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As much as I love dancing in my kitchen (livingroom/office/car, etc.), I teach because it feels better to dance together. Way better.

Something happens when we move together. Something shifts when we are sharing the space, the music, and the experience. It happens over and over, I walk into the studio feeling stuck or tired or low, and walk out feeling…well.

Years ago, Integral Yoga founder Swami Satchidananda was asked at a health conference what the difference was between illness and wellness. In answer, he wordlessly walked to a blackboard, wrote the two words and circled the “I” and the “We.”

When we isolate and separate ourselves, when we put our attention on the “I,” the result is a kind of illness. The recipe for wellness, on the other hand, is when we connect and recognize ourselves as part of the larger community, the integrated whole.

It’s my limbic or lizard brain that cramps my focus and convinces me that I am separate and alone. When I say (or more often, think), “No one is as injured / sad / crazy / lonley / (fill in the blank) as I am,” it’s my limbic brain is driving the train. This separation creates a tightness, a narrow tension that is itself a kind of illness.

No matter what I am experiencing, I am connected to the wider community of life. No matter what is happening, there are millions and millions of others experiencing the same thing. No matter how difficult my circumstances, I am never alone. Expanding and softening into this truth is a step toward wellness.

In the body, one of the most important places of connection is the psoas muscle. These two deep-set muscles start on either side of the lumbar spine at the low back and connect to the inside of the femurs, the thigh bones. Since it is the only muscle to connect the core and the legs, a healthy functioning psoas allows fluid, easeful, pain-free movement and allows stability while moving, bending, and sitting.

More than the postural and kinetic importance of this deepest core muscle, the psoas also connects through the fascia to the diaphragm. This means that a healthy psoas muscle directly impacts your breath and your sense of calm or stress. (Dr. Christiane Northrup has a great article about this here. )

All of which means that a tight or weak psoas is often the source of low back or hip pain, as well as digestive trouble and a hyper-alert nervous system. (Remember our focus a couple of weeks ago about looking around the pain to find what needs healing?) Tending to psoas health, then, is integral to overall health. But instead of thinking of the psoas as a tight, weak place that needs stretching like a brittle rope or a dried-out bungee cord, imagine healing the psoas as a chance to hydrate, soften, and juice this deep connection. Liz Koch’s Core Awareness work uses the approach of “unraveling” the tissue of the psoas. I strongly recommend her teaching and you can learn more here.

Clinical Psychiatry professor, Daniel J. Siegel defines health as integration. In any system – whether it’s a weather system or a human body, a company or a relationship – when the parts are integrated and connected, there is flow and health. When they are disconnected, there is “disintegration.”

Wellness is “we.” Integration is health. In the studio, in the body, and in the world, let’s unravel the tight focus on “I” and instead open to the soft, juicy wellness of connection.

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A bunch of times last week, I lost my mind.

Once I was attempting (yet again) to do Crow Pose (Bakasana). I planted my hands on the floor, bent my elbows, put my shins on my upper arm bones, sucked my belly in annnnnd… nope, my feet simply would not come up off the floor. My face got flushed, my heart pounding. I felt frustrated and annoyed that my teacher called this damn pose that stumps me every time.

Another time, I was on Facebook and a friend I haven’t seen since high school made a nasty, personal comment annnnnd… my face flushes, my heart pounds. I fire with fury and dash off a tart retort in which I wonder if maybe he’s donated his heart to science since I’ve seen him.

In these situations (and more!), I lost my mind. More precisely, I lost my prefrontal cortex.

When I get upset and impulsive with my thoughts or actions, it’s a sure sign that I’m at the mercy of the less-evolved parts of my brain. The brain stem and the limbic areas of our brains evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. This lower brain keeps heart beating and breath breathing and when under stress it puts us into the fight / flight / freeze / collapse mode. The limbic area is emotion and memory center and is the home of the survivalist (and oft alarmist) amygdala.

I don’t behave well when my brain stem and limbic area are in charge.

The frontal cortex on the other hand (the outside “bark of the brain”), allows me to think, reflect, manage emotion, regulate information flow, and communicate. These are handy skills when I’m struggling with a difficult posture, a snarky email, or an upsetting conversation. And right in the middle of the frontal cortex, behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex connects it all. This latest-to-evolve part of the brain takes in what’s going on around you, what’s going in your body, in your brain stem, in your limbic area, in your cortex and integrates it all. Note that it doesn’t turn off the lower brain, the prefrontal cortex integrates it.

