Mindful Leadership: the challenges we face

img_3132  This seems like the perfect timing of sharing the take-aways of “A Mindful Leader Forum”that I attended last week. The President Elect for the U.S. is officially Donald Trump. I genuinely thought it was an impossibility. My faith in humanity was so strong that I disengaged from paying attention to the campaign weeks ago. I held strong in my perspective that there was no way in a million years that the American people would make that choice for their future – our future. I realize now that I failed to pay attention to how out of balance the world really is at such a crucial time of needed social change. A man who is in a state of ignorance has been placed in one of the World’s most powerful positions. And I believe he was elected by a population who are equally suffering from a state of ignorance. I don’t mean ignorance in a condescending way. I mean ignorance in the true sense of misapprehension, not-knowing, being blind to the truth of the interconnection of everything and everyone. For people to come to a point of thinking that Trump is the answer to helping them overcome their suffering means they have been too long focused on a narrow view of themselves; too long focused on blame vs. responsibility, on power vs. respect, and on their own advancement vs. that of humankind. I am still confused and trying to make sense of how this happened and what the way forward is.

I had the fortune last week of listening to a conversation among leaders of important corporations, government, and academia from across North America as well as the UK. The event was held at The Canadian Museum of Nature in a beautiful space for an inspiring evening. These leaders were people with a unified commitment to authentic mindfulness as a way of being – committed to people’s health and happiness. Companies like Google, Dell, and WestJet, were represented by the very people who brought the concepts of mindfulness into the cultures, decision-making, and human resource management and training within these companies. A Mindful Society, The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK, University of Toronto, The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic, Health Canada, Mindful – a print and digital magazine, and other individual practitioners, were all a part of the conversation about bringing the practice of mindfulness into private and public sectors in Canada, specifically. The part of the conversation that captivated me the most was a discussion among these leaders about the challenges we face, as mindful leaders, when trying to bring mindfulness into the cultures of government, institutions, corporations, and not-for-profit sectors, including education, criminal justice, and health services. Sher Van Aarle, an economist and senior advisor for the Government of Canada, said: “We want our public servants to be happy people, to be excited, engaged. If we had that, we would have a more balanced society, a more balanced world.” She encouraged us to think about what mindfulness could do in our schools, and in our communities, especially those that can’t afford to pay for trainings.

Here are the notes I took from the reflections, questions, and contemplations that this group of leaders raised in the discussions of the challenges they have faced in their journey of leading from a state of mindfulness:

  • How do we have power without being mean, without having aggression? With power comes responsibility and therefore, leaders have a responsibility to be mindful of the way they exercise that power – to do it with kindness, compassion, wisdom, and in a state of awareness of what is going on within and all around themselves.
  • Mindfulness is an opportunity to think creatively about the kind of change we want and need.
  • With mindfulness as a part of our culture, conflicts would still occur, but when they arise, they would be resolved productively.
  • Compassionate Wisdom: A well trained mind is a powerful mind when you bring those two virtuous characteristics together.
  • By our own actions, by our own role-modeming, we can really change the world.
  • Imagine what would happen if you had people at every level of organization and in our political systems bringing consciousness to everything they did and were living their purpose.
  • Part of the problem is that people don’t see themselves as leaders, so the first step is to work with people in identifying with their own leadership capacity.
  • We also need to become skilled in de-mystifying and communicating what mindfulness really is.
  • The champions (the people trying to effect the change) within organizations are often isolated from the power structures and the decision-making.
  • Now, there is a bigger interest among the public and individuals in all sectors of our society, but the question then becomes: do we have enough mindfulness practitioners who are experienced enough and skilled enough to meet the demand with really authentic teachings and trainings?
  • People are beginning to understand how mindfulness can be helpful for individuals, but there is still a challenge in translating these benefits on a organizational level so that the people in power see and understand the value of how a mindful culture within their organization could help them achieve their organizational outcomes.
  • And lastly… it’s important to take religion out of it. Barry Boyce pointed out that while Buddhism founded the concepts of mindfulness, Buddhism shouldn’t “get a free ride”. He pointed out that we would never try to push Judaism or Catholicism onto people and into the culture of our government or our public services, so we need to be mindful of how to make mindfulness its own practice that is inclusive of and relevant for everyone and separate from religious beliefs and practices.

