yoga

A sustainable practice, a sustainable life, a sustainable planet – how it’s all connected.  

During two of the most intense months we’ve had in YOMI; organizing a retreat, finishing and filming two new programs and offering a YOMI class and lecture at Yoga Games Malmö, we decided to spend some extra focus on the subject of sustainability.

Sustainability lies close both to my heart and my fears, as we live in the midst of a climate crisis that’s creeping closer upon us which each day that our greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing.

As I’ve for the past four years worked more and more with climate psychology it’s also become apparent how the issue of sustainability relates to all levels that we live and act on: from the practice on our mats to the entire planet.  

Let me explain:

Sustainability is about carrying out actions whose consequences won’t do us or others harm either now or in the future: on the mat having a safe practice, adapting to our own current conditions. In our lives meeting the needs we have, adapting to however they’re changing. On the planet ensuring that our lust for things now won’t do the planet harm later on.

Truth be told, we’re not there yet. Neither in regards to how we’re treating the earth, but in all honesty a lot of the times nor in regards to how we’re treating ourselves on and off our mats.

In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines the core of the yoga practice, including the eight limbs of yoga where Yama (abstinence) is the first one. In this limb ahimsa, non-violence, is an important aspect. Putting this in relation to the current state of climate disaster it’s called upon us to reflect on how we as yoga practitioners treat this first limb of yoga. Is the current yogic lifestyle compatible with not doing the earth harm? With not doing ourselves harm?

As for our own lives, there seems to be something in the system we’re living in that’s creating an unsustainability in the way we live. We know that psychological distress is on the rise, as are the sick leave numbers. All of this in spite of economic growth increasing alongside emissions. It’s like we’re making ourselves sick at the same pace as we’re making the planet sick.

Is it then possible to create a sustainable world where we still are able to lead good lives? Trusting what we know about what people need to be healthy and happy the short answer is yes.

The tricky part about this is that we at this point don’t know the exact consequences of the climate threat, as we don’t know how the world will choose to act in the coming years. All we know is that the less we act now, perhaps in favor of our short-term pleasures, the graver the consequences will be for us long-term.

That said, we do know from years of research that what makes people happy, what makes people thrive and live well is not connected to living a fossil fuel intensive life. What seems most important for our happiness is good, social relationships. Physical activity, recreation, a meaningful job, helping others and being in nature are other things that seem important for our sense of happiness.  

In light of all of this, I would like to believe that by creating a practice for ourselves that is sustainable for our bodies and minds, we can expand that knowledge into creating actions that help ensure the sustainability of the entire earth.

/Frida 

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Why YOMI is always led by psychologists

Regular practice of yoga is, as far as the still quite thin body of research as well as the very thick empirical knowledge show, beneficial to us, both on a psychological and physiological level. It has helped numerous people feel better, get stronger, overcome sadness and grief.  

And yet, we as yoga teachers should be careful with what we make claims about and what problems we address in the yoga room.

A very important thing about being a licensed psychologist is that your license comes with a responsibility: ethical guidelines and a promise to practice in line with empirical knowledge and evidence. This is important because when we’re dealing with people who are suffering in one way or another we need to ensure that they get proper treatment. Therefore, we cannot make claims about the effects of something without having something to fall back on; research, empirical practice, health care guidelines. Even if we have your own experience of being helped by a certain thing or practice, we need to keep in mind that this might not be the case for everyone. This is tedious at times, but it’s also what makes it possible to do a good job and help people who might come from other circumstances than yourself.

One reason we’re not calling YOMI psychological treatment is that we simply don’t have the research to back it up (at least not yet). We can, however, say that YOMI seems to be beneficial both psychologically and physiologically, especially for people dealing with stress and worry.

