Have you heard that deep breathing is a good way to calm down and relax? Well, I’m here to say it’s true! …except when it’s not. Like the day I left meditation class with my heart racing because I’d overdone it on a breathing exercise. I was surprised because this wasn’t my usual experience in meditation class. What had happened and why?
The explanation for my odd reaction is simple. I had, through breathing (and probably a lot of attitude), revved up my heart and charged up my nervous system for a confrontation –when I had no need of fighting anyone. Our breathing and physiological state (and therefore our emotional state) are causally linked. Breathing is part of a network of systems with many moving and interrelating parts. It ebbs and flows with the risings and fallings of your autonomic nervous system and is a key player in autonomic regulation – when you can access it.
Before I get into that, it’ll be helpful to review the fancy terms and some basic facts about your nervous system.
The human nervous system (and probably that of all animals with brains, but don’t quote me on that) has two main parts: the Central Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous System. The CNS is made up of your brain and spinal cord. The ANS is made up of everything else – all the nerves running from the spinal cord out into your body. Nerve signals travel between CNS and ANS, between your body and your brain, and that two-way communication is essential. The rest of what I’m going to share sounds like it’s all about the ANS –and it is, but I just want to make to point out that the ANS is sending and receiving signals to the brain throughout it all!
Your Autonomic Nervous System
Within the ANS there are subsystems that are in constant interplay for each of us throughout the day, regulating our response to our environment (both external and internal) so that we can stay alive. These subsystems are useful to know by name, because I’ll refer to them a bunch:
Changes in nervous system activity can change your breathing (and vice versa).
When your sympathetic response charges up, your breathing rate speeds up as part of the need to power up your muscles with more circulating blood and oxygen. Rapid or sharp or irregular breathing is a sign of an SNS response.
When you start to move back into a ventral vagal response, your breathing returns to normal and can be steady or deep and slow.
You can also use breathing to shift your nervous system activity. We use breathing to move into a ventral vagal response all the time with practices like calm deep breathing and lengthening your exhales in a comfortable way. There are simple breathing practices you can learn and use when needed or daily, and I’ll share two of my favorites next time.
For the other side of the ANS, you might also use breathing to stir up the sympathetic response to prepare for a physical challenge. This is how I got stuck with my heart racing –except that it wasn’t intentional! The primary breathing practice we use in ISHTA meditation uses a challenging breath ratio, and I was working on lengthening my breath retention. Normally this would be ok with the long exhales and shorter inhales. But I was pushing my body further than it was comfortable going. Without realizing it, I had entered into a competition with myself, waking up my sympathetic response. My body was ready for a fight!
After that, I wasn’t really in a state to use “deep breathing” to calm myself down, at least not without help. Luckily, my next appointment was a teaching swap with a colleague and friend who immediately understood the state I was in and suggested I teach rather than be put through exercises. Seeing a friendly face, hearing a reassuring voice, and getting to teach (which usually grounds and centers me) all helped me gradually shift back into a ventral vagal state.
My meditation episode came about by taking a conscious practice too far. It was quickly brought on, but also pretty quickly resolved. Had I been alone, I’m confident I could have calmed myself down one way or another because I know my body well, know what calms me, and am used to doing practices to encourage a certain body/mind state. I’ve learned how to regulate my nervous system responses using various practices.
We all have the same ANS, the same capacity for engaging with it – either to take conscious control of our body/mind state and to be shifted “automatically” in response to an event, a thought, or a trigger.
Triggers awaken a stress response that was once useful for survival. These are sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses that were stored in your body/mind for quick retrieval in future – in case your life is threatened again in a similar way. And while our nervous system is really good at protecting us, it’s not always so good at splitting hairs when it comes to things that may or may not be life threatening. A loud sound is a loud sound. A rejection is a rejection. Whatever your body or mind links with a past experience is likely to be broad enough that there are other examples in the world. Your nervous system still calls on protective action before your mind has a chance to assess what kind of threat you’re experiencing – a manageable one or a life threatening one. This makes what might otherwise be a manageable experience into a trigger for a strong response.
As we’ve seen, your nervous system state and your breathing are intertwined, and how you breathe may trigger or come about with a triggered stress response. More importantly, you might breath the way you do to keep you in a protected state. Changing it, even if it would eventually be useful, might in any given moment be frightening and feel impossible. And so if “take a deep breath” initiates a sympathetic response, whether it’s to avoid a direct threat or to avoid lowering your shield, the calming effect of lengthening and slowing your breathing will be inaccessible in that moment. Thankfully, you can learn how to gain access again. (Movement practices on Moved to Heal are all created with this learning in mind.)
