Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

July 8, 2010

Practicing Yoga Off the Mat

by Dr. Melissa Kulick, Ph.D., RYT

While the physical practices of yoga have enjoyed increased popularity in the west over the past several decades, yoga is, in fact, an ancient philosophy and spiritual approach to being.  The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke,” and is often translated as “union.”  Yoga is an interfaith practice, meaning it does not require the practitioner to hold any particular spiritual or religious belief — or any at all.  It simply encourages us to adopt a certain way of being with ourselves, both on and off the mat.

When we practice yoga on the mat we are looking for that place in each asana (pose) where we find our “edge.”  The edge is any physical, mental, or emotional experience that is challenging to us without being overwhelming; a place of effort and engagement but not strain.  It is the challenges we encounter that allow us to stretch and grow.

Finding our edge in a given moment or situation allows us to feel safe and remain open — to be present exactly where we are — as we encounter life’s challenges.  For someone faced with a huge task that leaves them feeling stuck in avoidance and procrastination, finding their edge may mean breaking the task down into small, manageable pieces, or allowing them to set time limits for themselves on each work session.  For someone confronting an addiction, it might be asking a trusted friend to accompany them to a first twelve-step meeting.  Staying mindful of our edge in a given moment is crucial in creating an optimal working environment in psychotherapy — where the safety exists that allows for deep transformational work to occur at pace where one stretches and grows without feeling overwhelmed.

On the mat, it is said that we are not ‘practicing yoga’ if we are attempting to force a pose – to push our body beyond our edge. If we are experiencing pain (as opposed to the sensations of a tight muscle experiencing a stretch, or feeling a pose in a joint) or if we are not able to maintain steady breath in our posture, then we are likely forcing our bodies beyond a state of wellness and balance.

Learning – encouraging and training ourselves – to recognize when in our lives we are attempting to force something to happen, is a valuable tool. A great deal of tension and unhappiness is caused when we try to control outcomes (by some form of ‘scheme’ or manipulation) or ignore obstacles and resistances that are telling us that the direction in which we are trying to move is not in our best or highest interest. Yoga teaches us to turn to and within ourselves, and become better attention-payers to the messages available to us – to our breath and body, and to the more obvious and subtler voices of our intuition.

Mindfulness is a central component in the practice of yoga, often referred to as developing the witness mind.  The witness mind simply observes the thoughts that fill and move through our head, as well as the sensations in, and movements of, our bodies.   As witness, we are taking note of — compassionately.  What we are not doing is judging or comparing, though we may well notice that the thoughts running through our mind in that moment are doing just that (e.g., “She’s so much more flexible than me.  I stink at this.”)  You might also notice that your thoughts have jumped right out of the current moment, for instance to what you are going to eat for dinner that night.  When our witness mind observes that we have engaged in judgment or left the present moment, it simply names the experience “judging” or “not present” and returns to focus on the pose and on the breath — with compassion and without judging where we’d just been.

The physical practice of yoga on the mat can literally be ‘practice’ for living that same way of relating to ourselves off the mat.  After experiencing our witness mind on the mat, we may find ourselves having difficulty completing a task at work and notice we have begun to berate ourselves inside our head. Once we have noticed and acknowledged the thought, we can simply take a breath and let it go, returning to the task at hand. Or we may be engaged in a conversation with a good friend who is telling us about some fabulous trip she has planned, and we hear some petty or jealous thought line begin.  Again, once we are aware of the thoughts, we can choose to simply acknowledge their presence and let them go, without further indulging them or putting ourselves down for having them.

When we practice yoga on the mat we experience poses, and our bodies in poses, differently from day to day.  I have heard it said that we bring a different body to the mat every day.  Yoga teaches us to be unattached to — and not defined by — the body we brought to the mat yesterday or might bring tomorrow. “Beginner’s mind” is a term often used to refer to this coming to the mat without any assumptions, needs or expectations of what we will encounter or experience there. We use our witness mind or our beginner’s mind in the course of our daily lives when we similarly notice the stream of thoughts running through our heads and the movements and sensations of the body, and choose not to identify with, buy into or react to them.  We are not our thoughts, any more than we are the bodies we bring to the yoga mat or elsewhere.

The Breath

One of the primary things that set yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise is its focus on breath awareness.  Movements are linked with inhalation and exhalation, and the release of exhalation is often used to help us more deeply open into a pose.

