Spiritual practice to dissociate?
“Open your eyes for a moment,” says my TRE (Tension/Trauma Release Exercises) Provider during one of our sessions. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I’m so used to closing my eyes when I practice. “Experiment to see if you feel more present with your eyes open or closed,” she explains. I try. I realize that when I have my eyes open, I can both feel my body and be aware of what goes on in my surroundings.
This simple remark sparks my curiosity. “Some people need to close their eyes to be able to feel what is going on in their body. Others close their eyes and their mind drifts off into LaLaLand. They dissociate from reality,” she explains. It never occurred to me in all those years of teaching yoga that I might lead people into dissociation by asking them to close their eyes!
The issue with dissociation is that we are not fully in touch with life happening in the present. Those who experience more severe dissociation might feel numb, disconnected from emotions, a kind of internal “death”. The issue with numbness is that we cannot selectively numb one emotion. So although it may be a relief to numb out an overwhelming emotion of rage or panic, it also means that we are unable to feel joy, happiness and peace.
We have to remember that dissociation in the case of trauma can be useful. After all, it is an instinctual response meant to protect us when something overwhelming happens. In some cases, it saves our life.
We don’t have to experience trauma to dissociate. Most of us experience a mild form of dissociation on a daily basis. We dissociate mildly when we daydream or detach from our surroundings. When I drive from my house to work on “automatic pilot”, I’m actually disconnected from reality. When I am going down a rabbit hole on my phone instead of being present to my children playing around me, I am dissociated. It happens when I am sitting in meditation and my mind thinks about what I am going to have for lunch. It also happens when I eat chocolate at night in front of a stupid movie to cover up my sense of emotional emptiness.
body, and thus liberated from the awful cycle of birth, decay, death, and rebirth”. (Jack Hawleys translation in The Bhagavad Gita, a walkthrough for Westerners).
The three gunas -sattva, rajas and tamas- are the three main qualities present in nature. In essence, this verse encourages yogis to transcend the realm of this material world to merge with the Divine or Ultimate dimension.
In the Vedic period, around 1500 BCE and the next few centuries, ascetics saw the body as impure and did not attend to their physical needs. They practiced extreme forms of fasting, not sleeping for months, barely moving sometimes for years at a time.
Patanjali’s controversial Yoga Sutra 91 (Chapter 2, verse 40): “Through purity (he gains) distance towards his own limbs (and also) (the desire for) non-contamination by others.”
Those are just examples of how ancient yogis wanted to transcend reality, including their suffering. I wonder if somehow they practiced to consciously dissociate.
The Buddha was one of the first ones to criticize extreme forms of asceticism by promoting “the Middle Path” and introducing the concept of mindfulness. The arrival of Tantra also revolutionized spiritual practices from the 9th century onwards. Everything in this world was seen as an expression of the Divine. We need to take care of our body if we ever want to become even partly enlightened. The practice of mindfulness is spreading like bushfire in all spheres of society, which shows the massive change in the last few decades.
So how can we transform our habit of checking out and therefore missing out on life? My practice is to catch myself as soon as possible when I “leave” and to gently bring myself back. I then ask myself “What am I unwilling to feel?”, following Tara Brach’s advice, a wonderful dharma teacher from the US. I notice that often my mind runs off because what I am feeling is uncomfortable. If what I am feeling is overwhelming, mild dissociation or distraction might be exactly what I need in the short term. But I know that in the long run, if I want to digest the yucky feeling that is there, I need to fully feel what is there. I stay kind to myself, not forcing myself to feel what I am not able to hold comfortably. Like Peggy Rowe, another favorite dharma teachers of mine, once told me: “If it’s too strong to stay with, touch your suffering with a feather. And then back off.”
My wrinkles, my story
It all started with a few wrinkles next to my eyes. I smile a lot so those smiling lines have become deeper with every smile, carving small rivers on my skin. In 2015 and 2017 I gave birth to my beautiful boys Tao and Namo. More changes in my body. My breasts are not what they used to be. The skin of my belly has some stretch marks, the little “love handles” never seems to loosen their grip on my waist and my diastasis (separation of the rectus abdominis) takes its time to grow back.
