Gratitude, even in the Midst of Challenge

gratitude

If you are in the midst of a Health Challenge — newly diagnosed, dealing with an exacerbation/flare up, in pain or just generally having a “why me”/”this sucks” moment or day (we all have them) —  I understand that you may not be feeling much gratitude.  But, keep reading because gratitude plays an important role in happiness and health.  And, while this post is mostly about finding gratitude in spite of a health challenge, I think there is something here for everyone.

Research has found that gratitude has several benefits:

  • increases happiness and life
  • boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm
  • reduces anxiety and depression
  • strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces symptoms of illness, and makes us less bothered by aches and pains
  • better sleep
  • makes us more resilient
  • strengthens relationships

These results were found even when studying individuals with health conditions such as neuromuscular diseases and breast cancer.

Several sites recommend cultivating gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal, writing a “gratitude letter” to someone important to you, staying present/mindful of moments that bring you joy and hope, meditating on gratitude, writing a gratitude list, and focusing on what’s right instead of what’s wrong (especially before falling asleep).2010-05-19-gratitudepic  

When you are dealing with a health challenge (or any other life-changing situation), that last suggestion can be difficult.  It’s so easy to slip into worrying about the future or spend time wishing you could turn back the clock to before you became sick. But focusing on those things will get you no where. I’m not saying be a Pollyanna or Suzy Sunshine.  Nor am I suggesting you live in denial about what you are facing.  There are times when you need to get a little angry and belligerent with the illness.  The trick is to not let the anger consume you or become the only emotion you feel.  I have found that taking time to remember what’s working helps(and being grateful there are things that are working) diffuses the “I don’t want to be sick” internal tantrum pretty quickly.

Illness can bring gifts into your life.  If you haven’t gotten to this point yet, I understand this sentence may make you want to puke.  When I was first diagnosed with MS, I sought out stories of inspiration.  I kept coming across articles about people who said that if it wasn’t for their illness they never would have found the rewarding work they were now doing.  At the time, those stories really chaffed me.  I was already doing meaningful work — raising funds for a nonprofit serving individuals who had experienced domestic/sexual abuse or sexual assault.  I didn’t need MS to find meaningful work.  But, the truth is, if it hadn’t been for the MS, and later the fibromyalgia, I wouldn’t be practicing yoga on a regular basis, let alone teaching it.  And as regular readers know, yoga has been a gift for me and led to mental and emotional healing I don’t know I would have found elsewhere.

Let’s look at a couple of the suggestions for cultivating gratitude:

If you like the idea of meditating on gratitude,  The Mentors Channel is running a FREE meditation event called “21 Days of Gratitude”. You can join via Facebook or create a user name.  It started November 4th, but it looks like the meditations will continue to be available throughout the event.  A good thing since I didn’t get this post out as early as I’d planned.

Lake Michigan, photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

Lake Michigan, photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

photo by Lisa DeShantz-Cook

Enjoying the moment — or as one site refered to it, savoring life. This is about awareness. It’s the old cliché of “stop and smell the roses.”  Take time to notice the beauty around you and the beauty that resides in those you love and value. Or maybe you are inspired by that which is interesting and different in life — what some may call hidden beauty. What is it that stops you in your tracks? Or makes you pause and ponder the universe? Not only does this help cultivate gratitude, it takes your mind off whatever else is going on in life.  Images that inspire you are a great last image to hold in your mind as you go to sleep. Want to see other great photos, check out the cedar suite entries blog.

To help you get started on your gratitude list, I’ll share some of what’s on mine:

  • my husband, family and friends, who accept me as I am, even as my abilities ebb and flow
  • researchers working hard to find a cure for MS and fibromyalgia, as well as new medications to slow their progress or ease their symptoms
  • those who fund this research
  • my 3 cats, each of whom can make me laugh even on a bad day
  • my yoga practice
  • the people who attend my classes and allow me to share this awesome practice with them — and who are patient and understanding if I have to cancel a class due to a flare up

My own suggestion for those of you who practice yoga is to take some time, either at the beginning or end of your practice to express gratitude for your practice. Don’t focus on what you were or weren’t able to do. Instead, just feel what yoga does for you and extend a thank you to the universe, God, etc. for its existence.  Also thank yourself for taking the time to come to your practice. This is something I learned from my mentor and I end all of my classes by inviting students to partake in this moment of gratitude.

Last November I created a “Gratitude Playlist” for the classes I taught the week before Thanksgiving (kind of corny, I know).  In the process of looking for songs I discovered this one from Racheal Brady.  Hope you enjoy it.

