mindfulness

Exercising being in all of your five senses.

Maria has been in charge of our Instagram this month, where the theme has been "Our five senses". Concluding this lovely journey through touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing she offers an exercise that anyone can try next time it's time for food: 

Our five senses

This is a very good exercise, both because it includes all of our five senses and because eating so easily becomes habitual and stressful for us, which is not a very good thing for neither our digestive system nor the mindfulness perspective. You can start by just reading it through and then trying it with something to eat. Enjoy!

 Begin by connecting to your breath and body, feel your feet on the ground and notice your experience in this moment. With your awareness in this moment, notice any thoughts, sensations or emotions you are experiencing. (Pause) 

Tune into the awareness or sensation that you have in your body of feeling hungry, thirsty or maybe even feeling full. If you were going to eat or drink something right now, what is your body hungry for? What is it thirsty for? Just pay attention and notice with awareness the sensations that give you this information. (Pause) 

Now, bring your attention to the item in your hand and imagine that you are seeing it for the first time. Observe with curiosity as you pay attention and notice the color, shape, texture, and size. Is there anything else that you notice, sense or feel? (Pause) 

Imagine what it took for this item to get to your hands: sunshine, water, time, processing, and shipping. You may choose to be aware of gratitude for everyone involved in the cultivation and preparation of this item of food. You may choose to bring in your own gratitude or spiritual blessing. (Pause) 

Now place the item between your fingers and feel the texture, temperature and ridges. You may notice smoothness or stickiness. Again, notice if you have any thoughts, sensations or emotions at this time. Continue to breathe and be fully present in this moment. (Pause) 

Take the piece of food and bring it toward your nose and smell with your full awareness. Notice if you have any memories, sensations or reactions in your body. Even before you eat it, you may notice that you begin to have a digestive response in your body just by noticing and smelling. (Pause) 

With full awareness of your hand moving toward your mouth, place the object (fruit or chocolate) into your mouth without chewing or swallowing it. Just allow it to be in your mouth, roll it around to different parts of your mouth and tongue. Notice the flavor and texture. Notice the physical sensations within your body, especially your mouth and your gut. Continue to breathe as you explore the sensation of having this item in your mouth. (Pause) 

Next take just one bite and notice the flavor, notice the change of texture. Then very slowly begin to chew this piece of food, and notice the parts of your mouth that are involved in chewing. Notice the sound and movement of chewing, as you continue to notice the sensations and flavor. (Pause) 

When you are ready, swallow this item and notice the path that it follows from your mouth and throat into your stomach. Notice the sensation and taste that may linger in your mouth. Connect again to your body and your breath and notice your experience in this moment. (Pause) 

Next, I invite you to pick up another food item, and choose to eat it however you wish. Noticing your choice and your experience. Notice how it is similar or different. (Pause for 30-60 seconds, and then return to large group discussion about the experience).

Acknowledging what you have, even if you’re lacking - on the practice of gratefulness

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That gratefulness is a skill that can be learnt, rather than an inhabitant personality trait, is by now fairly well established in the research literature. More so,

When things get tough, when we’re feeling depressed or highly anxious we have a tendency to view the world more in black and white, than we usually do. This is simply how our brains work when we’re under stress or pressure; it temporarily loses the ability to be flexible. Adding on to this is the tendency our brains are pre wired with to be more susceptible for negative stimuli than neutral or positive.

With that reduced ability to stay flexible we tend to err on the negative side of things, getting so caught up in what’s not working or what we’re doing or have done wrong that we no longer see that there might also be things that are working for us.

Keyword here is also. If things are rough they are rough, and sometimes there’s not much we can do about that. Sometimes sad things happen, sometimes life sucks, as do several aspects of this world. But that doesn’t mean that all is black, lost and meaningless. It does however mean that we need to help ourselves and our brains out a little bit.

Widening our perspectives
By practicing gratefulness; intentionally acknowledging and focus on things, however small, that we are grateful for, we help our brains out. Even if we still have that tendency to automatically detect negative thoughts, emotions or situations, with practice we can help strengthen the parts of our brains that notices what we still have, what we still love, what we still are grateful for. Allowing for glimpses of light and warmth into even the toughest of moments.

How to start practicing gratefulness
Each day set aside 5-10 minutes – preferably at a time when you have time to sit down without interruptions – to remind yourself of three things that you are grateful for. Things that are working for you, things that you have done well, kind things someone has said to you, or that you have said to someone else. May it be that it switched to green just as you came to the intersection or that you got to drink an especially nice cup of coffee this morning. That a friend asked you how you were or that your children gave you a hug.