After Trump’s success in winning the presidency, I had to take a step back, and wonder how mindful leaders in the U.S. especially will become even more isolated than they already are. I can only hang on to the fact that we, in our human capacity, are limited in our view. We can’t see how things will play out, we can’t see what break-downs and break-throughs will arise. We can only focus on what is within our control, accept what is. We always have our practice to come back to – an awareness of what is happening inside and around us in each moment of every day will guide our actions from a place of clear-knowing. Keep doing things that are important in this world, and keep living from your heart.

 

 

Health And Happiness Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

img_2483The more I study and understand the interconnections between our mind, body, and breath, the more I am intrigued about the relationship between our overall health and our level of happiness. I am currently studying Ayurveda in conjunction with the yoga therapy training I am coming to the end of. I decided to embark on studying further because of how often I see people’s mental wellness and happiness depleting along with their physical and physiological health. Without our health, basically, I don’t believe that any amount of wealth can bring us real contentment even if that wealth is a richness in relationships, money, and professional or personal achievements. When I speak of health, I include the psychological, physical, physiological, and spiritual aspects of our well-being. “The total is greater than the sum of its parts”. For the purpose of this post, I am referring even more specifically to our physical and physiological health as an important part of the overall system.

Our digestive fire is like the battery in our car. A healthy system is one whose bodily functions work in alignment with one another: the individual has a healthy appetite, regular bowel movements, good quality and quantity of sleep, etc. Healthy does not mean we don’t get sick, but when we do get sick, the body bounces back into alignment following the infection or illness and doesn’t stay out of balance. Health is also optimized when we don’t suppress any of the following bodily urges: gas/ bowel movements, urination, menstruation, sneezing, yawning, orgasm, tears, vomiting, hunger, breathing, burping, thirst, and sleep. These urges are not to be indulged in any excess either. Cravings can be healthy or unhealthy and so it requires having a healthy mind to be able to pay attention to the body’s natural and healthy urges while abstaining from the mental cravings that may be mistaken for natural urges.

The other thing I am recently becoming more aware of and intrigued by, is the Ayurvedic understanding of healthy eating that goes way beyond the common saying “we are what we eat”. According to Ayurveda (and which makes perfect sense), our health is not only dependent on what we do, but how we do it. When we exercise, do it in such a way as to listen to the body and be mindful of the choice of exercise we do. When we communicate, to communicate non-harmfully and clearly and in alignment with all other ethical precepts. And when we eat, it’s not just about what we ingest, but about how we ingest it, digest it, assimilate it, metabolize it, and eliminate it. It is not uncommon for people in today’s health-conscious world to fall ill or develop a disease and say “but I did everything right”. As a psychotherapist and yoga therapist, my intention is to work with people on this deeper level and in a way that assists them in restoring their overall health by working with the whole system toward the end goal of living a happy life. There are many people who eat well, do exercise, and maybe even practice yoga. If these same people, however, have a restricted and shallow breath, are suppressing some of their healthy and natural urges, and living with any other symptoms of anxiety, fear, or disintegration, the digestion, assimilation, metabolism, and elimination processes may be impeded, resulting in a manifestation of physical and physiological symptoms or conditions.

Once the health of the physical body and all of its functions is restored, greater mental clarity and contentment is possible, and vice versa. You can’t address one without looking at the whole. Yoga and its sister science, Ayurveda, are brilliant models for understanding the nature of our human system with very basic and simple concepts rooted in ancient wisdom.

The beauty in studying these ancient teachings is that it simply requires understanding and observing the nature that surrounds us all and applying that understanding to our own self-care.