Breathing is very personal. In my teaching, I avoid instructing the breath, offering instead options, suggestions, and rhythms you can choose to follow or ignore. I encourage you to find your own way in, over time. Once you can feel comfortable tapping into your breath as a resource, you can use it to help regulate your ANS (we call that autonomic regulation). When you start working with breathing as a practice, there may be some experiences along the way that are unsettling or uncomfortable or even scary, which is why it is helpful to start breath work with a teacher who can help you regulate in the moment through other means (more on that in a future post). If you’re a survivor of trauma, you might consider seeking out a therapist with some kind of body-based modality in their methodology (such as trauma-sensitive yoga, somatic experiencing, NARM, and many others). Of course, if you’re already seeing someone you like who doesn’t have that experience, consider trying a separate body-based practice, which might be as simple as joining a yoga class, either one that is expressly trauma-informed or taught by a teacher with trauma-informed training (such as my Sunday classes!).
In a follow up post, I’ll share some breathing practices and suggestions for how to find a comfortable way in whenever you’re ready to try them.
Be moving, be true, be you,
photo credit mahdis mousavi, found on unsplash
You might be here because you want to feel joy in moving in your body --and in being yourself. One way to recognize joy as such is through cultivating your body awareness. So what is body awareness?
There’s the body and then there’s the awareness.
Body can be “a body,” a specimen of the human body. The kind of body we study through many lenses (science, medicine, sociology, history, art, and more). Collectively, humanity knows a good deal about this body!
Body can also be your body. Unique, experiencing, being. Individually, you can know a good deal about this body, too.
Awareness can come through your knowledge of something. Like what we collectively know about our bodies (and any one of us can then look up or study). Your knowledge affects your awareness, which is why I’m including it as a kind of body awareness. Body knowledge is part of how you can be aware of your own body.
Awareness is also your sense of, or consciousness of something. Awareness is what you can tune into and feel or notice or hold in your mind's attention, either while it's happening or after it’s happened. You don’t need to be able to label or define or understand an experience to be conscious or aware of it.
Some sensations guide our basic survival behaviors (hunger, shelter, sleep, community). If we feel them, we usually understand them instinctively. Without anything else to get in the way, if you feel tired, you will rest, if you feel hungry, you will seek out food. Of course, there is plenty that gets in the way, including our own history of experiences and our meaning making.
Because we are all meaning making creatures. When we become aware of sensations we don't understand instinctively, or can’t explain through all we’ve learned, we tend to seek meaning. Sometimes it’s an urgent quest, sometimes we come to that exploration gradually.
Making meaning is not body awareness. It comes after. It's the stories we use to make sense of what comes into our awareness. It's the individual contribution or connection to the collective. It's the knowledge building that we do. Of course, once the knowledge is learned, then it can become part of our capacity for feeling, for being aware through our own senses.
For most of us, body awareness is a blend or blurring of felt sense and learned knowledge of our body. Where that blurring can happen I’d like to unpack further in a future post and for now simply share some examples of what might be just one type of awareness or the other.
Does all that we’re aware of need to have meaning? Do we need to explain all that we can sense in our bodies? Of course not.
Being aware of being, of sensing without explaining --or being aware with curiosity and patience-- can be a gift.
When I’m meditating, my sense of my body, how my body feels, is unique to meditating. As a novice, I sought labels and explanations for the feeling, but that search yielded more mysticism dressed up as science than solid information, so I let it go. I try to just enjoy the experience, understanding it in myself -- even if I can’t explain it to anyone else.
On the other hand, pain in my body, in my muscles, bones, and organs, tends to drive me to seek meaning, and persist in the search. That’s why I study anatomy, teach yoga, and love helping others move out of pain and into healing. When I’m hurting, I want an explanation or cause, so I can either understand and accept or accept and heal.
I’ve learned over the years strategies for cultivating awareness --and being ok with whatever it can teach me. Movement and meditation practices have been key in my own education, which I love to share here, and of course there are also many, many other ways to go about it. I encourage you to explore what works for you, and let awareness of your body, of yourself, be part of being you.
Be moving, be true, be you,
photo credit lisa yount, found on unsplash
Whether your capacity (or desire) for movement is small or great, whether you're thinking of visible movement of our external bodies or "invisible" movement of our internal spaces, movement is part of being alive.
Perhaps because movement is so fundamental to life, we often don't notice it. Or we notice it when it gets in the way.
For myself, I'm inclined to notice limitations before capacities, and capacity more so when it is extraordinary. I notice difference before sameness. I notice pain before pleasure. Or at least, I would say I used to --before I started paying attention.
As a yoga and movement teacher, I tend to notice all of it these days. I look out for possibility and limitations. I look out for objectives and curiosity. I look out for joy and boredom, pain and relief. I strive to notice what biases are interwoven into my observations -- mine, society's, or the individual's.