It has been important to us to build YOMI on a solid theoretical and practical foundation. In order to make sure that we really use the psychological knowledge correctly, ensuring the quality of the YOMI practice, we early on decided that YOMI should be led by psychologists who are also trained yoga teachers. The psychoeducation in YOMI might not seem too advanced at a first glance, but it’s built on principles and theories that people have been researching since the greater part of the last century.

 It might seem like small things, but to us as trained psychologists, there’s a big difference between saying “don’t think about the negative stuff” and “observe your negative thoughts before allowing yourself to let go of them” (In psychological terms: the first one encourages avoidance, the second encourages defusion). There’s also a big difference between saying that we’ve seen in studies that YOMI Yin can lower people’s perceived anxiety and saying that YOMI cures anxiety. And not the least: knowing what we can deal with in the yoga room, and what we should refer to health care facilities.

Yoga and mindfulness are powerful and beneficial tools, but we should be humble towards what we have the competency to deal with and in what context. And as yogis, we should encourage ourselves and each other to stay open minded, but also remain a little critical from time to time in the yoga room.  

 

 

Managing stress: how to identify it and how to know what to let go of.

If you've been following us for a while you know that stress - or rather how to handle stress - is something that we deal with quite a bit. Both in our personal lives and in our YOMI work. 

We've written about how the sympathetic as well as the parasympathetic nervous systems work, and how these are related to stress. We've also written about how we work with emotions in our program YOMI Yin, which focuses on managing stress and worry, as well as a few posts about the practice of acceptance and gratefulness, two important tools in stress management.  

Yet it seems that there are more (endless?) perspectives, questions, tips and tricks when it comes to dealing with stress. On our instagram this month we've dug into a few questions regarding stress: 

What are three early signs of stress for you?
To manage our stress we first need to identify when we start to become stressed. How does it feel in our bodies? How do we act when we start to get stressed? What thoughts and feelings arise when we start to get stressed? Learning to notice these early signs and how they play out in our bodies is a good first step to manage stress in a functional way. For me early signs are usually feeling "messy" in my mind, shorter breath and a general tension in all of my body. These are clear signs that I need to make a few adjustments. 

What's the first thing you let go of when you're stressed? 
We usually get stressed when the demands of life are bigger than our available resources (may they be resources of time, energy, practical help or other). So it's completely in order to prioritise and leave some things for later. It's not uncommon, however, that we in times of stress start letting go of things that would actually serve us well in taking care of ourselves. Physical exercise for example, time on the yoga mat, time with our loved ones. 
In order to know how to prioritise well during stressed times we're helped by knowing which things that usually serve us well (we've written about identifying the function of our actions here ) so that we can remind ourselves what to really hold on to even when we feel like we don't have time - and what is completely fine to let go of when we prioritise. For me, in times of stress, I'm usually better of holding on to my yoga practice than holding on to having a perfectly clean home.  But even knowing this, it takes quite a bit of reminding to hold on to.  

It's a continuous practice as it is a continuous life. Let us practice and be kind and adjust according to what we need right now. 

Wishing you all a happy summer! 
Frida
 

Practicing acceptance – what my post partum body taught me

For the better part of my recent pregnancy I continued a regular yoga practice. Modified of course; a growing belly doesn’t allow for deep twists or backbends, prone positions or core engaging asanas. But continuously going into the well known postures, flowing through sun salutations and resting in a deep squat helped my body feel surprisingly strong and flexible, even with the extra weight and bump that naturally comes with carrying an extra person inside of you. That said, the longing for my regular, non-pregnancy, practice grew stronger as the pregnancy approached its final stages. Oh, to be able to lie on ones belly again! To do a proper head stand and wringe out in a deep twist.

Somewhat naively I thought that once the baby was on the outside, my body – and with that my practice – would go back to its normal ways, shape and strength.

Skip forward to two months post partum: where there was once abdominal muscles there’s now something vaguely resembling a core. What once was flexible now stiff from hours of breastfeeding in awkward positions. Post natal practice is something different than a pre pregnancy practice. A post partum body acts differently than a pre pregnancy body.