The Upside of Anger

Some of the most fertile soil on the planet is the soil that has lived the transformation of a forrest fire. img_0423Lately, there has been a fire in my belly, a determined force within me, and a strong urge to create movement, change, and real transformation. The kind of anger that I consider to be my friend as long as I find the balance between feeling it and containing it. Like any fire, it will burn out, but also needs to be contained with elements of water and earth. I try not to add too much additional fire, air, or give it too much space to expand. I also don’t want to suppress it or suffocate it. This anger has an upside even if I can’t yet see what it is, what it will serve exactly, or how it will manifest.

I wrote another post on this topic 3 years ago, titled “Don’t tell me to calm down!”. In reading over what I wrote, my perspective is the same now as it was then. In fact, I would re-iterate everything I wrote about the healthy aspects of anger, its important messages, and knowing how to distinguish between what is happening and what we perceive is happening in order to respond appropriately when anger strikes. Anger can in fact cloud our perception. I would also say that a clouded perception can result in misinformed and unnecessary feelings of anger. When we don’t take the time to observe ourselves and what an emotion is signalling, we do risk causing undo harm – especially if we choose to act on anything while in an emotional state and before having clarity. The harmful consequences are sometimes immediate and sometimes experienced later on. Either way, anger isn’t bad, it’s the actions that we take when we are angry that that lead us to believe that anger itself is a bad thing. We just need to learn how to pay attention to it, listen, give it space to shift, and know when it is helpful and when it’s harmful to ourselves and others.

This specific fire in my belly is a unique kind. It’s familiar and unfamiliar to me at the same time. I have always known sadness better than I know anger. In fact, I used to get so uncomfortable and feel guilt when anger arose that it would melt into tears, self-punishment, and shame. This time, it’s not melting. It wasn’t triggered by anything in particular (I don’t think) and I am not afraid of it. It’s been with me for three days. I am watching myself get more easily frustrated, flustered, impatient, and yet, not breaking into tears – I am able to stay with it and limit my reactivity to the burning sensations of heat and power. I try to express it without harming anyone and give warning to people when I do feel myself bordering on being misunderstood as an impatient or angry person or when I know I am simply not being myself. I think it may be an arising of a part of myself that I have either suppressed or ignored for a long time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence either that I am experiencing this after having had a cranial-sacral therapy treatment where themes of anger and distrust come up in the form of physical resistance to a process of surrender during the treatment. It was a full moon in the last couple days. Thanksgiving came with some family conflict. But still with those things combined, I can’t yet see or understand what its message is. All I can do is trust its usefulness to my growth, give it enough space to burn within mindfully contained limits: “mind the fire”, if you will. Part of what it’s teaching me is to learn how to befriend it and use it as a motivator for the urges I am having to create movement, change, and transformation.

I have a feeling it’s the social justice kind of fire. I am day-dreaming of cutting out the bullshit in social services provided for people; telling the people who crossed lines with me to f-off; and carrying myself more proudly with a greater sense of self-respect and communicating simply through my presence and way of being rather than through a reactivity that creates fear or giving in the discomfort of holding my personal power. The upsides are a sense of being head-strong, determined, beautifully powerful, and commanding respect by giving respect both to myself and others.

Anger ain’t a bad thing. It may just be a fire that fuels change.

Victim, Villain, Hero, Oh my!

085The point that I am interested in making in this post is related to the impact that it has on our health when we get stuck in the loop of the drama triangle. Essentially, it is impossible to play out one of the three roles of victim, villain, or hero in our interactions AND be in a state of mindfulness at the same time.

I took this picture at a small little art show on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, a few summers ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the artist’s name and yet I keep finding appropriate topics to suit her messages.

“Holding onto it only makes you sick” reminded me of the narratives we create, play out, and reinforce in our lives when we’re in conflict with others. Therefore, reminding me of the drama triangle model that I had come across in the past. Every story has a victim, a villain, and a hero, which I believe was originally coined as the “drama triangle” by Karpman, S. as a model for fairy tale and script drama analysis. However, the model also proved to be quite useful later on in psychotherapy, conflict resolution, and as a basic model of human social interaction. To read more about the theory as it relates to human interactions and conflict resolution, here is a link to a short summary written by Gary Harper: Conflict Drama: Victim, Villain, Hero?