We move to get things done. To build a house or keep up with others.
We move to show our spirits. To dance, to play, to feel alive.
We move to stay healthy. To exercise our bodies and minds with routines that sustain us.
We move to get healthy. To create a shift or change in our bodies and minds with new movements that can challenge us.
We move to heal.
We move to feel. To release feelings, to bring on feelings.
We move to flee. To get away from ourselves and others.
We move to approach. To draw towards ourselves and others.
We move to endure. To build strength through challenge.
We move to overcome. To break barriers and build bases.
We move to be social. To feel connected and to laugh.
And movement of all kinds! For all reasons!
As a movement teacher, sometimes my emphasis lines up with my students' -- and sometimes it doesn't, like when I show up remembering they like a challenge, and on that they day they just need to feel good in their body. The same can be true of how we approach our internal conversations about movement -- what we want to need and what we actually need don't always sync up.
I encourage you to be curious, to explore the kinds of movement that suit you (whether for health, healing, joy, or no particular reason that you know of). When you discover movement that resonates -- whether it the shape of a sport or practice or just moving without a label, let it become part of your life. Notice when you need it and when you don't.
Gradually, one move at a time, you can build your own movement resource library, just by doing and noticing.
Be moving, be true, be you,
photo credit kristen alyce, found on unsplash
In a previous post I shared some elements of Moved to Heal that make the practices trauma-sensitive (you can read that here). This week, I want to share why I love teaching this way, and how trauma-sensitive approaches show up in my mov/ed yoga classes, as well.
Over the years, I have grown deeply interested in helping others (and myself!) feel safe. I am fascinated by the physiological and neurological differences between fear and safety -- and how these different states show up in our thoughts and actions. And I adore being in a room with a group of people who all feel safe and seen. It's not as common an occurrence as it should be, and it's glorious when it does happen
One of the ways I can help others feel safe and seen is through movement and teaching yoga.
On the Moved to Heal podcast, I teach trauma-sensitive yoga practices that follow some of the methodology of Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga (developed at the Center for Trauma and Embodiment at JRI). Locally, I partner with social service organizations to provide in-person group trauma-sensitive yoga classes, as well. So, you may be wondering, are the mov/ed yoga classes also “trauma-sensitive yoga” (TSY)?
No and yes. They are not TSY classes --there are many elements which would not be present in TSY classes and they are open to everyone rather than being intended for a group of trauma survivors. At the same time, my understanding of trauma and healing informs all of my teaching, so I’d say my “regular” yoga classes are trauma-informed (and again, everyone’s welcome, including survivors!).
In recent years, TSY has been the guiding principle that helped me blend previous teaching training and experience into my current format.
The physical practice of yoga can be done on one’s own or with a guide, instructor, or teacher. When there’s someone leading a group of people (or via live stream), a fairly common approach to instruction is to issue commands for students to follow: “move your foot here, move your arm there, do this now, do that then” and so on. Some styles expect students to actually do as they’re instructed, others allow for modifying to suit one’s own practice, but still issue a “standard” instruction with commands. When you think you are supposed to do what the teacher says, or when you want to do what the teacher says, clear, consistent, command-based instructions are generally reassuring. Feedback as to whether you’re doing the moves “right” might then also be welcome.
My initial yoga study and teacher training was with ISHTA Yoga (read a little about that journey here). I developed much of my group class skills while teaching with Yoga 216 (a studio in NYC that has since closed). The two studios offered similar, but also distinct approaches to guiding and teaching the physical practice of vinyasa yoga in group classes.
ISHTA’s approach is to provide direct instruction for what to do, and invite students to modify and adapt as they need within that. On the whole, ISHTA excels at creating an environment that allows for a diversity of practices. Within that, it was pretty much up to the teacher and the size of the class as to whether there was also equitable support for the various practices in a room. ISHTA’s primary purpose is teaching yoga as a spiritual practice, and they view the physical practice as one part of that.
216’s approach was to limit the group size so that each teacher could address a diversity of needs by instructing every individual in the class similar to a 1:1 session, to the extent that the class agenda allowed. Often this helped students learn a great deal about their bodies in relation to the yoga shapes. 216’s primary purpose was teaching yoga as a physical practice for whole-body wellness.
I love both approaches, but was never quite the poster-child for either. TSY became a bridge between the two, a way for me to teach with clarity and confidence, leave space for a variety of needs, and encourage students to choose their own path in class.
Here are some key qualities of mov/ed classes, and where they come from.
My purpose in teaching mov/ed yoga is to create a space for feeling whole through movement and community.
If you’ve never been to a mov/ed class, I hope this information is useful in determining whether you’d like to give it a try (and if yes or maybe, you can sign up for the class mailing list to get weekly invites). And if you’re already a regular, I hope this sounds familiar and gives you some insight into what we do every week!