Namaste,
Deb

 

Advertisements

What’s Your Value?

Lately I’ve been coming across things about self-value.  A week or so ago this was shared on Peace Begins with Me (a small BIG Peace Project)’s Facebook page:
Value

This past Sunday, yoga instructor, Judith Hanson Lasater was interviewed by Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.,Managing Editor for YogaUOnline.com.  The interview was part of Yoga U Online’s Free Sadhana Sunday Series.  The topic was “Alone by Myself: Developing a Home Practice in the Midst of a Busy Life.”  Here is an excerpt of the interview that was shared on The Huffington Post’s website:

Q: Why is it when we love yoga (as much as many of us do, at least) that it’s still a struggle for many people to get to their mats?

Judith Hanson Lasater: I’ve heard this sentence, as you can imagine, many hundreds of times: “I don’t have time for this.” But I think that that’s an excuse. I really don’t think that’s the issue. I think we’re looking in the wrong places for why we don’t practice. We need to look at our thoughts and our beliefs about ourselves.

It has to do with self-nurturing. It has to do with valuing yourself. I believe it’s related to refusing on some level and used in the broadest sense of the word to see our own divinity.

One of the mantras that I like a lot is — specially when things start getting busy or conflicted — what is the most important thing right now? It’s usually to remember myself and what I’m feeling. And that centers me.

That’s quite an answer!

What does it mean to “see our own divinity?”  Yoga philosophy teaches that we are all inherently good. We may lose sight of, or contact with that inherent goodness due to life experiences.  But underneath these layers of experience, the goodness is still there. This inherent goodness exists not because of anything we have done, but just because we exist.  We are, as described by yoga teacher and author, Erich Schiffman, “made of God Substance, Consciousness, Love . .  . creative energy, Spirit, a unique expression of God’s infinite Self-Expression.” If this is confusing or you just want to know more, check out Chapter 2 of Schiffman’s book, Moving Into Stillness here.  It’s one of the best explanations I’ve read on the topic.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Westerners in particular have trouble with this concept.  I’m sure that’s due to a combination of factors from the theology of original sin to our “what have you done for me lately” culture to, as Schiffman describes, the fact that we spend very little time with ourselves in stillness.  The result is that our self-identity comes from our external world instead of our internal one.

But what if we truly took to heart the idea of our inherent goodness? Our divinity?  How would that change our actions towards ourselves?  Actions that we take for ourselves? This is something I’ve been mulling over since hearing the interview.  I’ve come a long way in valuing myself.  I no longer struggle with feelings of being unlovable or unworthy.  I am better at doing what I need to do to take care of me, rather than doing what I feel obligated by others to do.  But, I can’t say I’m living in a way that fully recognizes my divinity. And if I’m not fully recognizing my divinity, then I’m not fully valuing myself.

I’m not talking about becoming a diva.  Well, at least not the “obnoxious, self-absorbed, I am better than you” type of diva that comes to mind when people hear that word.  I prefer the queenly, goddess sort of diva that goes back to the word’s origin (from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary), which is:

Italian, literally, goddess, from Latin, feminine of divus divine, god

I’m talking about making life choices that affirm my divinity and full value.  Choices with what I do with my time, what I put in my body, what I put into my mind.  The traditional medicine and alternative/complementary health options I undertake.  Would it make the difficult choices/actions easier?  And the easy path more difficult to take?

One of my favorite mantras is “om namaha shivaya” (discovered it reading Eat, Pray, Love — book wayyyy better than the movie).  A simple translation is “I honor the divine within myself.”  I’ve used this many times in both my yoga and meditation practice and it played a role in healing from emotional abuse.  I thought I knew what it meant for me.  But, as I sit here typing, I realize there are depths to its meaning I haven’t fully realized.

This, my friends, is my new area of self-study and exploration.  I invite you to join me by exploring what recognizing and fully engaging in your own divinity means for your life.

Namaste,
Deb

 

MS, Cognition and Yoga: What I Learned

(Cue the Voice-over Guy) “Previously on Clear Reflection Yoga”:

Now, back to the current/recent flare-up.  As I mentioned two posts ago, it took a couple of weeks after the leg weakness set in to realize I was experiencing cognitive impairment (CI).  My first reaction was, “Oh, so that’s why writing my blog was so difficult.”  My second was to laugh at the universe’s sense of humor in taking me from researching yoga and MS-related cognition issues to experimenting with them.  In all honesty, I don’t know if my reaction would have been the same if I’d still been in fund development or any other field that required the cognitive functions that were on the fritz.  Since I can’t step into an alternate plane of existence (if I could I’d chose the one with cures to MS and fibromyalgia), I’ll share what I learned.