To be in a state of mindfulness involves being in connection with ourselves; seeing clearly what is happening in reality beyond our mind’s interpretation and commentary; and to respond from a place where the ego doesn’t get in the way. Where ever there is drama, there is either suffering or the potential for suffering. From a mindful state of being, however, there is no story, just direct perception, and therefore, there is no suffering and no drama. Also, from a state of mindfulness, there is space for healing, change, and a letting go.  What we hang on to psychologically, has a real impact not only on our mental health, but on the physiological and physical realms of our being.

Too often, I meet people who are caught in the drama triangle and psychologically attached, convinced, and even comfortable staying there. They are also sometimes people who are quite sick, with many different physical and physiological conditions. I completely understand it and I have been there and continue to get caught in it every now and then. Unfortunately, without either a meditation practice or some means of checking in with ourselves to jump off the story-making-merry-go-round, there is a real risk of increased suffering. “Holding onto it only makes you sick” is not just a saying or a metaphor.

Take the time to keep your mind healthy. Take the time to examine the stories you tend to play out and shift from passive victim to assertion, from hero to problem-solver, and from controlling villain to collaborator, as described in Harper’s article. Even if it’s for no one else but yourself – for your own health.

Witnessing the Art of Dying

Recently, I had the fortune of being by my uncle’s side and supporting my aunt who was caring for him during the last 48 hours of his life and this is what I wrote:

Witnessing the Art of Dying

“Je veux mourir à la maison” he had decided. And so dying at home it would be. After all, he was a man who precisely calculated everything and he lived this way intentionally. The kind of wealth he had doesn’t come from rushing through things blindly. I am referring to the wealth of love, respect, and dignity, that one only earns from being so giving.

Ironically, “Hourglass” was the title of the song that was playing right before his ending: a beautiful cello composition that encapsulated his graceful state of being. The lake still frozen and the clear sky lit up by the moon, filled those last two nights with a silent and peaceful solitude. We stayed awake since we knew he would be leaving us soon, and because every one of his last moments was to be held with gratitude.

As he lay there dying, audibly labouring each breath, he was just waiting. And we sat there by his side, holding the space of tranquility, hoping to assist him in this process of surrendering. The sun would rise and we would pull up the blinds and say: “Il s’est rendu au matin”. My aunt would ask the nurse to stay until the 6 AM morphine, and then we would brew some coffee and go back to our quiet sitting.

There were times when I would close my eyes next to him, meditating. Embodying the serenity that he himself had set up the conditions for in his waking. Other times, I would focus on his breath, his transforming being, seeking to understand what was objectively happening. I also found myself reciting mantras in my head to remind myself of my own mortality, while wondering what was this cancer that inhabited his physical body.

What I could hear, but he was not saying, was his voice in response to us caring: “Ok, chère”, “Merci, chère”, “T’es bein fine, chère”. All of sudden, the term “chère”, dear, rung loudly in my memory and with a whole new meaning. It was not just a term of endearment, but one that he always spoke with softness, respect, and authenticity. And to his wife, I could hear him saying “Je t’aime Bé”, “Merci, Bé”, “Je vais n’ennuyer de toi, Bébé”. It’s this love that he shared with his wife wholeheartedly that I mostly had the gift of witnessing.

He opened his eyes on his day before last and asked “Y’ai quelle heure?” “10 H”, my aunt replied. “Avant-midi?”, “oui”. He was awake for that moment and maybe for no reason but to see it drift into its past. It’s likely, that in his state of vulnerability, he was accepting, and facing his death with humility. He had said everything he had to say in preparation for his passing. And so, when he went, he went peacefully.

And therein lies the art of dying. He had mastered it by having learned the art of living.