The breath is a most powerful tool for helping us stay in the present moment.  My guru (yoga is historically an oral tradition passed from guru to chela, or student to teacher) teaches that, “If you can control your breath, you can control your mind. If you can control your mind, you can control your life.” By practicing breath awareness both on and off the mat, we gain the ability to practice another yogic tool, hesitation.  It is hesitation that allows us the moment to choose non-reactivity, non-judgment and compassion.

When you bring awareness to the breath, it becomes prana. Prana is life force energy.  There are many practices in yoga, called pranayama, which means “control of the life force”, that allow us to effect the flow of pranic energy within us.

One great way we can take our yoga practice off the mat is by practicing pranayama, or breathwork, wherever we need it.  Here are some basic techniques you can try when needed:

Ida Breath and Pingala Breath

Our nasal flow can have a lot to do with our energy.  There are three main energy channels that run along our spine.  The sushumna is the central channel and correlates with our spine.  The ida is the path of the left nostril.  Its energy is associated with the moon, and is gentle, cooling, and inward.  The pingala is the energy of the right nostril.  It is associated with the sun, and is more, fiery, outward, and strong.  Our typical breath is such that one nostril is dominant for a little less than two hours at a time, and then it is switched to the other side.

Ida Breath

Because the ida channel is gentle, cool and soothing, this breath can be used in situations where we are feeling anxious, overheated, or needing to calm or steady the mind.  It is also helpful for insomnia.

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long.  Using the right hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the right nostril.  Take long, deep breaths through the left nostril only.  You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes.  If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a right nostril breath.

Pingala Breath

Because the pingala channel is powerful, hot and dynamic, this breath can be used when we need to stimulate or increase our physical or mental energy.

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long.  Using the left hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the left nostril.  Take long, deep breaths through the right nostril only.  You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes.  If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a left nostril breath.

Ujayii Breath

Translated as the “victorious breath,” the ujayii breath is a breath commonly encouraged of practitioners to maintain throughout their asana practices. Also referred to as “the ocean-sounding breath” for the sound created in its practice, this breath is considered the most effective yogic breath for reducing stress and anxiety.  The sound, itself, can be incredibly soothing.

Technique:

The breath is like sighing with your mouth closed. Begin by inhaling through your mouth making a sighing sound and, while still inhaling, close your mouth. See if you can still hear the sound. You’re essentially drawing breath across the back of your throat, over the glottis. As you exhale, begin again with your mouth open making a sighing sound, then continue the breath as you close your mouth. Once you feel comfortable with it and can hear the sound on both the inhale and exhale continue the breath with your mouth closed only. This breath can be done as a regular practice for a set amount of time (e.g., 3 or 11 minutes) or can be done at any time during your day when you are feeling a need to bring greater calmness to your being.

Karma Yoga

Here’s one final note on another fabulous way to practice yoga off the mat.  As mentioned earlier, yoga is a thousands-year-old philosophy of being.  One path of yoga, karma yoga (karma literally translates as “action”) focuses on the performance of seva, selfless service, as a path to enlightenment and liberation.  Even if enlightenment and liberation are not what you are after, I honestly know of no better way to pull myself out of a crappy mood than step outside myself and give to/help/serve someone else. To quote a swami I know, it’ll help you “get over your cheap self.”  You can do this in a large way by volunteering your time to feed or serve the poor or ill, but you can also do this by making the effort to hold the door for the person coming out of the store as you’re going in, or by making a point of smiling, making eye contact with, and saying hello to people you pass on the street — without being attached to the response.  It costs us nothing.  And since, as another yogic teaching tells us, “energy follows thought,” holding that openness of thought and heart toward others will create an open flow of energy within our own being.

On or off the mat, you need to be nothing but the truth of who you are in this – and every –  moment.

Namaste.

Recommended Reading

Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Melissa, who is a certified teacher of Classical Yoga and Kali Natha Yoga, is also developing yoga sets specifically designed to address various mental health issues.

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November 3, 2008

Questions for Reflection at the End of the Year

by

Claire N. Scott, Ph.D. 

As 2008 is nearing its end, it is a good opportunity to take time out to reflect on the year just past, remembering and considering all the things it held for us.  The questions that follow are offered as a way to facilitate that reflection — and perhaps to stimulate your own thinking about questions you want to ask yourself.  An article similar to this was first published in our Karuna Newsletter several years ago, and it seemed a good time to revise and repeat it as we come to the end of such an eventful year.  In the previous version all the questions had a personal, psychological flavor.  That is mostly true again this year, but I’ve also added a few questions related to how external world happenings may have impacted you personally.  The world seems to get smaller every year.  We are more aware than ever of how events and decisions on the other side of this island home can impact the air we breathe, the food we eat, the cost of gas, and our sense of security. 