When you have reminded yourself of these three things allow yourself a moment to sit with the feelings that arise while reengaging with these small memories, breathing in gratefulness, breathing out tension. Slowly strengthening your own gratefulness practice.

 

YOMI research published – on the art of perseverance

 

2017 started off not only with the birth of a child, but also with the news that our article on the first study on the effects of YOMI Yin got accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping and is now available online: Yin yoga and mindfulness: a five week randomized controlled study evaluating the effects of the YOMI program on stress and worry. Not only is this the first article on YOMI, it is also the first scientific study that has evaluated effects of Yin Yoga, which we're both surprised by and proud of.  

It has been a long process pulling this all together over several years, with plenty of little bumps in the road on our way. Many times it has forced us to remind us about our valued direction; what is important to us when it comes to our work with YOMI and why. To keep putting one foot in front of the other, or rather one reference after the other to slowly reach acknowledgment in a peer-reviewed journal. To persevere in order to reach a goal that has importance. To remind ourselves that the satisfaction after a thorough work process is blissful.

Without getting into a rant about how the scientific publishing world works, sufficient to say that the article won’t be available open access (we are very pro open access, firm believers that the results of research should be available for everyone), simply because we don’t have thousands of dollars to pay the fee. For anyone with access through a university or other academic institution, the article is available here.

We also have a few copies available for those who are very interested in our research, in YOMI and in future studies. If so, please contact us on kontakt@yomi.nu

Our mission for YOMI has always been to have it be a method that has some scientific ground, not relying merely on our own personal experiences of the practice, but also on the more objective evaluation of western science. With that in mind, this article is surely something to celebrate!

Practicing acceptance – life with a newborn

One of the pillars of mindfulness is ”beginner’s mind”; looking at things as if it were the first time we saw or experienced them. Not seldom is the comparison to how a child views the world made. We’re encouraged to learn from children and how they take on each day with a blissful beginner’s mind, simply because they are beginners at life.

Now, I do believe that we have a lot to learn from children and their ways about life, but I’ve more recently learned how being with a child is a full on acceptance boot camp.

Seven weeks ago I gave birth to my first child. Already when my water broke, three weeks early, I once again came face to face with the reality of not being able to plan life’s course of actions. I still had almost two weeks left at work, we hadn’t bought all the necessary stuff, hadn’t packed the hospital bag. And I was four days short of carrying the pregnancy to a full term, something I really had wished for and had my mind set on. But, for some reason that my brain failed to acknowledge, but my body – and baby! – seemed to understand, it was time to give birth and have life change tremendously. Lesson to be learned: don’t always trust your brain to know it all. There are so many things we cannot control, there are so many things that happen that we wish were different or that we wish we could plan for, but simply can’t.   

So this little person decided to come out, healthy and incredibly cute. Taking the acceptance boot camp to new levels in terms of not being able to control one’s every day life. Even writing this post has had to be postponed several times, due to him suddenly deciding not to sleep for that extra half hour after we’ve been on our daily walk. Or vomiting for the fourth time after a feeding, having me spend the afternoon wiping up sour milk and changing his (however adorable) clothes. Becoming a parent seems to be the grandest exposure exercise of letting go of control there is.   

Now, I could spend these first months of my newborn’s life fighting against the clock and my own arbitrary ideas on what I should accomplish, getting disappointed every time my daily plan fails since my baby’s needs still are so unpredictable. Well, not so much could spend, rather have spent. But after enough outbursts of irritation on my part I fortunately remembered to return to the pillars of mindfulness, especially those concerning acceptance and letting go.

Acceptance, as we often describe it within the field of psychology, is to be present with and endure one’s internal and external situation, without judgment or valuation. In short: to be with what is, whether you like it or not. And make your decisions based on what reality really looks like, rather than what you wish it would look like. Which in my case right now means that my days are and will continue to be somewhat unpredictable, filled with body fluids of various kinds, interrupted sleep and merely shorter periods of time to sit down by the computer to write. I can try to fight this, or I can practice acceptance, letting go of the idea that this will be something other than it is. And with that hopefully get a chance to also go into my beginner’s mind as I watch my baby exploring the world with what is nothing short of a true beginner’s mind.  

Getting to know your autonomic nervous system: how the body fights and flees.

