Tending to our “Emotional Hygiene”

My brother recently recommended this TED talk (below) from psychologist Guy Winch — an engaging, thought-provoking look at how our minds deserve just as much TLC as our bodies do.

“We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right?” says Dr. Winch, “We’ve known it since we were five years old. But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing. How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds. Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health?”

“We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness.” He continues. “And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. “Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: “Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.” It is time we closed the gap between our physical and our psychological health. It’s time we made them more equal […]”

There are two defining moments in my past that I feel have led me clearly back onto the path towards the practice that I consider to be the most powerful tool in my emotional first aid kit:

In 2007, I came to Yoga (and eventually my highly cherished practice of Yoga Nidra) as a way to process the pain of a twice-broken heart.

In 2011, I became fully committed to Yoga Nidra as my primary practice in the wake of a minor concussion I sustained from falling backwards (while standing completely still, adjusting my toque — so Canadian, eh?) on an ice rink. After that tumble, all it took was a single downward dog to know that my physical practice would be on hiatus until further notice.

Each of these “injuries” — one definably emotional, the other physical — brought up a full spectrum of feelings to wrestle with: grief, anger, frustration, shock, confusion, sadness and pain, to (most unexpectedly) profound and life-altering joy, lightness and gratitude for not only surviving these setbacks, but for finding clarity and meaning in times of upheaval.

That said, despite the nature of the injury — physical or emotional — I found something in this practice that I couldn’t quite seem to get anywhere else:

Peace.
Intention.
Something to hold and walk me through the challenges rather than just get over them.

Having successfully recovered from both of these upsets, as I continue to explore and share the practice of Yoga Nidra alongside women and men of diverse ages and backgrounds, it has been a real revelation to hear the stories — the “whys” that explain the reason these students are finding themselves outside of a more physical yoga practice and actually craving what Nidra offers — quiet, stillness, relaxation, intention, and an expanded state of awareness that transcends all the limitations and clutter we impose on our physical being. are seeking a way to not only stay connected to the steadiness and peace the time on their mat brings them, but to also find alternate ways of taking care of their physical and emotional well-being; a way to take an active part in their own healing process, whatever that may be.

Though there are many students that come to practice who are experiencing a hiatus from activity due to injury, what tends to emerge in time is that, even more so than (or in tandem with) the physical, there is usually an emotional challenge that is taking centre stage, or some variation of stress that has surfaced as a result of being put out of commission by unexpected injury or illness.

I hear from students quite frequently that they are struggling with anxiety and/or depression, high personal/work-related stress levels, or trying to cope with major transitions in their lives. I also see a lot of ‘caregivers’ tuck eagerly into their long savasanas as a way to give back to themselves when they’re not giving tirelessly and selflessly to their children, to ailing family members, or to the patients they see in hospitals and clinics around the city.

To be clear, I am not a medical professional, or a “healer,” or a psychologist. What I am sharing with you is my observation from being around some truly remarkable human beings who grant me the privilege of hearing why they are seeking respite in this stillness and how, in doing so, they are finding what they need — whether it’s a deep rest, a profound revelation, or simply a community environment to bring them out of loneliness and isolation. It reminds me that, behind the masks we wear to help us brave our crazy, chaotic world, there is a dire need for safe spaces where we can be just who and what we are; a permission of sorts to seize any opportunity for our tired minds and hearts to be refueled, and our perspectives significantly shifted.

Dr. Guy Winch is right — we are taught to instinctively tend to our physical wellness, but our emotional wellness is just as important in ensuring our ability to function in society, in our places of work, and in our families. Even then, so many of us are prone to prioritizing our workouts over “work-ins.” (After all, how many calories could we possibly be burning lying on the floor for an extended period of time? ;-)) We are a chronically exhausted, burnt-out culture that stubbornly insists on pushing forward, over-committing, over-giving and self-sacrificing, even in the face of strong, physical signals that tell us to back off and take better care of “number 1.”

If the body is the dumping ground of the mind, then how long have our minds and hearts been begging for our attention when the body finally gives out?

Maybe it’s just me, but given 30 minutes of zero distractions and a yoga mat (or just a comfy piece of floor), I’d be Nidra-ing without fail. I wouldn’t be so gung-ho to share this practice as much if I didn’t feel I had found a life preserver I can always reach for when I need it. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t take will to commit to being consistent and actually do the practice (especially in tougher times), but it’s that soft, intentional focus on both my physical and emotional wellness that allows me to be a much better wife, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, and human being.