Be moving, be true, be you,
photo credit ryan stone, found on unsplash
At first I was a yoga skeptic. Or really, I just wanted nothing to do with any stylized movement that wasn’t dance. Then my years of dancing began to show up in my body as pain, pain that limited my capacity to move how I wanted. Dancing -- moving my body freely -- is at the core of who I am. The pain holding me back was a bit soul-crushing.
It wasn't long before I was ready to find a solution, and in that search my skepticism of yoga gave way to hope and I gave it a try with some DVDs at home. My experience surprised me, my joy within yoga grew, and I decided to find a studio for deeper learning and teacher training.
When I walked through the door of ISHTA, I felt immediately comfortable. It was only the second studio I had tried, and I wanted to stop my search there, but due diligence made me try the other spots I had on my list. But everywhere else seemingly small things made me feel judged and othered -- and when you’re looking to heal, seemingly small things can make a big difference.
I stayed with ISHTA where I felt at home with the place and the people. It’s my hope for everyone, that when yoga becomes something you love, there is a community of people who are part of that experience. For me, yoga and ISHTA were pretty synonymous. In a word, I felt safe in yoga/ISHTA.
In the beginning, it was just about me and my practice. But quickly it became about teaching or sharing yoga. Like all young teachers, I grappled with how to be a “good” teacher and still be true to my own practice. During my early years, I didn’t always land on the best ways to help people feel safe, but it was a concern that bumped up against all my efforts; often my instincts to hold space and what I thought I “should” do to be a “good” teacher were deeply at odds. But it was a while before I knew what exactly I was struggling with.
Part of discovering clarity in my teaching came with time and experience. A bigger part came through the tools I learned through a trauma-sensitive yoga training (with Jenn Turner of TCTSY), ) that extended the spirit of the ISHTA approach with more concrete information.
The more I learned about creating an environment of safety, the more I recognized that this environment was what I had needed. Times when that feeling has been missing, times when I felt on edge, out of ease, and afraid, have gotten in the way of being true to myself --of doing all sorts of things, from simple everyday actions to bold risks that require courage.
In my study of trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed approaches, I have also recognized the process of healing that is akin to what yoga/ISHTA has been for me. My own traumas have been either physical injury or relatively minor events (all related to someone in a position of authority taking away my agency) that nonetheless have created a deeper scar than "makes sense." And stumbling into the world of healing trauma has shown me that once the trauma is experienced as such, it’s not how severe the cause was that is relevant in the present. It’s how we experience it in our lives that stays with us and has power.
The experiences in my life that have hurt me are the kind that most of us have lived through and deal with. I don’t consider myself as having experienced what would be diagnosed as trauma, neither PTSD nor complex trauma, and yet, like most (all?) people, I’ve still lived through stuff that I’ve had to sort through and heal --and am still figuring out. When first introduced to trauma-sensitive yoga, I recognized how the process and the tools of trauma-sensitive care could have immense value as part of standard care. This is what motivates me to create safe spaces in the ways that I can, with movement and meditation and learning to know yourself through them.
My area of work is in trusting the body. The body is an area that I understand, and I love helping others learn to understand and trust their own body, too. I have learned to trust the body, even though I don’t know the cause of every signal. I know that what we feel can be confusing. I know most of us need to learn to trust the body --and unlearn ignoring or dismissing it. Trusting our bodies can require hard work and take a long time, but one movement at a time, one curiosity at a time, one conversation at a time, we can find our way there.
Be moving, be true, be you,
photo credit ninno jack jr, found on unsplash
Do you ever wonder why we feel things the way we do?
Are feelings things that happen to us?
Are feelings things that are us?
Things that come from us? Things we do? Things we make?
What do our feelings mean once they happen, once we have them?
As human beings with bodies and brains, of course, we feel a lot of stuff and a lot of different ways.
You know what they mean, you feel them often and have learned to trust them. In my own body, I’m familiar with the feeling of hunger, the feeling of being overheated, the feeling of being cold, the feeling of being tired. And the feeling of being angry that I'm tired. These are all things that I'm very used to. I live with them and I accommodate them and I have learned to what actions to take based on what I feel.
For example, when I'm tired I know that my productivity goes down. I know it's really hard for me to be at my best --or even just pleasant-- when I'm tired and so I either try to rest or in some way give myself a break for being tired.
When we don't know what something is telling us, we also don't know whether or not we should listen to it. We might also not hear that it’s there at first.