Since we humans in many ways are a product of evolution, one of the main jobs for our bodies and brains over the past million years or so has been to ensure our survival. Part of this has entailed developing a highly effective system that allows us to, say, run from lions or fight against (less intimidating) enemies. In these attempts we have to hand it to evolution to having been fairly successful; developing the part of the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system (also called our fight-or-flight-system), which is backed up by the parasympathetic nervous system that on the other hand is responsible for our recovery, relaxation and basically taking it chill once the danger is gone. With these two being part of the autonomic system, they’re usually systems we don’t control voluntarily, but rather ones that switch on and off, and swing between the one and the other, all adapted to what our internal and external circumstances look like. When in sympathetic activation our heart rate increases, breath becomes shallower and faster, the muscles tense and we become hyper aware of what’s going on around us. And on the contrary, parasympathetic activation allows the muscles to relax, heart rate to slow, breath to become deeper and slower, and the body to attend to its repairing functions such as memory retention, the immune and digestive systems. Basically the things that will get us ready for the next time we may need to fight or flight.

Somewhat simplified it goes something like this: Danger appears, sympathetic activation switches on. Danger subsides, parasympathetic activation switches on. We run when lions are present and we rest when lions are absent. So far so good.

Enter: the evolved human brain. Here comes trouble. In numerous ways:

1.     One thing to remember about the brain is that while being a killer at solving advanced, abstract problems, it’s unfortunately less than perfect when it comes to differing between dangers that are real and dangers that are imagined. Hence, both a real lion running towards us and an imagined lion running towards us will activate the sympathetic nervous system. This causes a bit of problem since we’ve developed a language that allows us to imagine all kinds of hypothetical situations whilst being in a context that from the outside looks perfectly fine and safe (e.g. lying in bed and suddenly go into a string oframbling thoughts such as “what if my boss doesn’t like the work I do”, “what if I don’t fall asleep, I’ll be so tired tomorrow, I won’t be able to work”, “why haven’t my partner called yet, what if he was in a car accident, what if he’s dead?!”). And regardless of your cozy pillows, safe neighbourhood and a bedroom with the perfectly adjusted temperature, these thoughts are very likely to trigger your body into sympathetic activation. The brain just isn’t all that good at knowing when danger is real and when it’s imagined. 

2.     Social exclusion is considered a real danger. Even though it may not be associated with immediate danger of death to be excluded from your social sphere, there probably was a time when being left out in the cold was. Remember, our brains have in many ways far from caught up with our current society, especially when it comes to their initial reactions. Therefore any signs of social exclusion, of being disliked or dismissed are interpreted as potential dangers, triggering the sympathetic nervous system. Our perception of our social belonging fairly directly affects our bodies and our perception of the rest of the world. Researchers Zong and Leonardelli even showed in a study that the mere thought of a memory when people have felt socially excluded will influence their perception of the current room’s temperature. Being liked seems to be so important to us that it’s really hard to relax when we think we’re not. (And since the brain is crap at differing between what’s real and not, you can see how these to things in combination is a real haven for the sympathetic nervous system to run wild in).

3.     It may sound as though having a sympathetic nervous system is all bad. It’s not. Remember the lions running towards you. We should all be happy that we have an efficient system that switches on when we need to focus for an exam, jump away from a full speed car or even do something usually pleasant as, say, get married (that’s right, the sympathetic nervous system switches on just as much when the thing we need to prepare for is perceived as positive). And it’s not bad for us to be in sympathetic activation; we can for shorter periods of time manage just fine with less sleep, less food and even less frequent visits to the bathroom (sleeping, eating and pooping are pretty much all bad things to do when a car is about to hit you). The real trouble begins when we get stuck in sympathetic activation. Our bodies and brains aren’t really wired to cope with that. They’re more adapted to having a lion run towards you, but then disappearing (if you were lucky enough not to get eaten, that is), leaving you some space to relax and recover. It seems though that today we have perceived lions running towards us most all the time. Only today we call them deadlines, to-do-lists, social engagements, life goals in need of being achieved and blog posts needing to get written. The tasks never ends, and neither do our thoughts. When we get stuck in fight or flight, the body and brain will eventually start paying the price of not having the opportunity of attending to highly important functions such as memory retention, the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system. After a while it will start to show up as troubles concentrating, remembering, bowel issues and increased illness.

To sum it up: we do need our sympathetic nervous system, but it’s pretty bad for us to get stuck in it – we do need that parasympathetic part of the nervous system to keep us balanced and restored. Luckily, the concept of the autonomic nervous system being completely autonomic isn’t entirely true. There are ways of consciously switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, tapping into the relaxation response, which we’ll dig deeper into in a future blog post.