and are considered in yoga as “external expression of inner resolve.”  Chanting mantras, such as OM or Sat Nam, can release feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin in the brain.

I have found some Buddhist meditation practices to be powerful methods for soothing pain.  For a migraine, for example, I send an “inner smile” to the painful areas and say inwardly, “Welcome, pain. I wrap you in love.”  It’s helpful to remember that welcoming the discomfort doesn’t mean you want it to stay, but rather you are acknowledging that your body is communicating with you, and you are honoring that message.  Perhaps your body needs some deeper rest than you have been able to give it, and this is a message to stop and breathe for a while so that your immune system can be replenished.

Working with a yoga teacher can be helpful in this process, but you can do this at home by yourself as well.  As you breathe with focused awareness and name the feeling, see what kind of physical activity your body feels like it needs in that moment and experiment.  Some of these things, like breathing, mudras, and even a mini-tree pose, can be done quite discretely during a difficult conversation, or while feeling anxiety as you wait in line at the grocery store.

Time to take a break and maybe try some of this!  Later this week we will revisit this topic, with some reflections from the lakewaters of our practice.  Perhaps you will have some reflections of your own to offer…

Grace in the Muck, part 3

Focus, Express, Transform

On “Conan” last month, comedian Louis C.K. spoke about the therapeutic power of feeling our sadness.  The interview, colored with Louis’ trademark earnest, expletive-packed wit, is going viral.  I think his sentiment resonated with so many because, on some level, we are all aware of the validity of these darker feelings, and of their potential transformative power.  Louis said that when he allowed himself to truly experience sadness, rather than distracting himself with his cell phone, “I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

So how does this really work?  What’s behind the power of Tara Brach’s recovery methods, and Louis C.K.’s singing through tears to a Springsteen song?  What is happening in the brain and in the body when this kind of emotional nourishment occurs?

The late Dr. Candace Pert, known for discovering the cell’s opiate receptor in 1973, was a leader in new understandings of the brain and body processes surrounding our emotions.  Her research suggested that repressing emotions creates a blockage of neuropeptide signals (chemical information that communicates feeling states), and that this insufficient flow creates weakened conditions that can lead to illness.  This is because, according to Dr. Pert, our neuropeptides are in constant communication with our immune system.

A creative expression of anger photo by shannon mayhewIn her book, The Molecules of Emotion, Dr. Pert explains, “All honest emotions are positive emotions. Health is not just a matter of thinking ‘happy thoughts.’ Sometimes the biggest impetus to healing can come from jump-starting the immune system with a burst of long-repressed anger… The key is to express it (appropriately) and then let it go, so that it doesn’t fester, or build, or escalate out of control.”

Neuroscientist Dr. Catherine Kerr, of Brown University, has found that “mindfulness” approaches can help alleviate conditions like pain and depression. Her research reveals that people who practice mindfulness – in particular, focusing on body sensations in the present moment – gain better control of the brain’s alpha rhythms that help regulate how the brain processes feeling states.  Dr. Kerr says that this practice connects people to a kind of “volume knob” for specific sensory-related brain activity.

In addition to mindfully focusing on and allowing oneself to feel those sensations, also naming strong emotions seems to give us further ability to soothe ourselves.  Dr. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA took fMRI images of people’s brains while they looked at pictures that depicted distressing emotions.  Lieberman found that naming the emotions calmed the activity in the amygdala, where the brain is active during fear.  With the brain’s alarm system quieted, activity shifted to areas of the brain used for reasoning and communicating.  When the participants just gave names to the people in the pictures, and did not name the emotions, this calming effect did not occur.

Since I have spent so much of my academic and career life studying how people think and learn, I love to dive into this kind of research.  Then I look at it alongside my own practice, teaching experiences, and intuition.  So the logical question following all this information for me was, how do we use this knowledge to truly find nourishment from the muddier of our feelings?

In part 4 of this series, we will look at some effective methods for allowing and transforming our challenging feeling states.  This is the best part!

Grace in the Muck, part 2

Make time for it, Carly!

In part 1 of this series, I asked how it is that yoga helps us to nurture the kind of peace that we tend to experience in nature, like my discovering the lotus flowers on Lake Inspiration.

Lake Inspiration’s explosion of lotus flowers is no small deal to a yoga teacher.  In yogic philosophy, the lotus flower often symbolizes the beauty that can arise out of the murkiness of confusion and suffering.  There are so many ways to apply this lovely metaphor, like the way people come together in times of crisis, or those individuals whose childhood challenges have inspired them to become great humanitarians.  The mud nourishes the flower.  Struggle fosters character.