Discrepancy between expectations and reality offers a great, but often painful, opportunity to observe one’s reactions to obstacles, to not getting what you want. How we react to obstacles and setbacks varies, between individuals, but also between different situations. Some have a tendency to react with anger and irritation (“stupid body, why don’t you do as I tell you to?”), where others tend to react with worry (“what if I never will be able to go back to my old practice”), yet others with shame (“how embarrassing that I can’t perform even these simple asanas”).

While all of these reactions are common, normal and mostly automatic, they seldom serve us well. Serve us well in the sense that they help us continue on our desired path or foster our well-being.

When reality presents us with challenges, one of our most helpful tools is acceptance. Reminding ourselves that it is what it is, even though it may not be what we wished for. Acceptance to help us continue, starting where we actually are, rather than trying to work from where we wish we were.

In my case: accepting that my post partum body is exactly what it is; strong in some areas and weak in others. Changed by having carried and given birth to a child. Affected by not having practiced certain asanas for almost a year. This is what reality looks like right now, whether it seems fair, good or desired.

Because once we reach that acceptance and let go of our perceptions of how we wish things were, we have a better opportunity to start reacting to whatever we encounter with less anger, worry or shame and instead with more curiosity and even appreciation. Curios about the fact that we don’t quite know what awaits us on our path and appreciation for getting to experience what may come.

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!

Facilitating behavioral change: establishing a daily practice

If there’s something we psychologists know it’s how hard it can be to make behavioral changes. If it weren’t then this world would look a whole lot different, your life would probably look a whole lot different.

We’re creatures of habit, lovers of the path of least resistance and automatized to the point of in many ways resembling an autopilot that has set out across the ocean, navigating us through our daily lives.

Luckily, something else we psychologists know are a few tips and tricks on how to facilitate the desired changes in our behavior. And, lucky for you, one of our aims with YOMI is to share whatever knowledge we have that might make life easier for just about anyone who’s interested. Hence: this series of blog posts called “Facilitating behavioral change”, fresh with psychological knowledge and research, applied on our yoga and meditation practice, in our regular everyday stressed out lives.

When getting into yoga and meditation, whether it be through a more structured program such as the YOMI program, via a youtube home practice or the occasional yoga class at your gym, most people eventually become more and more intrigued by the thought of establishing a daily practice: a daily sadhana. Which, due to our somewhat habitual and lazy nature, can be easier said than done. Establishing new habits usually requires a bit of effort, but can be facilitated by a number of things:

·      Take small steps: the hard part of creating a daily practice is usually not so much the actual “practice” part as the “daily” part. If we focus too much on the practice being big, advanced or strenuous, chances are it’ll be hard for us to keep up on a daily basis. Rather, when starting out, try to take smaller steps in the beginning, gradually building your practice. Start with a shorter practice, using only poses and exercises you know well. When establishing a daily sadhana five breaths on your mat everyday actually is more beneficial than one and a half hour of advanced asanas once every other week. 

·      Create a good space: It might sound like an obstacle that shouldn’t have much impact on your own willingness to practice, but not having a good space to set up your mat or meditation pillow will decrease the chances of you practicing on a regular basis. People are fairly easily conditioned (as much as your average dog or rat), and our brains love to make associations between activities and certain places (e.g. associating our bed with sleeping, our dining table with eating, and the bathroom with brushing our teeth). So much that it can help us get sleepy when we are nearing our bed in the evening. Creating and condition yourself to a certain place for your practice is a good helper. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you just need to know where to roll out your mat, and that this preferably is a place where you have room to raise your arms, and not be disturbed by too much noise or other people. If you want to cozy it up, go ahead, see that as a bonus, but not as a required.