Now if only we could find a way to use relaxation and meditation to floss our teeth… 😉

Hugh thinks about Heathrow. I think about Alivia.

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that love actually is all around…”

~ Hugh Grant’s opening lines from Love Actually.

Love it or hate it, few can deny the choke-up-ability of that very first scene in Love Actually.

This world can, at times, appear bereft of hope, and full of too many awful news stories. But if you open your eyes a bit wider, there are, in fact, many hopeful tales of love, and tiny miracles happening every day.

Alivia is proof.

I received an e-mail the other day with a video attached from a lovely Mum named Alysa who I offered Yoga Nidra to in a time of need. I was so touched and inspired to receive this visual update that I asked her if she was willing to have me share this story, and she wholeheartedly agreed.

In April 2013, I came across a desperate message on Facebook from a Doula in Edmonton who was reaching out to the Calgary childbirth community for support. A Mum she was providing some assistance to (after reading a compelling e-mail from a best friend requesting support for this new Mum) needed some major TLC.

Not knowing how or even if I could help, I sent this Doula a message requesting further information so I could lend a hand, or even recommend someone who could.

It was clear that this Mum was in a traumatic, challenging place, and could use something (and someone) to help her stay afloat.

I wrote back to the Doula and let her know that I teach Yoga Nidra (a highly restorative form of guided relaxation) and I felt that, with the stress and tiredness this Mum was experiencing, this practice could not only help her feel more rested, but maybe provide her with a bit of zen and healing in a chaotic place and time.

Alysa and I connected over e-mail, and within 5 days, I was up at the Alberta Children’s Hospital meeting Alysa for the first time.

Alivia’s condition was such that I was not permitted to meet her, but Alysa was quick to show me every photo she had of her sweet little warrior who just kept pulling through, time after time. Alysa and I were relative strangers, but quickly fell into conversation with ease and knew our paths had crossed for a reason. Life in the NICU, day in and day out, was proving to be lonely and hard. She barely slept. She was losing track of eating meals of her own, and forgetting to stay hydrated. Her every waking hour was spent investing energy into this tiny little baby, and rightly so — Alivia was so little, new, and fighting battles greater than anyone her age should ever have to fight.

On this first visit, I managed to draw Alysa out of the NICU for an hour or so. Getting her out of the ward proved more challenging than I thought since this kind, openhearted woman was not only tending to her child’s own diverse medical crises, but also — as I witnessed first hand — providing a steady, listening ear to almost every other family in the NICU who was getting far worse news.

I saw her hold the hands of distraught grandparents whose granddaughter was being removed from life support.

She offered kindness and compassion to parents who were just as traumatized as she was.

She shared with me how excruciating it had been to hear the wails of a grieving mother behind the walls of Alivia’s room.

It moved me deeply to see how much she gave in her own deepest hours of need.

Clearly, one of the greatest gifts I could give Alysa was one of peace and quiet, if even for 1/24th of her day.

A kind nurse provided us with a few blankets. I brought a Yoga mat, bolster & eye pillow. I set Alysa up on the floor in the Sacred Space on the upper floor of the hospital and guided her through a relaxation. Though it would be impossible to undo the countless hours of sleeplessness and stress she had accumulated since Alivia’s birth, this time in relaxation did wonders.

Two weeks later, I returned, mat, bolster & eye pillow in hand.

Alivia was doing better. Alysa was still just trying to get through each day, navigating each twist and turn that came with Alivia’s condition, which was no small feat. It was clear this little baby could feel the intense determination and hope her family had for her recovery. She just kept on pulling through.

The last time Alysa and I met up, she was awaiting confirmation on next steps, which would most likely involve Alivia being airlifted to Edmonton for open heart surgery. I had a feeling that I would probably not see Alysa again, or at least for a long while, but we promised to keep in touch.

Alivia

From time to time, I send a message Alysa’s way to check in, and she always sends the most beautiful photos of her sweet little girl. Alivia turned One in April, and Alysa put together this short video of the courageous path she traveled to get to that point. She encouraged me to share Alivia’s story in the hope that it could help someone who is going through a tough time, and to remind us all that “miracles DO happen.”

This is Alivia’s journey.