My experience mirrored the findings of the little research I found on yoga and MS-related cognitive impairment.  Yoga isn’t going to make CI symptoms go away.  It’s not going to make the exacerbation heal more quickly.  But it definitely makes the whole thing easier to deal with.

influence 1The first thing I noticed was when I found myself having difficulty, I automatically went into Yoga Breathing. I teach that one of yoga’s goals is to learn to pause and respond from a place of thoughtfulness, rather than following a knee-jerk reaction.  To help with anxiety and panic attacks, or the general need for calm, I teach Dirga Pranayama (3-Part Yoga Breath), encouraging students to practice when they are feeling calm so it “kicks in” when they aren’t.  Pausing to breathe gave my brain a chance to try to process.  When the processing didn’t happen, pausing to breathe gave me a chance to try another tactic.

For example, when the clerk asked, “Paper or plastic?”, what I wanted to say was, “Wet stuff (meaning lettuce and spinach) in plastic.  The rest in paper.”  But, when after a beat or two I could tell that wasn’t going to happen, I switched gears to “whatever is easiest for you.” During my previous experiences with CI, not being able to answer the question the way I wanted would have started a spiral of frustration that, in all likelihood, would have included tears.  But this time, the simple act of pausing and breathing kept me from feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

And when there didn’t seem to be another tactic that worked, breathing allowed me to find a place of acceptance, in that moment, rather than pushing/forcing.  Because the only thing pushing or forcing would do is ramp up feelings of frustration.

influence 2A couple of days after I realized I was having CI problems I went back to writing my post.  I changed the title to “Now – what was I going to say?” and changed my approach from analysis of the research and their applications, to a story about what was happening with my own cognition. In doing so, most of my writing difficulties vanished. This was true even though I included some of the same research information.  I decided to try using storytelling as a way to communicate whenever possible.  I think this noticing of “what was working,” was a direct result of practicing mindfulness and present-moment awareness.  These practices teach us to look at the whole of our experience, not just the part that is squeaking the loudest.  If I had keep my focus only on what was wrong, I would have missed out on something that turned out to be very helpful.

Staying in the present moment is helpful for everyone.  But, I think it’s particularly helpful in the case of MS, or any other illness that takes a relapsing-remitting form.  Exacerbations of any type can be upsetting, if not down right scary.  It is so easy to slip into worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. I love the following quote by davidj, in “Freedom Resides in the Present,” Deepak Chopra Newsletter, July 2012.

“The past is the known and offers no opportunity for choice and possibility. And the future exists only in the imagination. Freedom lies in the present moment, the only place where we can choose from an infinite range of possibilities.”

It is so true.  Focusing on what I used to be able to do is depressing and a waste of energy.  Trying to imagine the future is impossible.  Every person’s path with MS is different.  The possibility lies in now, this moment.

influence 3This leads me to the concept of “impermanence,” which is really a whole post in and of itself.  What I’ll say here, is that remembering the cognitive impairment wasn’t going to last forever was very helpful.  Since being diagnosed with MS, I’ve become a big fan of neuroplasticity.  In its simplest definition, neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and regrow connections between neurons.  This concept is tied to developing new habits and to learning.  It’s also the reason those of us with relasping-remitting MS often recover abilities after an exacerbation.  In many cases the brain grows a new neural pathway around the spot of the plaque.  I know this is a very simplistic explanation, but its in the name of trying to keep a long post from getting longer.

To reduce frustration, I shared what was going on this those in my life.  Letting people know I might not be able to answer a question quickly, reduced the pressure to do so.  Less pressure = less frustration.  And everyone’s reaction to my situation was great.  No pity, just understanding and patience when needed.

While yoga did not improve the CI problems, I believe two acupuncture treatments I received during this time did.  I get acupuncture from a neurologist a couple of times a month to help with fibromyalgia pain, spasticity and fatigue.  It’s a nice complement to my yoga practice. The doctor is very much a Renaissance Man in his blending of Eastern and Western medicine, as well as traditional with “alternative.”  I’ve had no trouble accepting the results of needles in my belly to help with fatigue or in the webbing between my thumb and index finger as one of the “main gates” to help with something else.  But the fact that a needle in the area of the crown of my head actually improved my thinking is something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.  That seems very “woo-woo” for lack of a better term.  If I sit down and look at the various meridians used in acupuncture it might feel more concrete. Or maybe it won’t.  And to be honest, right now I don’t know that I care.  I’m okay with “woo-woo” since two treatments, two weeks apart definitely made a difference.  So, if you are dealing with MS-related cognitive impairment,you might want to check out acupuncture.

momentumThe newest edition of Momentum (National MS Society magazine) arrived in the mail last week.  One article noted on the cover deals with cognition impairment.  They don’t mention yoga, mindfulness or acupuncture as coping tools.  But, its still a good read.