Some of the following questions are designed to help you recall good memories, interesting events and people.  Some are just for fun.  Some might put things into a different perspective for you.  Some questions might trigger insights or help you learn some interesting things about yourself.  And some are designed to be thought-provoking and even challenging.  In the last regard, I feel compelled to add a small caution:  if you find yourself feeling unduly distressed or overwhelmed by your answers to any of these questions, it might be best to put the questions aside and talk about your thoughts and feelings with a friend or family member who can give you support. If you feel you need to talk with a professional, you are welcome to contact one of the therapists here at Karuna (404) 321-4307, or you may prefer to talk with a clergy person.  If you don’t have other resources, you could also contact your local county mental health center. 

Mostly I hope you enjoy this process, and find it useful.  I’ve been doing it for several years and I enjoy going back and seeing what was going on in my life and in myself in previous years.  You may not get through all these questions in one sitting.  Take you time.  Notice the questions you want to skip or the ones that stop you.  Hold it all in compassion – no judgments.  It’s good to take time out to reflect on your life, no matter what the answers.

 

                          

 

What was my greatest accomplishment(s) this year?

What was my biggest blunder of the year?

What gave me the greatest joy this year?

What was the biggest disappointment?

What was the best surprise?

What are the moments I wouldn’t want to have missed?

What, if anything, do I wish I had done differently?

Who was the most interesting new person in my life?

What was the most difficult thing I had to do this year?

What was the worst experience of the year?

What was the most unusual experience?

What book or movie had a big impact on me? Why?

What was my coolest new purchase of the year?

What was the biggest waste of money?

What newsworthy event(s) had the biggest impact on me personally (e.g., the presidential race, global warming, Iraqi war, Olympics, gasoline crunch, plight of refugees, green issues, etc.), and why?

Do I experience the world differently than I did a year or two ago?  In what ways? 

What do those differences mean for me personally?  Have they or will they change how I live and the choices I make?

Who were the people who were most important to me this year?

What was the area of greatest personal growth for me?

What area(s) need the most growth/development in the future?

What am I most thankful for?

What kindness was extended to me that meant a lot to me?

What was a kindness I extended to someone else that meant a lot to me?

What do I want to invite into my life in the upcoming year? (See exercise below.)

Consider trying this exercise as an alternative to making New Year’s Resolutions.  Ask yourself the above question and use your answers to create a collage of some sort.  It can include pictures, drawings, photographs, words – anything that represents what you want to invite into your life during the upcoming year. 

What you create can then be displayed where you will see it occasionally to remind yourself what it is you really want.  I once heard that given as a definition of self-discipline.  I’ll make it big so you can use it in your collage if you like.

SELF-DISCIPLINE IS REMEMBERING WHAT YOU

 REALLY WANT!

P.S.  I was supposed to have a book to go with this article, and there probably are some good ones, but the truth is some friends and I came up with this idea at a party one night and it has gone through several revisions and variations since then.  

October 13, 2008

12 Tips for a Healthy Relationship

by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

There are literally hundreds of books on how to improve relationships. Relationship difficulties are the most often cited reason that people decide to come into therapy. While relationships are one of the most rewarding things in life, they can also be one of the most challenging and heartbreaking. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from some of those relationship books and from almost 20 years of doing couples therapy. (The primary source for the research cited is The Marriage Clinic by John Gottman, Ph.D.)

One:

Research has found that the most significant factor in determining satisfaction in a relationship is the quality of the friendship between the two people — and this is equally true for women and men. Obviously that makes it important to devote time and energyto strengthening the friendship between you and your partner. How? Spend time together, listen, be empathetic about sorrows and enthusiastic about joys, tolerate foibles, forgive faults, support dreams, be available when you’re needed – in short be a good friend.

Two:

Conflict is a natural part of any close relationship. People have different needs, wants, values, priorities, temperaments, histories, energies, moods, rhythms, styles. What is unusual is not that people have conflict, but that they ever manage to work through it sufficiently to actually want to be in each other’s company for any length of time.