How crazy that most of us live our life as if we will live forever. As if we will have this body forever. My wrinkles wink at me every morning, carrying that wisdom.
If I look deeply at my body, I can see my whole life inscribed in it. My wrinkles tell the story of belly laughs and tears. They carry the memory of our 5-month walking trip in Nepal in 2012, being exposed to sun, snow, rain, cold, high mountain weather. They carry the touch of sunshine of 10 years in Chiang Mai. They tell the story of my ancestors, who happened to have dry skin and early wrinkles.
There was a kind of pride in being tough and daring to go on those adventures. When did I lose this childlike amazement? When along my way did I get so attached to my body?
And then I think: “It is so worth it”. I wouldn’t exchange any of my wrinkles for my many adventures in the mountains or at sea. I would not want my old body back in exchange for my 2 boys. Not even one second. Why want to erase any of it? I love my body with its many imperfections because it holds all those memories. My life and my body are one.
I want to arrive on my deathbed having respected but also used my body fully to realize my dreams and taste life fully. Not waist time “asleep”, to live without really being in the present or to do things that I don’t really feel aligned with my deeper Souls purpose. Every moment is so precious. Life will not last forever. Time flies by and even seems to accelerate with time. I feel moved as I write those words because it is first of all a reminder to myself.
What about you? Do you accept the changes in your body? Are you at peace or maybe even proud of your life story? Do you need to make changes so that you can one day say “I lived life fully. I have no regrets.”
And there is still freshness in my being, in my eyes. The sun is not ready to set yet. As my body ages, I vow to grow younger in my mind and heart. At some point, we may have lost all our teeth, need support to walk, and be all wrinkled but still feel 25 inside. Maybe that is one of the big lessons we are all supposed to learn: that we are not just this body.
This blog was first published on Laurence's website
In 2016, I quite my office job and decided to travel the world. I did an Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala, India in November 2016. For 5 days, I learned to meditate and I joined a very gentle Yoga practice. And that's where I fell "in love". When I discovered yoga, it became a dream to be able to teach one day.
Read more about Anja's story as a new yoga teacher
Take a shot of... calm
Our lives are pretty hectic these days. We are told that we need to work hard, get our next promotion, earn money, become the best, save for the future, answer instantly and mean something to this world. Add a child to that and you have a pretty spicy cocktail of stress and challenges on a daily basis. Our body tenses up, we hold our breath, we clench our jaw, abs, fists, butt. Whether we realize it or not, a lot of us live in a pretty “activated state” in terms of our nervous system.
I know this all too well as I inherited of a sensitive nervous system. Since I was 6 years old I experienced moments of strong anxiety and sometimes panic attacks. When I was 23, I experienced my first mindfulness retreat in Plum Village, Thich Naht Hahn’s retreat center, and that sparked a journey of inner transformation for me. One that is closely linked to my own nervous system.
How does our nervous system work? A big part of how we feel is related to our autonomic nervous system (ANS), which acts mainly unconsciously and regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, breathing, pupillary response and urination. The ANS has 2 branches: sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is sometimes called the “Fight and Flight” response. It becomes active when we perceive a threat and we need to act quickly to stay safe. Our pupils dilate, blood is send into our skeletal muscles and lungs, our heart rate increases and breathing quickens. We may feel a sense of fear (flight) or aggressive energy (fight).
When the perceived threat is even more intense and fighting or running away don’t seem like an option, our system goes into a “freeze” response. If you look at the animal world for instance, the gazelle will first try to run for its life when chased by a lion. If the lion gets close, the gazelle might drop to the floor, pretending to be dead before being caught. It might lose consciousness, hold its breath and be paralyzed. The body will pump endorphins to numb the pain if it is eaten alive.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is called the “Rest and Digest” response. We feel calm, grounded and safe. Our pupils constrict, our blood flows to our digestive track and into our skin, our heart rate and breathing slows down. It is important to spend enough time daily in our parasympathetic system to be able to digest, restore and rejuvenate.