Be good to yourself.

Namaste,
Deb

My Personal History with MS and Cognition

In my last post I shared my discovery that the current MS exacerbation was effecting not only my legs, but also some of my cognition functions.  In it I promised to use the opportunity to explore/do field research on how yoga might help with the cognition aspect. I kept that promise and I will share what I learned.  But, I think telling a bit about my previous encounters with MS-related cognition issues can provide important perspective. To keep this post from becoming even longer , I’m making this Part 1 of a 2-parter.

I was diagnosed with MS in January 2005 and that June began to have trouble with many of my executive functions (planning, problem-solving, switching tasks, verbal reasoning, working memory, etc..).  I was working in fund development, an area I’d been in for 10 years. The work was highly dependent on executive functioning skills and required the ability to juggle several projects at once. One day I found myself having trouble reconnecting with my train of thought when switching between projects.  Another day I’d read guidelines and information material from a potential funding source and discover I couldn’t translate what “We” did into language that matched what “They” were interested in.  I also began to struggle with pulling information I knew from my brain to my lips.  Then there was the day I sat down at my desk and had no idea where to start.  I was so frustrated.  Many of my drives home were made in tears.

No one had told me MS could affect my ability to think.  Back then, cognition problems weren’t on most lists of potential MS-symptoms.  I thought I was losing my mind.  I have always been labeled as “smart.”  In school I ran with the “smart kids” and always gravitated towards people with a quick wit.  Multi-tasking was second nature and the field of fund development had fit me like a glove.  Now, my gloves had holes and I had no idea why.

I developed coping skills that, for the most part, kept my struggles hidden at work.  (In writing this I’ve realized that these coping skills also kept my neurologist from seeing how bad the problems were.) I confided in the receptionist and my assistant, and will be forever grateful for their help during the summer of 2005.  Still, staying on top of things required an extraordinary amount of mental and physical energy.  I had struggled with fatigue from the start and these added challenges drained me.

When I spoke to my step-mom about what was going on, she told me that my uncle (who’d had MS and passed the year before I was diagnosed) experienced cognitive difficulties.  It was something my parents had chosen not to tell me because (1) they didn’t want to scare me, and (2) they hadn’t been sure it was MS-related.  Afterall, he lived most of his life during a time when it was thought MS couldn’t effect cognition. A viewpoint that had only begun to be called into serious question a few years before my diagnosis.  It wasn’t until reading Facing the Cognitive Challenges of Multiple Sclerosis by Jeffrey Gingold in mid 2006 that I even came across another whose experiences mirrored some of mine.

The cognitive problems began to subside by the end of summer. But other non-health circumstances arose and I resigned in October.  I tried doing some consulting work in early 2006, but cognitive problems resurfaced that spring. That’s when I put my fund development career on the shelf.

Of all the MS-related symptoms I’ve experienced, none has messed with my sense of self and identity like the cognition problems did.  During those times I didn’t feel smart.  The wit wasn’t there — well, not at the speed I was used to.  I’d been a talker, a communicator.  I’d always said that I’d rather ask someone for a $1,000 donation than plan a special event. During these “phases” my ability to get my point across was compromised. Conversations with me became a guessing game for my husband as I substituted “thingy,thing-a-ma-bob, whatcha-ma-call-it” and other expressions for words I couldn’t find in my mental dictionary.

If I wasn’t the Smart Girl, the Witty Girl….  If I couldn’t drive the freeway or read a map due to spatial relationship problems….. couldn’t read a book without constantly re-reading passages to remember what was going on…. couldn’t make quick decisions, even on something as simple as “paper or plastic”…… wasn’t able to convince people and institutions to invest in the work my organization was doing… then WHO WAS I????

I didn’t rediscover yoga until January 2006. My understanding of it as more than “just stretching” was still in the future when the cognition problems resurfaced that spring. It hadn’t yet become a sustaining practice in my life.  I hadn’t yet learned I was more than what I did to earn a living; more than my hobbies and interests; more than my brain and sarcastic wit.

The “About” section alludes to the fact that I grew up in an abusive situation. I won’t elaborate here except to say that growing up with an abusive parent, especially when there is significant mental and emotional abuse,does a number on your sense of self-worth and self-esteem.  I saw a therapist earlier in the decade and thought I had worked through all that.  But, this identity crisis brought the old wounds and doubts to the surface.