Three:

That magical, wonderful, knock-your-socks-off feeling of being in love will fade. It’s inevitable. There’s no feeling like it, and it’s wonderful while it lasts, and it will fade. Ideally, the “pink cloud” feelings you have for each other can mature and grow into a beautiful, lifelong loving companionship – but that takes work – keep reading.

Four:

Be careful how you confront your partner. Remember the difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint is an objection you have to how something is going – or not going. Criticism is an attack on your partner’s personhood. Example: a complaint might be, “I get so aggravated with you when you don’t call when you’re going to be late.” That line can be turned into a criticism by adding, “How can you be so selfish?” or “What’s the matter with you that you always do that?”

Five:

Old saying – still true: YOU GET MORE FLIES WITH HONEY THAN YOU DO WITH VINEGAR . Remember when you have a complaint that you’re asking your partner to change to please you. Chances are they’re going to be more likely to accommodate you if you act like you like them!

Six:

Be “influenceable”. Research also shows that happier relationships are those in which each person is open to being influenced by the other. Don’t hang on to being so right that the only place left for your partner to be is wrong.

Seven:

Examine your beliefs about what you think couples and families do for one another? If you believe, as I do, that loved ones supportone another in “becoming” what one wants to become, then the attitude you bring into partnership is likely to be one that will help both you and your partner grow and flourish.

Eight:

Power: Only in relationships where both partners have equal, open power can true intimacy exist (meaning the experience of being open, vulnerable, and able to share one’s innermost thoughts and feelings). The old topdog/underdog setup may have worked in a way, but the result was NOT intimacy.

Nine:

Even the best relationships have some irreconcilable differences . Not all problems can be solved. If you want to keep your partner (and your sanity), you might have to decide that that quirk that drives you mad is actually an endearing idiosyncrasy. If that’s impossible, keep working on the irreconcilable differences, but with gentleness, respect and good humor. (Though this is a tangentialremark and fodder for a different article, how can we possibly expect nations to live peaceably with their differences if we can’t even manage it in our closest relationships?)

Ten:

Repair attempts . This is a term coined by John Gottman that I particularly like. It refers to the times one or the other partner makes some conciliatory gesture. It could be a joke to lighten the mood in an argument, a gentle touch, a request to table the conversation till there’s time to cool down, a silly grin, an “I’m sorry” or “boy did I screw up”. Sometimes the timing can be off, and the receiver is just in no mood to hear it, but it’s helpful if the attempt is at least acknowledged. Take a second to smile at the joke or return the touch. Repair attempts can lower the volatility and improve the atmosphere in the room. It doesn’t mean the disagreement has been resolved; it’s just a little breather to remember you love one other.

Eleven:

Accept that reality is subjective. We can only see the world through our own eyes, and not all eyes see the same . Studies on eyewitness testimony attest to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. When I was a campus counselor years ago, I once counseled two people individually for two months before it became evident that they were roommates in conflict with each other! Their respective descriptions of what was going on was so different that the accounts bore no resemblance to each other. I’m still having that experience with couples today.

Twelve:

How do you know when your relationship could benefit from couple’s counseling? Two clues: (a) if your disagreements keep having the same flavor and you feel like you keep going round and round and getting nowhere, and/or, (b) if you’ve tried everything you can think of and it feels like nothing works. Sooner is also probably better than later. Relationships with a long history of hurt, resentment and hateful words are difficult to heal. John Gottman’s research highlighted four indicators that a relationship is in serious trouble: the presence of high levels of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These things are deeply corrosive to a relationship and can leave it eroded beyond repair if not addressed.

This list is obviously not exhaustive – I haven’t even touched on sex and money. If you would like to read more about relationships, some books I recommend are: Soul Mates by Thomas Moore; Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver; Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix; Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner; Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks.

August 13, 2008

Allowing Animals into our Awareness

by Metta Sweet Johnson, LCSW, MAT

Imagine for a moment this Earth without animals.  Forests, oceans and rivers, sky, plains and caves, empty of all the creatures that inhabit them.  No songs of birds, nor chirping crickets, nor barks of dogs, nor trumpeting elephants.  No laughter at their antics, nor respecting their power, nor interest in their unique view and interaction with the world.  No Animal Planet programming.  No zoos, safaris, or museum sections educating us about them.

How does it feel to imagine a world like that?