My fingers and toes started going numb. I didn’t know what it meant and I didn’t know what to do about it. And for a long time, I just observed that it was happening, until I started to question: What is this? Why is it happening? I looked it up and apparently some people’s fingers and toes go numb in cold and under stress. Who knew? So gradually I conceded that I should try to keep my toes and fingers warmer. This took a minute because my narrative has always been that my feet get warm quickly and I’m forever sticking them out from under blankets to avoid overheating.
But now my story is a bit more complex. I still stick my feet out to cool down, but I also wear thicker socks in the winter. And when my hands + feet get cold, it means something different to me now. I'm learning to trust this new sensation experience and respond accordingly.
Some feelings are thoughts. And some feelings are sensations.
I have knee pain. That’s a sensation in my body, I guess. The frustration in my mind, the pain in my regret that this physical pain in my knees limits me -- those are more of feelings in my mind.
Really, though, I don't think there's too much distinction between feelings in the brain and feelings in the body. That may be how we distinguish or perceive what's happening -- we think of feelings as coming from our brains or bodies, of being in our minds or physical being, of happening to us or being us. Sometimes these distinctions are useful, sometimes they’re not. My knee pain, that I’ve lived with on and off for years, feels like an all-of-me sensation.
Pain, hunger, frustration, exhaustion, love, anger, embarrassment, desire.
Pain, love, anger, frustration, embarrassment, comfort, ease.
Very often the same feelings can motivate or immobilize us. It depends on the context, it depends on the moment. It depends on the unique person and circumstance.
If you don't eat all day, you'll probably feel hungry by the end of a day. If you don't sleep, you'll probably feel tired. The pain in my knees -- I'm pretty certain it's gonna be there when I go to workout later. I always hope it's not there, but it usually is. And so I plan for it. That's one that I'm trying to get rid of and yet I plan for it being there, even while I do what I can do to heal.
There’ve been times when the simplest little gesture has made me overwhelmingly happy, when the smallest kindness or consideration from another person has created a deeply emotional response. We’re wired to thrive in the kindness of others. It’s in these moments that I recognize instinctively that we're all in this together, that we all feel and want many of the same kinds of feelings.
I avoid what I expect will give me pain. This is an instinct. I seek out a feeling of strength and comfort and joy. This took years to learn -- to learn what creates actual comfort and joy… and how to trust it.
Crowds and parties usually make me anxious, so I avoid the feelings that come up from being in crowds. Long conversations about my favorite topics tend to light up my spirit, so I seek out that feeling of being intimately connected.
When you've experienced something enough times, you might start to recognize it. For example, when I don’t like being at a party, I feel small and out of body. This is a signal from my body that I didn’t always understand, but it’s grown reliable over the years 😉
Through my time teaching movement and meditation, I've come to learn that we feel what we feel -- and then we seek meaning to explain it.
Sometimes we get a pretty good story going on. We say, “Okay, this feeling means this kind of experience. These sensations from/in my body have to do with this kind of feeling from/in my mind.” And it can be powerful to put a label on physical sensations --or to identify the physical sensations that fit a label you’ve already given yourself.
You can learn about what you're feeling in both directions.
Once you've got a name for a physical sensation, it can help you learn how to change what you want to change and leave what you want to leave.
Physical sensations that go with a feeling can also help you shift from the body side. Let's say you recognize that you’re growing anxious because your belly is starting to cramp and your breathing is becoming shallow. You might start to take some deep breaths to calm the flutter in your chest and ease the cramping in your belly. If this creates change in your body, you might feel a change in your anxiety, too.
Sometimes we need the feeling or sensation, the indication of what we're going through, to know where we are.
Sometimes my body tells me I'm okay or I'm not okay long before my brain does.
You can go back and forth. You can dive in from one perspective. You don't have to do anything at all. You can just get to know that feelings are there.
There are so many feelings in my body that I am keenly aware of today that I don't think I ever paid attention to 20 years ago. Some are sensations I didn't actually have 20 years ago -- aches and pains and things like that -- but others are nuances of sensation, feelings that go along with routine experiences in your digestive system, that I just wasn’t aware of. In my younger years, I was cognisant of two feelings: pain and relief. Now I pay attention to all kinds of nuance within pain and relief, and feelings that fall under neither category, but rather just being alive.
Observing and discovering layers in what we feel can help us understand who we are and what we live. How our experiences move with us through the day, when they are part of us and when they aren't part of us. How feelings become part of us, or how they live with us, is something we have a say in.
Not always a very easy say, sometimes a say that takes a lot of work, but a say nonetheless.
Be moving, be true, be feeling, be you.
An important discovery
I'd been teaching for years before I stumbled across trauma-sensitive yoga. I'm not sure what inspired me to attend that first training, but it opened my eyes to exactly the kind of practice I need for myself and am drawn to offer others. I'll say more about that in a future post. In the meantime, I want to share just four things that make the movement practices on the Moved to Heal podcast trauma-sensitive.