Nowadays lions are not that common anymore but our system still reacts in the same way. The perceived threat may be our boss, a deadline or maybe an idea of something that might happen. You may notice that you work on adrenaline energy, that you are often in a rush, or that life feels like a constant struggle. Your digestive system might not be functioning well or you experience tension or chronic pain. Those are signs of fight and flight. You may feel a sense of numbness, disconnection from your body, your breath or your emotions, signs of a freeze response or dissociation. Doesn’t sound fun right?
So, is there something we can do to activate our PSNS so that we can find rest, inner peace and a sense of wellbeing? I did some research and here are some simple tips for you:
1. Take deep and slow diaphragmatic breaths, into your abdomen. Even though your breath normally happens automatically, you can consciously breath deeper and slower and in this way activate your PSNS. Breathing slowly will also slow down your heart rate.
The vagus nerve, the longest nerve in the human body, is one of the main components of the parasympathetic nervous system. It communicates with the lungs, heart,
digestive track and many other organs. The vagus nerve runs through your diaphragm which means that when you take those deep breaths down into your abdomen, you tone your vagus nerve. You may start to feel calmer and more peaceful.
2. Chant, hum or sing. This will regulate the rhythm of your breathing and make your exhale longer. Our exhale causes a vagal response which slows down our heart rate. Research on singing has shown that is has a relaxing effect on the body. My favorite practice is Brahmari mudra: you close your eyes and ears with your finger tips and hum. Do this 5 times and feel the vibration in your head.
3. Consciously relax your body, especially the muscles around your eyes, jaw, neck and shoulders, abdomen, hands and feet. There are many ways to practice this. You can
- use a body scan and invite each body part to relax
- firmly engage each body part and then release it
- gently move or self-massage those areas
- try TRE, Tension Release Exercises, which uses involuntary tremors to release tension
4. Practice yoga with your eyes closed or with a soft gaze. You tend to move about 20 to 30% slower with your eyes closed. Slowing down your movement will bring more awareness to your body, slow down your breath and therefore also your heartbeat.
Laurence Gilliot is the director of Pranaya Yoga and main teacher of the Pranaya Yoga Teacher Training. Join the training to learn more about Yoga & Ayurveda and its connection with the nervous system.
This article is written by Ann Jablonski and appeared on shutupandyoga.com.
Globetrotting yoga teacher Gernot Huber brings to light movement patterns that keep our yoga practice from reaching its full potential.
Yoga master T.K.V. Desikachar is quoted as saying that our yoga practice should be smarter than our habits. Thailand-based yoga teacher Gernot Huber is on a mission to help students heed that advice.
4 steps to become wise(r)
We all experience moments where we wish we were a little wiser. Maybe we react impulsively and instantly want to take back what we just said. Or we run marathons around in our mind, endlessly worrying about something that later seems futile. Maybe we receive some challenging news and just don’t know what to do. I recently came across a catchy but useful concept called SLOW: Stop – Land – Observe - Wisdom.
So how does SLOW work?
Stop - Before we can even talk about stopping, we need to be aware that we need to stop. This is the preliminary step for SLOW to work. You need to know in the midst of the storm that it’s time to pause.
Here is one trick: we can ask ourselves “Do I feel contracted?” If yes, it’s time to pause. Our breath may be shallow and constricted. A part of our body may be tensing up. We may feel emotionally contracted - just yukky, angry, sad, fearful, etc. Maybe we entered a mental tunnel vision, where we feel stuck in a narrow view of reality that just doesn’t seem to have a way out.
To stop is like pressing the pause button on a time machine. We stop what we’re doing. It is a brave and powerful act of non-action. We interrupt the stream or flow of what is happening. It is the pause between the in-breath and out-breath. It is the restful quality of the night time in our daily life cycle.
