Food, Shelter, Safety, and Yoga.

In a world where people experiencing homelessness are ignored and literally pushed to the fringes of society, I am continually amazed by the resilience and kindness of the human spirit in spite of life’s unimaginable circumstances. And I have been honored to witness how these qualities are continually cultivated and grown in a simple yoga practice.

Yoga1.5a1467f64a364.jpg

The reasons why people find themselves homeless are as varied as the trees you find in the forest. Given that people experiencing homelessness are often reduced to focusing on meeting their basic needs: food, shelter and safety, it is a wonder to me that anyone would find their way to a yoga class.

However, one beautiful woman that I met at SOME (So Others Might Eat), a community-based organization that assists the poor and homeless in Washington, DC, exemplified the importance of a yoga practice that is accessible and specifically designed to take place in the jail system.  She shared with me about the impact of a program she took part in offered by Yoga District while she was in a local jail.  While practicing yoga, she learned and clearly now understood how to connect with the present moment, the impact of exercising to reduce stress, and the joy found in simply finding activities and people that we enjoy.  As she shared her experience with me, she was so present and connected with a sparkle in her eye. I was in the moment with her.

While there was nothing particularly special about my conversation with this woman at SOME to set it apart from any other conversation. But for that brief moment I’d like to believe we connected as humans are supposed to, seeing and honoring each other’s light.  Namaste.

Calls to Action:

  1. Do you know anyone at Yoga District in DC who could connect me with an instructor for the jail program? Right now, the woman I met is not connected to a yoga studio and I have been trying to reconnect her with her instructor from Yoga District.
  2. Would you like to support yoga for the underserved? Check out my upcoming class in Gainesville, Georgia at Flip Your Dog Yoga Studio on October 29.  Let me know and I’ll set you up.

Flier (2).jpg

Scientific Research: The Benefits of Meditation for Beginners

When you hear the word meditation, what comes to mind? Peace? Clarity? A particular practice or technique? The image of a yogi in lotus pose? Or perhaps you think, “Sounds great, but I really don’t have the time to meditate.” Maybe you’ve heard about the benefits, how meditation reduces stress levels and produces a calmer state of mind. Maybe you’ve even experienced these benefits yourself.

 

For those who are interested in the healing effects of meditation, there’s been plenty of research over the past several decades that attests to the validity of many a meditator’s anecdotal evidence. Time and again, researchers are finding that people who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma. While the causal relationship between meditation and these psychological benefits may be (as of yet) somewhat unknown, evidence does suggest that they may have a lot to do with a restructuring of the brain itself.

People who meditate experience lower levels of anxiety, anger, depression, and tension, and that meditation can also be a supportive practice for those who have experienced trauma.

Recently a team of researchers from the University of Sienna came together to study mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). They described the practice as a “meditation-based program in which participants are invited to connect with their physical sensations, perceptions, emotions, cognitions, and behaviour over a period of eight weeks with a ‘non-judgmental’ attitude.”

The purpose was to measure the possible scope of neuroanatomical changes resulting from meditative practices, specifically at both the cortical and subcortical brain levels. The research was groundbreaking as most studies over the past decade have focused on highly accomplished meditators, while all of the 48 participants in this study were “meditation-naïve subjects.”

Requisites to their participation included a score higher than 27 on the Mini-Mental Status Examination (a 30-point questionnaire often used to measure cognitive impairment), the absence of psychiatric or neurological disorders in their personal medical history, and the ability to participate in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study. Participants were divided into two groups—24 of the subjects underwent MBSR training and were primarily taught methods such as body scanning, sitting meditation, walking meditation, and mindful stretching movements, while the remaining 24 (the control group) were not. Those involved in the training were asked to attend in-class sessions for 2.5 hours every week and encouraged to use the meditative techniques they learned in their developing personal practice for 45 minutes daily. They were also asked to journal about their experience. Between the sixth and seventh class, the participants were invited to a silent retreat.

Meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

Both the trainees and the control group submitted to MRI scans and psychological testing before and after the eight-week training period. Among the MBSR-trained participants, the results indicated “an increase of cortical thickness in the right insular lobe and somatosensory cortex,” as well as “a significant after-training reduction of several psychological indices related to worry, state anxiety, depression, and alexithymia.” (Alexithymia is difficulty in experiencing and describing one’s emotions.) In short, meditation enhanced the areas of the brain involved in perception and the regulation of emotion.

What does this mean for practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners of meditation? According to Rolf Sovik, PsyD, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, the findings are not only validating for beginners they also speak to a larger inquiry.

“The findings suggest that even beginning-level meditation training can have potentially powerful neurological effects. And as the researchers involved in this experiment have taken a broad-minded approach in their examination of meditation, it also raises an intriguing question: What is the active ingredient that makes meditation meditation, the ingredient that is responsible for any changes observed in the study?”

According to the researchers themselves, the benefits of meditation may simply have been the result of the practitioners’ increasing non-judgmental awareness of their moment-to-moment bodily sensations. In his 2012 interview with Omega, Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of MSBR training, came to a similar conclusion, emphasizing the transformative ability of the meditative process. “Science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important; it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways.”

As to the power of focused attention, author and teacher Sandra Anderson states that it gives us a key to our inner life and offers the potential for mastery over the mind (which is, of course, the goal of yoga). She likens a life lived on autopilot to doors within a mansion that are never opened. “To be able to find a way to see what’s present in those unused rooms, and to be nonjudgmental about it, that’s a huge part of what this gives you. To be able to do that means you’re living [from] a bigger part of your psyche, and that expansiveness gives you a groundedness and a capacity to entertain things that you couldn’t otherwise. Your mind is freer. Your responses are more spontaneous. And the world becomes much bigger because you now have more space, as well as the ability to understand the reality of situations and your responses to them.”

Anderson states that the study is validating and encouraging in a number of ways. For instance, because these practices have such subtle effects, their benefits aren’t always easily recognizable and so practitioners sometimes become discouraged, believing that meditation is a “waste of time.” This study demonstrates that an investment in meditation is indeed a powerful means to reclaiming mental health. “What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life,” says Anderson. “And the fact that [meditation] also changes the way that your brain functions is hugely reassuring to people. It also validates the understanding that we have from the scriptures of the mind being habituated and falling into grooves. When you start practicing, you begin to catch your mind running in certain patterns, emotionally laden patterns perhaps, and you come to realize that they’re not inevitable.”

“What this study points out to us is that some very simple ways of working with yourself can offer a huge return in terms of quality of life.”

According to the Bhagavad Gita, “Yoga is the breaking of contact with pain.” And while this study was not specifically tailored toward yogic meditation techniques, sitting meditation and mindful stretching movements are, without a doubt, central components of the yoga tradition. Yet perhaps what is most exciting about this and other neurological studies is that they suggest that these practices may cause an increase in emotional resilience and brain elasticity. They also indicate that there does seem to be a sort of “active ingredient” that ties practices of meditation and mindfulness together. As to what that is, whether it’s the process of attending or something far more mysterious, the suggestion seems to be that the healing effects of these practices are powerfully real.

Has your practice changed you? Please leave your comments below.

Environmentalism as a Yogic Practice

Repost from www.wanderlust.com

Because yoga doesn’t just happen on the mat.

“Live your yoga.” We hear that a lot in our community, whether from teachers, from fellow yogis, or from that internal voice gently urging us not to flip off that bad driver; to patiently smile at that baby screaming on a long plane flight. There are countless ways in which we can incorporate the lessons we learn on the mat into our interactions with others—the same stillness we find in the yoking of body and breath can bring calm, respect, and space into our relationships.

But our personal relationship to the environment is also a part of the practice. In other words, how we treat the Earth—the small and large choices we make every day—is an important part of a yogic lifestyle. Several major tenets of environmentalism can, in fact, be pinpointed in the Yoga Sutras, though it’s really more basic than that.

“Yoga and mindfulness practices are what give us the tools to live in a conscious manner,” says Wanderlust teacher and environmental activist Chelsey Korus. “One of the gifts that having a yoga practice in your life gives you is a window of knowing—to know who I am, the world I’m in, and the environment that feeds me, nourishes me, and gives me a home.” With this in mind, how could the environment—upon which we so integrally depend—be disregarded in any conversation about health and wellness?