Whether in the description or the cueing of a movement, or both, I offer more than one choice for all forms and actions. For example, when I offer a movement in a cross-legged seat, you could also lie down or stand up or sit another way. Or if I’m inviting you to lift and lower your arms, you could choose to lift + hold, or not lift, or do another movement with your arms. I offer a form with an action (a movement) and one or two or three options for you to consider. You can choose to do one of the choices offered or something else that you want to do. The choice for how to move your body is always yours.
In many fitness and yoga classes alike, movements are instructed in such a way that most of us will feel compelled to follow --even if it's not what feels good or safe or right to us. Sometimes, "following" can be what you want --say to help you get through a difficult workout that you want to do, and know you're comfortable with. But at other times, that kind of instruction is less a help and more of a hindrance, getting in the way of listening to ourselves -- of noticing what we need in the moment. Noticing and being able to choose what we need, knowing that's ok, is essential to healing traumas and hurts of all kinds. Trauma-sensitive classes offer movements for you to try (or not try) and invite you to engage with them in the way that you want in the moment (including not at all).
I regularly invite you to notice whether you feel anything during a practice or movement. I invite you to bring attention to sensation, breathing, and choices. The intention is to allow you to develop a greater awareness of yourself, your body, and what you need moment to moment. Some days, sensation might be just sensation. Some days, sensation might be a revelation. There are no expectations, simply attempting to be in the present moment. You can always choose how to make use of invitations to observe and notice. Where you direct your attention is up to you.
Through invitations to move, choosing when and how to move, and noticing yourself in the present moment, you might also choose to experiment with multiple options of movements or observations. When you feel curious about a movement in your body, you can try it out, knowing you then can choose whether or not to continue with it. Experiments might be trying a new movement or observation, or they could be trying out slight changes in familiar movements or observations, comparing and discovering different ways of doing things.
If one or more of these aspects of trauma-sensitive teaching sound useful to you, I hope you'll keep an eye out for movement classes and teachers that include them in some way (namely, in a way that resonates with you!). And if you go into a class or space where what you need is missing, maybe move on to a different class.
If all of these qualities sound valuable to you --choice, invitation, noticing, and gentle experiments-- I invite you to tune in to Moved to Heal!
Be moving, be true, be you
photo credit paul blenkhorn / sensory art house, found on unsplash
Thank you to Nesa by Makers on Unsplash for the photo
I think about learning a lot. How to do it better, how to help others learn, just how necessary the skill of learning is for us to thrive.
When George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight --just for being black + because the police officer kneeling on his neck valued his ability to exercise power over another man's life-- people around the world stood up to protest police brutality and the systemic racism that directs that violence disproportionately toward Black people.
And around the world, people also spoke up to say, "hey, do you not see how this came to be?"
"Do you need a primer on how racism took hold so fiercely in the US? You do? Ok, read this, this, this and this. And when you're done with those, there'll be more."
"Arm yourself with knowledge of what has happened in our distant and recent past so that you can understand what is happening now -- and stand up to fight it knowing things can't stay the way they've been for far. too. long."
I was inspired by the protests -- I always am. But I was even more inspired by that call to learn. I recognized it as both something I needed to do and something I can do to help me speak out against racism. Though I've never thought of myself as racist, it's not that simple. Racism is part what made the US, part of who we still are today. And how much of who you are do you see crystal clearly --the good, the bad, the ugly? Yeah, me either. There's always something about ourselves we willfully or innocently ignore. We have work to do and for many Americans it starts with learning what racism really looks like.
When I wrote a little something on the learning I know I have to do, and voiced my support for Black lives on my meditation podcast, my hope was to share a message of solidarity and also commitment. I'm fairly confident I have work to do in learning how to voice that effectively --and also how to follow through.
And the effort has made me think a lot about how I can authentically and continuously speak and stand up for truth, because that's what I hope to be encouraging you to do in your own lives.
Be true in your movement, be true in your mind, be true in your heart. Be true in action.
So how can we do that?
I think it has a lot to do with how we learn.
My take: learn how to be comfortable with what you don't know while you participate fully from where you are right now.
As kids are developing, they’re constantly doing things to test out how to behave and grow in the world. They’re primed for learning. It’s amazing to watch.
Adults can get settled into what they know. They can learn in the same haphazard way that kids do, but without any outside redirects, they’re more likely to "learn" things that reinforce what they already know and how they see the world. They’re also less likely to engage in the play that lets them stumble onto new ideas and experiences, because they’re so busy keeping up with their status quo.