Land – like a plane that would interrupt its flight itinerary, we land on the ground of the here and now. We can either use our breath or physical sensations to ground ourselves. As we breathe in, we feel the cool air enter our nostrils for instance. As we breathe out, we feel the warm air as it leaves our body. We feel the souls of our feet on the ground. The aliveness in our hands. Our belly rising and falling.
It is very hard to access any kind of wisdom when strong emotions are present. When I feel anxious for instance, I see danger everywhere. In Ayurveda, we call this “rajas”, the quality or guna that colors reality and distorts our view. When we land in the present, it helps us to ground ourselves and we don’t get swept away by waves of emotions or distorted views.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 says “yogaś citta-vrtti-nirodhah”, which means “yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind”. This is exactly what we are doing when we stop and land. When we stop for a moment and concentrate our mind on our breath, the erratic activities of our mind will slow down. It may take a while but eventually it will slow down.
Observe – Once we establish a solid anchor in the present, we can start looking at reality as it is. What is alive in me right now? Which thoughts are arising? What am I feeling? What is actually happening around me? I can observe reality without adding a label of good or bad, just seeing what is right now.
Imagine for instance that we are at the cinema. We are sitting in our chair, eating pop-corn and watching a movie on the screen. We know that the movie is just a movie. If it is a really good movie, we may live in the illusion that the story is real and that we are in the movie. Sometimes we have such “good movies” in our life, dramas we drown in, that we forget that it is just a story. That the thoughts and emotions are not who we are. At our true essence, we are the conscious observer, the one watching the movie.
Once we can lean into life and watch our movie, we are able to create a little distance from the emotion or the thought. There is space. We ARE not the emotion; we just experience it for a moment. Our language is deceiving us as we often say “I AM sad, angry, fearful, etc.” You are so much more than this one emotion.
When we truly observe reality as it is, we often realize that there is actually no problem in the present moment. I love Eckhart Toll’s quote: “When you feel confused or burdened by problems focus on THIS INSTANT and ask yourself: WHAT PROBLEM DO I HAVE RIGHT NOW? You will find that there is no problem NOW. A challenge that requires action, possibly, but not a problem."
Wisdom – When we take the time to stop, land and observe, we are able to respond to a situation instead of react. Insights and intuition have a chance to arise from a deeper place. We can ask ourselves: What can I do in this situation? What can I do to take care of myself? The right action may be to not do anything.
This last step takes us out of the victim role, where we think that things are being done TO us. We step into our power again as we discover that we can do something. That there are options. This is the true meaning of “responsibility”, our ability to respond.
Try it out. Stop what you are doing. Land by taking 3 mindful breaths. Observe what is alive in you or around you. Ask yourself: what do I choose to do now?
I believe that the path to conscious living is not a drive-through. It is a slow process of small and doable steps that bring us closer and closer to our true Self. Every time I SLOW down, I have a chance to become a little wiser.
Written by Laurence Gilliot, founder of Pranaya Yoga.
Join the Pranaya Yoga Teacher Training to learn more and practice living SLOW.
Most of us suffer from excessive neck tension. Rather than simply an annoying discomfort, neck tension contributes to poor posture and chronic stress, and thus is a serious problem worth addressing. Yoga can help tremendously, if you bring awareness to what your neck is doing when you practice. Our normal patterns of movement—and some common yoga instructions—unfortunately reinforce neck tension rather than addressing it. Watch this video to learn how to make your practice smarter than your habits, improving your posture, and undoing chronic stress. Yoga Mind Yoga Body website for more info
I belong, I am strong
See that tribe up there? That's my awesome family. I'm so grateful for my parents and siblings that are so warm, real, loving, courageous and bring so much JOY in my life!
And you might wonder "why is she talking about her family?" Well let me share a little aha! I had recently...
In July, during the Yoga Teacher Training we organised in Chiang Mai, I was surprised to see how hard some students (usually the bright ones) were on themselves. How much they were doubting their own value. I was reminded that yes, low self-esteem is really endemic on this planet!
Of course, I recognised that voice in myself too. I call it "I'm worth nothing voice" and treat it like an old friend that comes along for tea once in a while. I try not to identify with this voice and also not to push it away. Although this voice is in me, I don't let it drive my life.
