Happiness and the Role Gratitude Plays

So it turns out our brains aren’t wired to see the “glass half full.” Instead there is the negativity bias. Thousands of years back it gave humans the advantage by training the brain to see the danger signs and avoid harm or death. Now it means we are hardwired to notice and store negative experiences more than positive ones. Negative and positive comments are actually processed in different hemispheres of the brain and the negative ones typically require more processing and attention setting the stage for even further rumination. There are some strategies to overcome this bias. Taking the time daily to look for something that makes you smile, laugh or cultivates feelings of love or gratitude and taking a photo. Look at the photo at the end of the day, and again at the end of the week all together. This process trans the brain to watch for moments to capture, refocusing one’s attention on the positive, meaningful parts of the day and away from stress and negativity.

Another technique is a centering exercise designed to shift thinking from “I’ll be happy once all the great things I want to happen, happen,” which pushes happiness into the future rather than noticing what is currently pleasant and positive in one’s life. Mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to increase activity in the left part of the frontal region or the brain the area responsible for positive emotions like optimism. Ralph De La Rosa, meditation teacher, therapist and author of The Monkey is the Messenger, suggests the the “5-3-1-1” practice first thing in the morning. While in bed, take five slow, steady, conscious breaths. Think of three things you’re grateful for. Smile one real smile. Set one intention for your day. Developing simple but positive habits like this not only set a clear tone for the day, help you be more present and optimistic it may also help boost energy levels and work performance. When you focus on the present good, you’re actually more likely to excel!

Combat Stress

As we get older, our bodies are less able to handle the wear and tear caused by stress. The body, especially the brain, has built-in mechanisms to keep stress hormones at the proper levels but as we age, these internal stress-hormone reducing mechanisms gradually become less effective. What to do? Learn and practice strategies to create and maintain an inner calm. Learn how to keep the body’s stress levels stable. They are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which works like a computer to keep the body running automatically. There are two components of the (ANS) which compliment one another, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The (SNS) revs up the nervous system as a protective mechanism referred to as the “flight or fight response.” In balance the (PNS) calms down the nervous system promoting relaxation, rest and sleep. This system is the target of stress reduction techniques. The more we can reduce our bodies undue stress and the more effective we become in instructing the adrenal glands to stop pumping cortisol and other stress hormones through our body, the better we combat accelerated aging. The stress researcher Dr. Hans Selye reports that “After every stressful situation, we become a little older.” Therefore, the older we get, the calmer we need to be.

Excess stress shrinks the brain, ages the heart, weakens the bones, prevents or disturbs quality sleep, makes us sick, inhibits a healthy gut, increases belly fat, and can lead to diabetes. And that’s the condensed list! Chronic, unresolved stress prematurely ages every vital organ.
Stress management is a key health component of centenarians and people who prefer an enjoyable life. Here are a few simple stress striking tips:

*Practice letting go. In yogic terms this is referred to as non-attachment. Choose not to focus on aspects of your life you can’t change. We can’t always control situations, only our responses to them. Know the difference between helpful reflection and destructive rumination. Let go of what has passed.

*Focus on solutions, not problems. Problems inevitably arise. Teach and train yourself to greet them as a learning opportunity. They really are. Humans seldom learn from ease and comfort.

*Keep the mini-stressores small. Having to wait in line for a latte or several slow traffic lights is regular life stuff. Stop behaving as if it’s a surprise or of consequence. Let the occasional, real, big issues warrant your concern.

*Redirect negative thoughts. Pre-load your mental/emotional/visceral library with a few vivid memories of relaxing and calming past experiences. Program your mind to reflexively recall these memories in response to stress stimuli, effectively filling your mind “tank” with premium thoughts, preventing negative thoughts from taking hold.

*Breathe… Immediately following a stressor, remind yourself to breathe. Close your eyes if possible, and take several natural, relaxed breaths. Notice the instant calming effects as your (PNS) is increased, allowing more air into the lungs, increased muscle relaxation getting more oxygen into your system. Make a habit of taking a “breath break” 8-10 times per day. It only takes a moment to create such a different and positive physiological effect!

On Retreat

I’m headed off to New Hampshire on a four day yoga retreat! I found out about this phenomenal event on social media, which has been buzzing about it for months, spurred on by a promotion conducted by The Marketing Heaven. The focus is “Cultivating a Yogic Mind,” exploring how one can find peace and equanimity during troubled times as well as empowering oneself to become a positive force in the world.

I am so grateful to have the time and opportunity to work with the world class teacher Patricia Walden and fully immerse myself in the study of asana, pranayama and yoga philosophy. I won’t be posting during this time but am looking forward to sharing my experiences when I return!  Namaste.

Understanding True Meditation

In the yogic tradition, meditation (dhyana), is the seventh of the eight petals of yoga yet is simultaneously present in every aspect. All require a reflective or meditative mood.

The speed of modern life promotes a baseline of stress for most of us. That chronic stress and pressure can build up emotional disturbances within individuals. Often one will hear instructors/educators recommend meditation to combat or remove the stress but this is where it gets a little confusing; meditation is only possible when one has achieved the practiced state of a cool, calm and relaxed brain. For true meditation to be practiced, the practitioner must actually be free from stress, internal agitation and be physically and mentally strong, Meditation requires the strong foundation of the asanas (yoga poses) and pranayama (breathing practices) combined with the withdrawal of the senses (pratayahara) and concentration (dharana). True meditation leads one to wisdom and awareness and this insight is what helps us understand that we are more than our ego.

To relax the brain we develop a consistent daily asana practice. As we mature in the practice we understand experientially, that our mind exists in more than our head as it spreads through our body, extending and expanding through our limbs, creating a more complete awareness. Stressful thoughts are eliminated as the mind focuses on the body, intelligence and overall awareness. The brain becomes more receptive and deep concentration becomes natural. Through this process the brain is taught to maintain a receptive, relaxed yet concentrated state, now trained and ready for the practice of meditation.