Even if you’re not an animal lover, you’d probably not prefer a planet without them.  In addition to providing a unique addition to the experience of life, animals have much to teach us about the human experience.  Looking to nature is often a great place to start when trying to achieve some kind of personal healing or growth.  Noticing particular animal attributes can be a fun and deeply moving way to add to your wisdom and experience.

You may have noticed on www.karunacounseling.com that each Karuna therapist has a symbol—some of them animals—associated with their philosophy on therapy.  Mine is the frog.  I draw inspiration and guidance from the energy of frog in my approach to therapy:

Frog reminds us that life is a process of changing and evolving.
Of swimming through the watery currents of life and making our way to shore.
Of starting out as gray swimming tadpoles and forming into colorful leaping frogs.
Frog’s rapport with rain and water reminds many of cleansing and healing as well.

To me, therapy echoes these aspects–
providing the possibility of change that can cleanse and heal. 

There are many ways to determine which animals you may have a strong connection with and/or that may be helpful to you at a given time.  Here a few:

  1. Strong Connections:  Did you connect strongly to certain stuffed animals as a child?  Did you dream of one day working with animals? Are you drawn to art depicting certain animals?  Books and films? 
     
  2. Feedback from Others:  Has anyone ever told you that you have remind them of a particular animal?  That bear-like hug, that eagle-eye, that owl wisdom?
     
  3. Sightings/Experiences:  Have you come across animals in your daily routine—that hawk you noticed sitting atop a light pole across the street while you ate lunch?  That owl that you know inhabits a tree a in your yard and hoots at night?  The deer that crossed your path?  Have you ever been attacked by or bitten by an animal?
     
  4. Stories:  Is there a story in your family of origin and/or family of choice about a special pet or a sighting/experience of a wild animal that is told over and over again?
     
  5. Fears/Joys:  What animals most frighten you?  Which bring you to the most joy?  Paying attention to strong reactions on both the “dark” and “light” sides can give you clues to look further.
     
  6. Dreams:  Do you dream about a certain animal more often than others?  Do the dreams you have with a certain animal seem particularly powerful, meaningful of vivid to you?
     
  7. Cards:  There are decks of cards that can be used to help you.  The Native American “Medicine Cards” book and deck by Sams & Carson is especially well done.

The Native American tradition has deep respect and reverence for what they call “animal medicine.” What they mean by medicine is “anything that improves one’s connection to the Great Mystery and to all of life,  …includ[ing] the healing of mind, body, and of spirit, [and]…also anything that brings personal power, strength, and understanding.”  Since psychotherapy is a healing process with the intent to also empower, integrating animal medicine can be insightful, inspiring, and transformative.

Here’s an example: 

I was driving to the mountains using the same route I’ve driven for years.  On this long valley road on the way up the mountains, I spotted a turtle crossing the road.  I stopped the car to move her to the side.  This was the first time I’ve encountered a turtle on these roads and so the experience stood out to me.  Over the weekend, I wondered how the turtle was and if she had safely arrived at her destination.  On the way home down that same road, there she was again!  She was off to the side this time, so I didn’t have to stop.  I did stop, though, later that night to flip through my animal books to look up the symbolism of turtle—Mother Earth. I was deeply moved by the insight and guidance it provided for me at that time in my life around issues surrounding maternal experience.   It led to further personal healing and exploration and was a delightful addition to my process around this issue.

Here are some other animals and their “key note” energy:

Ant = Industrious, Order, Discipline
Armadillo = Personal Protection, Discrimination, and Empathy
Fox = Camouflage, shape shifting, invisibility
Mouse = Attention to Detail
Snake = Rebirth, Resurrection, Initiation, Wisdom
Spider = Creativity and the Weaving of Fate
Squirrel = Activity and Preparedness
Tiger = Passion, Power, Devotion, and Sensuality

Gratefully, we do live in a vibrant, alive world with a wide variety of amazing and interesting animals.  If you choose to allow their presence to interact with and support you on your life journey, you may find that your life becomes more amazing and interesting as well!  And, in turn, your gratitude and appreciation for animals helps support them on their journey here also.

You can draw from many resources to explore further what your particular “animal medicine” might be. One website: http://www.starstuffs.com/animal_totems/index.htm contains a wide range of animals, including questions at the end of each animals’ section that you might ask yourself about why the animal came to you – such as giraffe asks “are you becoming complacent and losing track of your goals?”.   Also, here are a couple of great books:

Animal Speak by Ted Andrews
Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams & David Carson

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