Later that week, I listened to a talk from Tara Brach, a wonderful Buddhist teacher and psychologist. Tara was saying that our feeling of self-worth is directly related to our sense of belonging.
When we grow up not feeling rooted in a family, a community, a school or connected to nature, to which we feel we belong, we doubt ourselves.
Aha so that feeling of self-confidence I have really comes from this incredible tribe I have back home... I know that whatever happens, if I ruin everything, fail miserably, make a fool of myself; I can always count on them. And this gives me the courage and the guts to follow my heart and to take risks.
If I tune in to this deep feeling of belonging, self-doubt has just gone out of the window!
You might not have a cool fam back home. But you might have one good friend, a community or a connection to nature (a big old tree or a cat for instance) that gives you the feeling of belonging. You know that even if you end up in the worse situation, you can count on them to love you unconditionally.
So, if you have a moment of self-doubt, you can take a "shot of belonging" (just thinking about this person, community, ocean view, wild forest, ... and invite the feeling to arise) as a anti-dote.
I wish you a wonderful day!
Originally posted on Laurence's website
Balancing power and refinement
Most of us have a tendency to work too hard in yoga at least some of the time in an effort to try to force improvement in our practice. However, over-efforting is counterproductive because it increases the likelihood of injury and thwarts our enjoyment of the present moment, which in turn impedes our ability to practice awareness with serenity. In addition, too much power in our practice makes it difficult to explore the refinements of the poses, to notice and adjust minor alignment imbalances, and to find expressiveness, spaciousness, and freedom in each pose.
So how do you go about striking that balance between power and refinement? The answer is through the breath.
Think of your body as an orchestra, and your breath as the conductor. Each musician—each body part—knows how to play their part, but to create a coordinated, immersive, transformative whole, the individual parts need to be coordinated, synchronized, orchestrated. The breath does this, but it does a whole lot more. Just like a conductor sets the tone of the music, the breath sets the tone of your practice. There are some fundamental rules of good breathing: the breath should always be smooth, steady, and free of strain. But there is also quite a bit of room for individual expression in the breath, and creatively varying the breath is how we can shift the balance between power and refinement in each pose, and at every stage of each pose. We do this by varying both the depth of the breath and its pulsation:
(The principles underlying this week’s theme come from Erich Schiffmann’s excellent book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.)
Originally posted on Gernot's website
See that little blue dot there on the left of the picture? That's me with my 7 month little Tao on my back during our recent trip in New Zealand! The wind was blowing 80 km/h and it was hard to walk straight. It was quite an adventure :-)
You might wonder: "What the heck were you doing there?" Well, there were times I asked myself the same question, no doubt. To be honest, the answer today is "because it makes me feel so ALIVE". My body feels vibrantly alive. My senses are wide open. I'm speechless (apart from repeated WAWs) looking at the mountains, glaciers, lakes, clouds.
(I say all of this after making sure that Tao is warm, protected and well-fed)
I truly feel like I'm making the best of this life. Time is limited. I know that the end will come too soon. Before we know it, we'll be 80 with no teeth and no power in our legs and back. The time is NOW.
I had to laugh hearing this quote: "Live life on the edge, otherwise you're taking up too much space."
Do you feel like you're living life on the edge? Or are you always in your too cosy comfort-zone?
Are fears stopping you? What would happen if you felt the fear and did it anyway?
To be totally honest with you, I feel like as a yoga teacher I also dance at the edge. Our upcoming Yoga Teacher Training at Wild Rose feels like a very exciting risk. It is the first training at Wild Rose and the first one that I'm leading. I feel ready :-)
As you can see, I've changed the format of my emails too. I want to share more openly what's happening in my world. It feels a bit risky too.
I wish you all a beautiful and (healthy) risky day!
Originally posted on Laurence's website
Pranaya Yoga Team
Laurence Gilliot, Gernot Huber, Rosemary Bolivar and Lek Kittikunaudul share their insights and knowledge on Yoga