A Natural Connection

Environmentalism isn’t a lofty idea unrooted in the daily ebb and flow. As Chelsey says, our environment is what nourishes us; what gives us a home. How we interact with nature can be seen as a reflection of how we interact with our truest selves, which we come to time and again on the mat. Chelsey says that her practice helps her to be drawn into nature—into a specific place in nature that calls to her. “The natural response is to give back in the same measure you have received, she says. “So that’s your yogic act of giving back to a place that feeds you and gives you a home.”

It was, in fact, her practice that turned Chelsey from a casual steward of the environment to a passionate advocate. She had for some time been engaging in environmental work because she says she was fulfilling what she considered yogic obligation: “I was being a good servant, doing the things I ‘should,’” she says. But then Chelsey found a place in nature, for the first time, that she absolutely loved and which fed her soul, leading to a deep personal connection with the land itself. “It nurtured me and brought me back to health—I would fight for this land,” she says. It was when she noticed that this particular piece of land was littered with broken glass that she was spurred to impassioned action.

Every Decision Counts

The butterfly effect is in full flutter when it comes to environmentalism. We can make conscious decisions every single day when it comes to what we purchase, what we cook, and even what we wear. Perhaps the most obvious—and most effective—daily choice that makes a significant impact is in the decision we make around food. Whatever your diet (there’s no small contingency among yogis that considers any diet outside of veganism to be harmful to the environment), there are conscious decisions that you can make when buying food.

The most obvious, of course, is to choose organic products. If you eat meat, buy less of it, and buy from farmers or companies that are committed to responsibly raising animals. Take into consideration factors such as whether the producer is committed to land regeneration or water conservation. Try to shop at farmers markets, and eat locally. When you’re heading out to the store, bring along a reusable bag, or try your hand at zero-waste grocery shopping.

You can also commit to environmentalism by the clothes you choose to wear. The spring/summer 2018 adidas x Wanderlust co-branded line, for example, was developed with Parley for the Oceans, an initiative whose intent it is to bring awareness to the plastic problem in our oceans. Select pieces in the line were developed using Parley Ocean Plastic™  fabric, recovered from the deep blue. Imagine what good we could do the ocean if every article of clothing created or worn was spun from recycled materials!

It may cost a bit more, and it may take more time to make these responsible choices. It may not be possible to choose the environment every single time you have to make the decision. But every little bit helps. Even if you only buy one pair of leggings made from recycled plastic, or only shop at the farmers market once a month, you’re still putting the principles of yoga into practice.

Get Involved

In addition to the choices we make on the regular, we can also incorporate our yogic principles to environmentalism by bigger commitments or projects. When Chelsey noticed the broken glass on her beloved land, she “realized I am the one I’ve been waiting for, and the person doing harm was me by just walking past and doing nothing,” she says. “I have two hands that work! I have two feet that can carry this waste back to where it can be properly disposed of!”

Just as on the mat we learn to take responsibility for our actions by tuning into the subtleties of body and breath, we can take that lesson of responsibility and apply it to physical efforts. Maybe it’s as simple as walking a couple extra blocks to the public recycling bin while holding onto an empty kombucha bottle. Maybe it’s signing up to volunteer for a month at a reforestation center. Maybe it’s donating a couple hours of your time to participate in a public cleanup effort, like the one Chelsey helped lead at Wanderlust O’ahu this year.

However it fits into your life, there are plenty of things small and big you can do to make environmentalism a part of your yogic practice. Have ideas? We want to hear them. Let’s work together to keep this planet our healthy and happy home.

Lisette Cheresson is a writer, storyteller, yoga teacher, and adventuress who is an avid vagabond, homechef, dirt-collector, and dreamer. When she’s not attempting to create pretty sentences or reading pretty sentences other people have created, it’s a safe bet that she’s either hopping a plane, dancing, cooking, or hiking. She received her Level II Reiki Attunement and attended a 4-day intensive discourse with the Dalai Lama in India, and received her RYT200 in Brooklyn. She is currently the Director of Content at Wanderlust Festival.