Of course, that’s not all adults, and with the boom of online learning courses, we see that many adults want to be learning. So what does the basic process of learning look like? The meta version looks something like this:
My guess is that everyone finds one of these steps more challenging than the others. I would hypothesize that one in particular is usually the toughest for most people, though I’m not going to guess which. 4 is the kicker for me.
It’s tough because staying at it past the introductory stage, starts to mean more and more self-guided learning. Which means you gotta learn how to learn, while you’re learning. If you can get truly "meta" in your learning, you’ll succeed where you can stick with the work that it takes.
Getting meta with learning is the job of teachers. So hire one! Seek out a teacher or mentor who knows what it looks like to guide you towards learning independence.
In order to do that, it may help to understand where you’ll benefit most from that teacher’s guidance: at the start of the process or further along the way?
Learning new skills
For me, learning a new skill is waaaay more comfortable. Everything is shiny and new. I have fewer "but, what about —?" questions interrupting my absorption of information.
Though on the flip side of this, it’s harder to accumulate information that’s super new when there’s nothing in your existing knowledge bank to relate it to. That’s something we just know about how learning works in the brain. From my personal experience I recognize it as having no patience for learning something I’m not interested in (when stuff is "boring"). That’s where a teacher who can relate the topic to things I do care about (universal experiences do nicely) will make or break my success. Or having a teacher at all...
In learning, I'm driven by what lights a fire in me, as well as by the opportunity for engagement with other people (teachers, students). This is probably true for lots of people. And then there are the folks driven more by a desire to conquer the unknown and complete what they set out to do. For them, the "interest" or "delight" in the topic may matter less than getting the information they need or the fun challenge of learning. They are more likely to get "learning how to learn" — and it seems that just the process holds their interest. I believe we can all learn how to engage in new material this way.
Improving on existing skills
As you can probably guess, I find improving in an existing skill something of a challenge. Without a teacher or some outside push to help guide my efforts, it’s not only a challenge, it’s really uncomfortable.
Our drive to change our knowledge, perspective, and behavior can come from within, but it usually starts with the emotional impact of some external influence —something that inspired you, or scared you, or made you mad, or sad. A motivating factor can push you past the discomfort of learning more.
I say discomfort because going deeper into knowledge or skill is not a direct trajectory. It's not "keep doing what you've always done (that you're comfortable with) until you're a master." It's a process of compounding knowledge and skills — of learning that there's more to it than what you know. That seems obvious when written out like that, but when you’re in the thick of it, the what you don’t know sometimes feels like it’s threatening what you do know —that learning more will prove you wrong in your existing knowledge.
As a yoga teacher with an interest in anatomy, my knowledge of the "right" way to teach movement and shapes in yoga has changed many times over the years. And at every shift that shook up my trust in the knowledge that let me do my job with confidence, I felt like an ass. I felt like it was my fault for getting it "wrong" up until now. I cared more about my students’ well being than whether or not I was right or wrong, thank goodness, so it was just a feeling I had to deal with, not something that prevented me from moving forward. But it could have been.
When expanding your knowledge base, you have to let the new knowledge in, to be willing to adjust your perspective and how you operate in the world based on that new information, and change your behavior. It's like learning a whole new skill --only now it's doing it where you have skin in the game. Skin in the game, if you think that adjusting how you move through life means you were wrong before. If you think that changing your perspective demonstrates a failing on your part.
When you can learn that adapting is a sign of your "fitness" for life, rather than of your weakness or failures, you play the game differently. If we can all let growth through knowledge excite us and inspire us, maybe we'll go after learning with more fervor --and grace.
I learned all this as an adult. An adult who has made it through lots of really stellar schooling all while thinking I could learn just by doing more of the same, on repeat.
It is possible, of course, to pick up a new skill or information set without really being open to growth and change.
But learning something that rocks your world, takes a willingness to be open to new ideas and facts. And a willingness to move through life operating at full throttle just with the facts you have now inside of an awareness that they are not all the facts. That you are doing your best with the info you have.
In order for all of us to feel confident moving through the world in this way, we need to build an environment where all statements and questions posed in an open-hearted, willing-to-be-wrong spirit are given space and validity.
Building a safe space for learning and growing is what I see so many in the Black Lives Matter movement doing. I certainly look to the voices that come with history and facts, and are inviting and open, even when they show their anger and pain (as well folks should) —and so far, that's all I've witnessed. The spirit of inclusion and camaraderie is so much more powerful than that of division and hate.
Learning with you,
Thank you to Andy Witchger for the photo.
Mov/ed is about learning to learn — and what I'm learning right now is many many many of us have a lot to learn about racism in our country and how to stand up against it.
I've been deeply inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests and by the rush of information that's being shared to educate white people (primarily), where they have been innocently or irresponsibly ignorant of our history and the racism that permeates our society.