Lotus flower photo by shannon mayhew

But today, as I take in this contrast, these bursts of pink and peach dappling the murk, I am thinking about a more bodily sense of nourishment.

In my yoga classes, we have been working with the idea of allowing, rather than fighting, different “feeling states”, whether they seem positive or negative.  So this includes things like anger and pain.

You may be thinking, with the voice of Carly Simon in your head, “I haven’t got time for the pain… Haven’t got room for the pain…”* (Bonus points if you remember the 1980’s Medipren commercial, which shows women who haven’t got time for the pain of menstrual cramps because they need to ride horses.)

Humor aside, of course there are times when medicines are an important part of the healing process.  But I would like to offer a radical idea.  Our so-called negative feeling states, like anger, sadness and pain, are in some ways nourishing to our wellbeing.

We are so accustomed in our society to dis-allowing our difficult feeling states (both emotional and physical), that we can miss out on our bodies’ messages and intrinsic mechanisms for healing. Teachers like Tara Brach, whose methods have helped so many, including people suffering from trauma and drug addiction, show us the profound healing that is made available when we practice allowing our difficult feeling states.

She encourages her clients to men­tally whis­per­ an affirming word or phrase when a challenging feeling arises.  Tara notes that “even the first gesture of allowing, simply whispering a phrase like ‘yes,’ or ‘I consent,’ begins to create a space that softens the harsh edges of your pain.”

In part 3 of this series, we’ll explore how current neuroscience research may give us a clue as to why experiencing our pain, rather than walling it off, works.  And we’ll see just how this science aligns with wisdom from comedian Louis CK.  See you tomorrow!

*(Actually Carly Simon’s lyrics tell us that, since she learned to open her heart and quiet her mind, she hasn’t the need for the pain.  Maybe she was practicing yoga?)

Grace in the Muck, part 1

This morning my dog Casey and I walked around Lake Inspiration in the Kentlands.  This is where, thirteen years ago, David and I used to walk, holding hands, discovering our new neighborhood together.  A few years after that, I huffed around the partially wooded loop, nine months pregnant, having contractions.  I pushed a stroller, and then a double stroller, along the dirt and rock trail, and held pudgy-muddy little hands on this walk too.

But I guess it’s been a while since I’ve been there, because, to my great surprise, today almost half of the lake was covered in lotus leaves!  With flowers!

Lotuses on Inspiration photo by shannon mayhew

Is it nice?

This is what Lake Inspiration used to look like, below.  That’s my older daughter, then around four years old.  She could have sat on that rock for hours.  Although she may not have known the meaning of the word “inspiration,” she knew the feeling.  She understood in her body that somehow, watching the top of the lake being nudged by the wind created ripples that extended beyond the water, into her heart.

Is it nice photo by shannon mayhew

“Is it nice?” she asked me one morning, when we stopped our stroll to gaze at the water.  She was not quite two years old.  Now, we playfully ask each other this question whenever we have that feeling of wonder in our hearts that can’t be easily articulated.

The grace that nourishes

That picture always reminds me of one of my favorite poems, “The Peace of the Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.  I love the part of the poem where he says that “wild things” like the wood drake and the great heron “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”  Berry suggests that being in the midst of the peace and stillness of nature allows him to “rest in the grace of the world,” rather than let worry overcome him.

It’s such a gorgeous message, and a powerful practice.  If only we could hold Lake Inspiration in our pockets and take it into the world with us, to the office, to the parent-teacher meetings, to bed with our should’s and to-do lists.  Or, inwardly, to the places where our hearts hang with quiet grief, to our anger-scorched cheeks, or to the pains that drain our strength.

In yoga, we experiment with discovering a kind of repose within ourselves, practicing breath- and movement-based methods to give us access to a deep, healing sense of calm.  I think we all can accept that getting more oxygen into the body, along with stretching and strengthening, are healthy practices that can lead to feeling less stressed.  But what is it about yoga that truly opens us, as with Berry’s moments with the wood drake, to the grace that heals and nourishes?

Tomorrow, when this series continues, we will consider how Carly Simon, the lotus flower, and the art of allowing help us to answer this question!  Check back, or if you wish, you can subscribe to this blog to receive tomorrow’s post by email.