Katherine Marr

The Mindfulness & Yoga Trends: addressing the concerns arising from one-size-fits-all approaches being taught

028I have received a few emails now from various students and clients asking me to address some of the complaints they have heard from people regarding the risk factors associated with mindfulness and yoga practices. Articles are being published by people who have attended a mindfulness workshop, for instance, only to feel triggered and have a panic attack upon leaving the room. There are now people researching the risk factors of mindfulness and meditation, announcing that mindfulness is not as therapeutic as people have been claiming. And, as the trend of yoga continues to be rampant, there have been many publications and warnings about how the physical practice of yoga can actually cause injury. I agree that this is an important topic to address and I hope to help clarify some of the misconceptions about mindfulness and yoga that are leading to these adverse effects in the first place.

The main problem in the health-related fields where mindfulness is being applied and where programs are being developed is that practitioners are teaching, packaging, and trying to sell the practices to large groups and in a way that falsely communicates that the same techniques can be applied to all people for the same benefits.

The one-size-fits-all approach could not be more misinformed. The Yoga Journal and other popular publication sources will publish articles titled “Yoga for depression”, or “Yoga for back pain”, or “5 meditation tips to alleviate anxiety”. So, the question that any well-informed therapist would ask is “Whose depression, back pain, and anxiety are we talking about?” The tools in yoga and mindfulness are infinite. The therapeutic application of the tools needs to be highly individualized and very specific to the individual’s constitution, symptoms of suffering, the causes of suffering, their therapeutic goals, their lifestyle, and more. For many people, individual guidance in the form of a prescribed practice is the most optimal choice for wellness and healing.

As it relates to mental health in particular, there are two important responses I have to anyone whose anxiety or trauma has actually been triggered by a mindfulness practice.

The first thing to note is this: if you have been living your life in reaction, dissociation, and slight disconnection from the reality around you in order to survive and protect yourself from harm or the threat of harm, it is natural that you would experience mindfulness practices as triggering because you are bringing to your awareness the very patterns of thought that you were previously either unconscious of or intentionally avoiding. Some of the students or clients I work with therapeutically will actually walk into a session angry with me at times and say “great, I knew i was messed up, but now I know I am even more messed up than I thought”. And to that, I say “perfect”. They don’t like that, but i then explain. It’s perfect because it means they are doing the work. It’s perfect because they are stepping into the awareness which is where the real work toward change can begin. And it’s perfect because it means change is happening. Silent practices in particular where you are being asked to quiet or focus your mind on something may be quite frustrating as this would naturally have you become more aware of just how easily distracted and restless you are. In this sense, ignorance can be bliss. But, hopefully, with the right guidance and support in finding the most appropriate tools for you, you can stay with this discomfort, stay with the practice, and gain a helpful understanding of the root of your suffering in order to address this and move toward freedom from the suffering as you learn to observe the patterns more objectively and live your life more consciously and connected.

The second important response I have is related to the tools being selected. If you suffer from panic attacks, PTSD, or any other anxiety-based disorder where the breath can be restricted, being asked to focus your attention on your breath may very well be one of the most unsafe places to be. Being silent and left with your thoughts if you suffer from flashbacks and serious emotional suffering could be more hindering than helpful. And I share this understanding from my own mistakes made as a practitioner. So, I have no judgment toward those who are learning as teachers. Following 5 minutes of a simple breathing meditation, one of the youth I work with proceeded to engage in serious self-harm as soon as she returned to her room from the practice. In those 5 minutes, she was reliving the atrocious events in the form of memories that she has spent her life trying to distract herself from. I have since received a lot of mentoring and coaching from knowledgeable practitioners and I make a very clear point in my studies to understand not only the beneficial effects of the various tools in yoga, but also the contra-indications. One very simple and fairly safe statement is that, for some people, the best way to expand the breath and quiet the mind is by making sound or chanting. With the appropriate selection of physical movements, breath can be taught in synchronicity with the movement, without having to focus the mind on the breath, and with clear intentions of the desired effect of alleviating problematic symptoms and addressing the root cause of the suffering.

In yoga therapy, we ask ourselves three questions as we enter a therapeutic assessment: what is the desired effect of the practice? where do we want the person to feel the effect (at the level of the mind? in the breath? where on the body?, etc.) and for whom is this effect intended (taking all individual factors in mind about the specific person).