·      Keep your things handy: When NIKE claims “Just do it” they’re probably not thinking about that in order to do it we need to take a few steps first. Such as getting into the appropriate attire and finding our blocks. The rule usually goes that the more accessible your needed stuff are the likelier that you’ll do it. If you do your practice in the morning, set up your space and lay out your clothes the night before. Keep your mat visible, it’ll remind you of your practice. (Remember the previous step about creating a good space, and about how the brain loves to associate things with each other, such as your mat with you doing your practice).

·      Be humble towards the fact that you have a whole other life to live – but adapt accordingly: Few of us have the luxury of leading lives where time seems to come in abundance. We are usually quite busy, especially the one’s of us who seek out yoga and meditation to help manage our stress levels. And in some ways life is what it is; we won’t get rid of certain daily chores, our kids will need picking up from school at certain times each day, our bosses might keep giving us the evil eye if we slip home early too often from work. So, while you get ready for making that really big life change of downsizing or quitting your job (or if you’re just quite happy with keeping things fairly much as they are, but would like some more time for yoga), stay humble towards the fact that life is there, and it’s requiring quite a bit of you. But learn how to adapt accordingly. What time of day would be the easiest for you to practice? Are you a morning person enough to get up half an hour earlier and roll out your mat? Are you an evening person that would benefit from winding down with a night time practice? Is it possible to come into work later and staying later, giving you some more time in the morning? Are you willing to give up a bit of TV time in the evening to practice?  Do what suits and do what works for you, it’s usually a good guideline to increase your chances of getting on your mat. And that’s really what it’s all about: getting you onto your mat and start breathing. Once you’re there you can gradually build the rest. 

​ Yoga won’t always make you feel good - and that’s exactly as it should be

In most yoga schools establishing and keeping a daily sadhana (daily practice), including both asana and meditation, is highly encouraged. Often this daily practice is talked about as the foundation for one’s yogic development and an essential part of getting closer to the 8th limb of yoga; Samadhi. The quote by famous yogi Sri Pattabhii Jois: “Everyday do your practice and the rest will come”, is something that yogis worldwide believe in and live by.

There is however, in a wide array of yoga circuits (not the least on facebook and instagram), a fairly well established culture of spreading the message that yoga will somehow automatically and every time you do it make you feel great (a quick search on the instagram #yogaeverydamnday offers captions where expressions such as “nothing in the world compares”, “you always have a choice” and “feeling grateful as hell” are amongst the first to pop up.) And while this of course at times is true, it certainly is a bit of a modified truth. Sometimes yoga doesn’t give you that incomparable feeling. Sometimes we don’t have a choice when it comes to the state that things around us are in. And gratitude usually takes quite a bit of hard work, and does not always naturally pop up at the end of our practice.

But – and this is an important but – there is sometimes (note: not always) an important difference between what feels good and what serves us well. There’s also often times an important difference between what feels good short term and what is beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes yoga doesn’t feel good; not at the beginning of practice, not during and not even after. Sometimes it stirs up emotions, sometimes your body’s sore as hell, sometimes you haven’t slept all night and are exhausted, with your mind occupied by thoughts about the fight you had last night with your partner. In the short run, sometimes, yoga might even make you feel worse – sad, irritated, frustrated and disappointed. This doesn’t however necessarily mean that your practice hasn’t served you well, and that the benefits of it won’t come dripping down into your life later on.

One of the skills we need to develop, as yogis, but also in regular life, is to learn and get to know what it is that actually serves us well – even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it in the moment. And equally learn what doesn’t serve us well, even though it really feels good in the moment. As psychologists this is something we continuously work with our patients, particularly patients suffering from depression and anxiety: finding out which things are meaningful and beneficial for you, and finding a way of getting them into your daily routine. Sticking with them even when you feel like rolling back into bed and skipping life altogether. Learning to trust that sometimes it’s enough to know what’s good for you, adapt accordingly, and be patient as the benefits might not show up until a while later. Or in other words; Everyday do the practice that serves you well, and the benefits will eventually start pouring into your life, even if it sometimes feels like shit in the moment.

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.