Though it didn’t seem so at the time, this was a good thing.  I went back into therapy with a different counselor — one who understood both the dynamics of abuse and the challenges of living with a chronic illness.  The question of “Who am I?” required me to look at the stories I’d been told — stories I’d believed about not being lovable and “less than.” It was during this time that my yoga practice shifted from stretching to something much more; something healing.  And because of this shift and my practice for the last seven years, I was better prepared when cognitive problems arose this past July.

Until next time (when I really will share what I learned this time around)…..

Namaste,
Deb

Now — what was I going to say?

When I began this post a month ago (yes that’s right, a month ago), it’s title was “Heat, Cognition and Mindful Yoga.”  It had been prompted by the reading of two articles.  The first was the reprint of a blog post by Julie Stachowiak, PhD, entitled “Heat and Cognition” (original title “Hot Weather Can Impair Cognition in People with MS.”).  It was contained in the Michigan Chapter, Summer 2013 edition of the MS Connection Newsletter and summarized findings from a 2012 study that found:

“cognitive functioning in people with MS was more affected by hot weather than cognitive functioning in people without MS.  On cognitive testing, people with MS performed significantly better on cooler days than they did on warmer days, while people without MS performed the same regardless of the outside temperature.”

david-sipress-shall-i-compare-thee-to-a-summer-s-day-new-yorker-cartoon

The second, Miraculous Practice, by Karen Macklin, came to me in a Yoga Journal e-newsletter and shared four stories of life transformed through yoga.  One was the story of a 32-year-old woman who suffered a brain hemorrhage that effected her balance, memory, spacial relations and concentration. 

She started taking a beginners’ Anusara Yoga class every day at the same studio, and found that the clear, mindful asana instruction improved her memory, spatial relations, focus, and sense of connectedness with her mind and body. But on a greater scale, she says, the daily practice showed her the value of acting deliberately. She learned that, on the mat, patience and focused intention translated into more precision in poses; off the mat, those qualities resulted in living in a more deeply satisfying way. “When you hold poses for a while, you have time to get where you want to be,” she says. “That’s how I feel about life now. If you are slow and mindful, you tend to be more focused on your goals and intentions.”

I have had my own MS-related cognitive problems and these articles got me to wondering, “What can yoga and mindfulness practices offer those dealing with MS-related cognition issues — heat-related or otherwise?”

I started reviewing books and articles on cognition and yoga, finding that most research dealt with healthy individuals, those with mental health problems (schizophrenia in particular), or those in the early stages of dementia.  I did find a very interesting preliminary report from 2002 that had looked at yoga’s effect on MS-related cognition issues and fatigue.  But, at the time had some difficulty finding the final report.

Setting the post aside, I attended an art fair where I got a bit overheated (even though we went in the morning and stayed for only an hour).  The following day the room where I taught yoga got extremely warm.  Between the two events I developed Legs of Lead (my legs feel as heavy as if they were made from the stuff) along with some fatigue.  As these are my usual responses to being overheated, I sought the usual remedy: rest, limited activity and staying indoors with the A/C cranked.

But, my legs didn’t respond as usual.  It took a week for me to realize this was an exacerbation/flare-up.  I HATE what steroids do to me. I was still functioning, just more slowly. So, I didn’t rush to get in to see my neurologist.  Thought I’d spend my downtime contacting the authors of the 2002 study mentioned above and tweaking this post.  But every time I tried working on it, I found myself getting extremely frustrated.  I just couldn’t pull my thoughts together.

Then a week ago the owner of the store where I teach most of my yoga classes called to ask some questions about changes I was making to the fall schedule.  I found myself having difficulty processing what she was saying, as well as getting my answers corralled in my mind and onto my tongue.  That was when I realized what a sense of humor the universe has:  This flare-up involves not only my legs, but also some of my cognitive processes!  So much for looking up old research.  I’m going to be doing fieldwork!!

I’ve had cognitive problems before, but not for several years.  And at the time I had not returned to yoga or even discovered mindfulness.  So, now I am on a journey to discover how they can make a difference with these cognitive challenges.  Thus far, the biggest benefit has been in using my breath to pause when I have trouble pulling my thoughts and/or words together.  My breath keeps me from pushing/forcing (I have found pushing only makes things worse).  But, I am sure there is more to learn. I will keep you posted.

Oh, and I did get the results of the 2002 study — well at least the abstract.  There was no change in MS-related cognitive functioning, but a significant decrease in fatigue.  So, maybe this fieldwork will be about coping instead of intervening.  I’m game for that too.