So, if ever you read or hear anything about the risk factors related to yoga and mindfulness practices, it is most likely that the person who has experienced adverse effects was either taught in a group format with a one-size-fits-all approach that was not suitable for that individual, or they may have received the guidance from someone who did not have enough experience to support them through the discomfort by re-evaluating the person’s experience and the tools being applied in order to continually adjust the practice for the desired effects.

I welcome any questions, comments, or experience you may have to share related to this important discussion.

 

The Power of Deep Listening

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My grand-mother and I were sitting on her couch. The television was on. She was talking. The conversation seemed to be somewhat trivial. She seemed to be simply looking to keep her mind occupied by telling me about daily routines and things I was trying to find interesting. My attention went between the television and my grand-mother as I examined my frustration about not being able to hear the television because she kept talking. My uncle (her son) was dying. I was visiting with the purpose of supporting her with this loss and to potentially see my uncle one last time. In a flash, all of my understanding of meditation and the deep forms of yoga came to serve me and I realized the preciousness of the moment I was letting pass by. I tuned out the television and paid attention to my grand-mother. The moment I started truly listening to her is the moment I started to see her for the amazingly resilient woman that she is. she must have felt my listening because she began to cry. She cried as she stroked the front of a flower catalog and said “these are the flowers I ordered and planted in front of Doug’s house. I don’t think they will bloom in time for him to see them.”. I had never seen or heard of my grand-mother crying: a woman who has lived in and out of mental health hospitals, was about to turn 89, and was losing one of her four children to cancer. She gave herself less than 2 minutes in tears and said “it’s so sad”. I would have missed that had I not tuned out the television and given her my ears. Through deep listening, I noticed and go to know my own grand-mother.

Thank you yoga for all that you teach me. Yoga is deep listening.

“Look Deep Into Nature, and Then You Will Understand Everything Better” ~ Albert Einstein

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Understanding the very law of impermanence is one of the most powerful realizations along a path of embracing all that life has to offer. And we don’t need to look further than nature to gain this understanding; the weather, the seasons, the trees, the movement of the ocean, the cycle of the moon, the Earth’s constant rotation, the death and re-birth of all matter, and more. Everything rises and passes naturally. Suffering does not exist within this rising and passing. We humans simply experience suffering when our mind mistakes what is permanent with what is impermanent. Let me explain.

Moods, emotions, relationship qualities, life’s circumstances, and sometimes, even, some of the most atrocious events, arise in our lives that are not pleasant to go through. Equally, pleasant experiences and circumstances come up in all shapes and sizes. Our mind tends to cling on to pleasant experiences, not wanting them to pass and has aversion to/ repels the experiences that are not so pleasant. This is natural, in a way, for the mind to do. However, we often don’t observe and examine what is actually happening in a given moment in order to live it simply as it is in that moment. We live the present moment through a lens of past impressions and future anticipations. A present moment that is pleasant may come with the illusion that life is “finally going well and everything is resolved”, projecting the pleasant experience onto all future experiences and feeling possibly at peace within this false projection. Similarly, an adverse circumstance that leads the mind to fear what is next may come with a thought of “my life is over”, or “it’s never going to get better”. There are exceptions to this false understanding, especially if you have a mind that is able to stay present or if your experiences have been such that you have gained the wisdom of not projecting onto the future anything that is temporarily showing up in the present. This very wisdom of understanding what is real and what is the mind’s interpretation of what is really happening is what I am referring to when I say that understanding the law of impermanence is one of the most powerful realizations along a path of embracing all that life has to offer and being free from suffering.

A tree does not suffer when it loses it’s leaves in the Fall. The Earth does not suffer when there is a hurricane. The elements are simply interacting, changing, shifting, settling, calming, getting disturbed again, and changing moment to moment to moment. Everything about our human existence is no different. Every cell in our body is changing, shifting, dying, renewing, and transforming every single moment. Our moods, our emotions, the sensations in our bodies, the circumstances we are presented with, and more, are subject to the same. There is no inherent suffering in these qualities of change. For those of you who understand the term “gunas” in yoga, these are the qualities I am referring to. The suffering in the mind occurs when there is a reaction in the mind in the form of story, narrative, interpretation, and more specifically, when there is misinterpretation in the form of mistaking something that is inherently impermanent with something that is permanent. In other words, the mind creates a story about a pleasant or unpleasant experience as though it was permanent and then, when the experience rises and passes as it naturally does, the mind re-creates story about this change, forgetting that change is simply happening, has no meaning and that each experience will again rise and pass.