This past week, I listened to Black history podcasts 1619 and Uncivil, read numerous statements on the lynching of George Floyd and the need for police reform, and bookmarked anti-racist reading lists here, here, and here. So far, all of it has been gut wrenching and none of it has been surprising. But even though I'm not surprised to learn or be reminded of white abuse of Black people - through physical and social violence, through policies and laws - I don't carry this trauma with me everyday. Which means when I don’t see examples of racism up close, I forget to look for it in the policies of our institutions and laws of our communities. But hopefully I don't need to explain white privilege to you.
But I’m ashamed of myself for forgetting. For being ignorant. So I’ve been chewing on "how can I change what I do? From effectively nothing to something?" It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I can start by learning the truth of our history + present. So that I can’t forget. So that I spot racism from a mile away and have a few tools to speak up against it.
Because learning makes us aware. It forces us to see the world in a different way. And I'm pretty sure with new awareness, you can't go back to seeing it the old way.
Racism and injustice are ugly, and hard to stomach, and I for one suck at facing injustice head on. But it's time to buck up + do it anyway. And, because I believe anyone who wants to can learn anything, I know I can learn how to stand up against racism. And of course, it's not like it should be hard. But it will likely be emotional and uncomfortable, it will certainly take up space and time that I currently give to other interests. So it will be work, as all learning is. And that's just what it takes.
I'm looking to organizations that are offering education to help anyone learn the history they need to know, learn the strategies they can take to face injustice and help right the wrongs, and learn how to keep at it until it's part of their everyday.
If you want to join me in dialogue, please let me know. I'm not sure yet how I will offer space for that dialogue (though I always enjoy a good 1:1 chat!), or whether it's better for me to point you to other resources for dialogue, but I will keep you posted.
We talk a lot about "good" habits and "bad" habits, but not so often just about "habit". What makes a behavior a habit? Can any behavior be made into a habit? Should all desirable behaviors be cultivated into habits?
"Good" and "bad" behavior is often blamed on "good" and "bad" habits. When you make "healthy" behavior habits, it's "easier" to stay healthy, and vice versa. If you want good behaviors, then maybe it follows that all you need to do is set up good habits... right?
Perhaps. But let's consider the *years* we give to forcing habits that just don't stick.
Reason #1, in many cases, is that we don't try very hard. Like me deciding to work on my new house every weekend, and then getting to the weekend and thinking, gee, "this is not going to be as much fun as I imagined." At least I got the dining room cabinets painted before giving up.
Creating intentional change in our behavior, like adopting a new habit, takes effort, at least a little bit. No effort, no change, no new habit. (I'll talk about that side of things next time.)
Reason #2, in just as many cases, is that we try too hard and burn out. Like with my plan to do a full-body strength workout every morning and literally burning out my stamina. And I know better! But even still, it sounded so doable in my head.
What if these are cases of trying to habituate the wrong things?
Maybe the habits we choose aren't well suited to us?
Or maybe the behaviors we choose aren't well suited to being habits?
In my house projects example, the idea came to me during a season of anticipation and excitement and change. Once I added back in the normal rhythms of my life, I quickly realized that the fun I had with the first project was a special occasion joy. Not an everyday joy. Not the right kind of pleasure to make into habits that lift you up.
When it comes to habits you're electing to adopt, maybe watch out for "should." I thought I "should" work on my house because, it needs it. But it doesn't need it that badly, working on it pulls me away from other things I love, and my husband *likes* doing house projects. So why did I think I needed to?
Are there any behaviors you think you "should" adopt that, that aren't absolutely necessary, and that when put through the joy-o-meter you can see: you just don't want to? Behaviors that would take you away from doing things you do love? Can you afford to drop the "should"? If so, hot potato that unnecessary behavior, my friends!
What about things you love doing all the time? They're good habit candidates, right? You'd think, right?
In reality, what I've observed is that these super-joy behaviors lose some of their presence when they are forced into habits. You'll get them done, and with gusto, but as in my case with the daily workouts, they become obsessions of habitual perfection, rather than the originally joyful practices that they once were.
It's a slight distinction, but a behavior you're invested in lends itself best to being a practice, something you do consciously, with choice and room to adapt. Not automated as is the case with something you do by habit.
Making a conscious choice takes more effort than following a habit. That's why we like habits!
Making an effort with the important things will make your connection to them stronger and adaptable to you as you change with life. And practicing conscious choice makes it more likely that you'll learn new things along the way, keeping your brain active and vibrant.
Do you have any behaviors like that? Stuff you do by rote that you think is doing you good, but is long overdue for a re-think and some conscientious engagement?
Perhaps give it a think, and next time we talk habits on the mov/ed podcast, I'll invite you to put some new choices into action.
Be moving, be mov/ed!