If this is slightly confusing or unclear, simply look into nature for further understanding. Watch the rising and passing of all matter and begin to meditate on this impermanence in a way that allows you to simply be a witness to the process without making it mean anything. And then, apply the teachings to understanding your own being. Witness the arising and passing of everything within yourself and quiet the mind as you witness this. Freedom from suffering and pure contentment may result. And you may then begin to also contemplate who the witness is within you. This witness is permanent. It is the only thing that is. In essence, when you begin to understand this, you will feel at home in your heart.

Dirgha and Suksmah are to Pranayama as Sthira and Sukham are to Asana

diaphragmSounds like gibberish. Dirgha and Suksmah are to Pranayama as Sthira and Sukham are to Asana. This post is for any yoga dorks out there or for anyone wishing to deepen their understanding of what was traditionally taught in the practice to ensure that the tools of yoga are truly increasing one’s path toward being in a state of Yoga. This has nothing to do with any achievement of a pose or end goal of being able to practice a certain breathing technique. This has to do with the depth of the practice that comes from applying and experiencing the qualities of the practices as they apply to you, in any given moment, and appropriately applied for that moment in time.

In the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali, we learn of the purpose and the qualities/ characteristics of asana (physical postures) and pranayam (breathing practices/ control of prana) in the second chapter and specifically Sutras II.46 to II.53.

Dirgha = long, prolonged

Suksmah = subtle, minute, non-forceful, smooth

For a breathing practice to be considered pranayama (and this applies to your breathing during an asana practice), according to Sutra II.50, it must involve a conscious regulation of the inhalation, exhalation, and the suspension of the breath. The three aspects of the breathing process must also be consciously prolonged (Dirgha) and in a subtle, non-forceful way (Suksmah). Any breathing or any application of a breathing technique that does not have these two experiential qualities is not pranayama.

Sthira = steady, stable, solid, strong

Sukham = comfortable, ease, flexible, tension-free

For a physical posture/ yoga pose or movement to be considered an asana, according to Sutra II.46, it must embody the dual qualities of steadiness (Sthira) and ease (Sukham). Like a healthy tree that can withstand the storms due to having strong and solid roots combined with enough ease and flexibility to sway and not snap with the force of the wind, our physical postures represent our resiliency to the storms in life. If we are so steady that we are rigid, we snap. If we are so comfortable and at ease that we are lethargic and non-grounded, we get tossed around and have a hard time facing challenges. Without these dual characteristics, a physical posture or a sequence of postures may be nothing but a physical exercise. Physical exercise has it’s own benefits. However, when it becomes a true asana, with it’s defined qualities, the benefits are multiplied.

Combined, when our physical movements and our experience in our body holds the qualities of steadiness and ease and when our breath is both prolonged and subtle/ smoothe, the practice becomes a whole new experience where the teachings on the mat begin to permeate throughout our life off the mat.

And when we can put it all in a very intelligent sequence to deepen all four qualities (Vinyasa), the practice of meditation is truly blissful. I will share more on Vinyasa in a future post.

 

On Social Justice

098Yesterday, September 10th, was World Suicide Prevention Day. As a professional who is in touch with people who are affected by suicide on a daily basis, World Suicide Prevention Day is truly a celebration for me. I didn’t make it public and my way of celebrating was to simply take a moment to practice gratitude and remember everything that I stand for in the work I do and the way I live my life. I am grateful for the deep connections I have with people. Yesterday was a celebration of gratitude for the progress we have made in our health systems and for the lives that have been saved through this progress. It’s also a celebration of suffering and an appreciation for how suffering can lead to healing as we learn to overcome it and prepare for a conscious and connected way of both living and dying.

In my reflections and my sharing today, it’s not the specific topic of suicide I wish to expand on. Instead, I wish to share my perspective on issues of social justice. While we have made enormous progress within our health care and social systems, the provision of effective therapeutic practices  that are tailored to the individual needs of the people seeking help relies on all other societal systems, including political, economic, and cultural. It essentially all comes down to money and funding. And funding is granted for programs and services that provide evidence that the therapeutic modality is worth investing in for the overall wellness of a population and that it will, in the end, alleviate some of the costs that are incurred when people who are unwell depend on the welfare system to survive. The lines between the provision of healing practices and the commercialization or regulation of these practices become blurred because professionals need to earn a living and anything that is funded by the government, a corporation, or reimbursed by an insurance provider justifiably demands integrity. Healing practices that are complimentary to the medical system are not funded until they have been thoroughly researched and proven to provide the desired outcomes and impacts. They then eventually influence the medical and social service sectors and the research continues.

It may all seem like a bit of jargon. Let me clarify what I mean on a more practical level and explain how what I am saying ties into the social responsibility we have as health care providers and back to the topic of celebrating our progress. The progress we have been making in discovering what works and what doesn’t work to help people overcome suffering is continually being researched. While something is being scientifically studied, it is not yet “evidence-based” and therefore, it is not yet supported by the system. In other words, some of what we now know is most effective in various fields of treatment is only available to those who can pay out of pocket for it. Complimentary or what some call “alternative” medicines, including mindfulness, yoga, acupuncture, various forms of exercise, osteopathy, physiotherapy, nutritional and dietary consultations, and more, then become only accessible for people who have the means to afford them. As research catches up, some of these healing practices have become more regulated and covered by insurance providers for the employed people who are fortunate enough to pay into a benefits plan. This is a huge progress worth recognizing. Counselling, parenting support, holistic addictions treatments, and many other therapies are also slowly becoming covered by governmental health care plans. However, the waitlists are often very long. Again, it relates back to the economy, the distribution of funding, our political systems, and more. Resources are limited. When resources are limited and while researchers are busy trying to prove what works in order to fight for some of the funding, our most vulnerable populations get left behind. Hence, the issues of social justice I am referring to.

As a therapist, I hear people’s stories and I hear the universality of what people live. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, Caucasian, Asian, homosexual, heterosexual, etc. Everyone wants connections, everyone wants to contribute, be appreciated, be happy, and to either find peace of mind or minimally end any suffering they live with. In my private practice, some can easily afford a private service with our without reimbursement. In my work in the social services, I earn a salary and there is no thought of a value attached to any hour I spend with my clients – the service is free to them and I am a professional who is compensated through the systems and funding that have made it all possible. The people who teach me the most about social justice, however, are the people who are marginalized and contact me either requesting mindfulness-based counselling in my private practice, yoga classes, or any other non-medical free service because the approach they desire for their own healing is not available to them with the means they have. Some of my clients have been treated through the medical systems for decades and their appointments have simply become shorter and shorter, their medications have been increased, and at best, they have learned to become dependent on a system that has helped them survive. These people come knocking at my door for an approach that will help them thrive, while reducing the medications and increasing their quality of life. Research is catching up and I have faith that the approaches that can compliment the work being done in medical clinics and hospitals will not only be recommended by doctors but paid for through the system.

This is why I open the door to doing pro-bono work with people both in my private practice and in my teaching. This is why I volunteer my time and continually seek to connect with a network of professionals who take on the same responsibility for the overall wellness of our community. And this is why I intentionally remember each day why I do what I do. Over the course of the day yesterday, I found myself wondering about the relationship between these social justice issues and the possible cases of persons who have chosen suicide in the face of feeling discouraged about their own capacity to heal given the means they had at the time.

Happy Belated World Suicide Prevention Day.  We have made huge strides and we will continue on this path with the help of the people researching and providing evidence for the modalities that are most effective in overall treatment of disease and suffering.