An integrated brain is a healthy brain. And it’s one that’s less likely to dash off a surly email or curse a yoga teacher even when under stress.

The question, then, is how do I function from the integration and skillfulness of my prefrontal cortex instead of from my reactive lower brain?

My yoga teacher, Kelly Stine says, “directed, precise awareness in this moment gives access to a broader perspective.” In other words, mindfulness turns on the wisdom, regulation and integration of the prefrontal cortex. By paying attention to the details of what is arising right now – my heart is pounding, my jaw feels tight, my face is hot — I am able to manage my responses and choose more wisely. From a brain development point of view, when I reflect on my inner experience, identify emotions, and pay attention, I literally stimulate the integrative fibers of the brain.

How do I function from the healthy integration of my prefrontal cortex instead of my impulsive lower brain? The answer lies at the intersection of ancient meditation practices and modern neuroscience.

This from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist

When you breathe in, you bring all yourself together, body and mind; you become one. And equipped with that energy of mindfulness and concentration, you may take a step. You have the insight that this is your true home—you are alive, you are fully present, you are touching life as a reality.

Breathe deep. Pay attention. Get integrated.

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Watch More about the connections between mindfulness and brain science with Dr. Dan Seigel whose work inspired this post.

Mindfulness. Brain Hand Model. Dan Siegel. Empathy and Cognition.

Mindfulness and Neural Integration: Daniel Siegel, MD at TEDxStudioCityED

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If you enjoyed this post, great! Please share it!
And you might also like this one from April 2013: Integration is Health, Part 1

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The Chester Fair was a late-summer highlight of my rural Connecticut childhood. And why not? It offered the intoxicating combination of junk food (I was known to go a whole weekend eating nothing but fried dough), unusual activities (Tilt-A-Whirl! Steer pulling! Chickens with strange feather arrangements!) and a tantalizing amount of parental freedom.

Smack dab in the middle of the Chester Fair Grounds was old beat-up the Ferris wheel (are they ever new?). Even before my first stop at the fried dough stand, I would get in line for the wheel. I loved it for the high-up view both in the hazy summer sun and at carnival-lit at night. I loved it for the air and the speed and the swinging cars, and the odd cocktail of intimacy and exposure as I swung in the car above the fair.

There was also the utter randomness of riding the Ferris wheel. The slightly dodgy, mildly creepy, never-smiling men who worked the wheel had some kind of incomprehensible algorithm for which cars were loaded and unloaded and in what order and when they would throw the switch for a grand whizzing ride around. When I rode on the wheel, I was at its mercy.

Sometimes my mind is like that: a big, crazy, slightly rickety, unpredictable Ferris wheel of thought and experience. I’m on the ride and flying around. Or I’m trapped at the top. Or I’m in the car with my sister who insists on swinging like a maniac. There are lots of things going on and I don’t have control over any of them.


At the same time that I was going to the Chester Fair, our family had one old color TV in our house. We had two channels to choose from and an actual dial on the actual TV was used to make the selection. (This actually isn’t a bad “back in my day” skit) When I sat on our burnt orange love seat to watch Fantasy Island or Love American Style, I would stand up, walk across the room, and turn the dial to either 3 or 8. Like the captain of a ship uses the wheel to navigate his craft, I would chose what I wanted to see by turning the dial.

Years ago, I came across psychiatrist, researcher and author, Dan Siegel’s metaphor of a wheel to describe awareness.

drdansiegel_wheelofawarenessHe writes:

The hub [of The Wheel of Awareness] represents the experience of awareness itself — knowing — while the rim contains all the points of anything we can become aware of, that which is known to us. We can send a spoke out to the rim to focus our attention on one point or another on the rim. In this way, the wheel of awareness becomes a visual metaphor for the integration of consciousness as we differentiate rim-elements and hub-awareness from each other and link them with our focus of attention.

Dr. Siegel describes the TV dial, the steering wheel of awareness. I’m never actually in the spinning Ferris wheel, I only think I am. I have a choice of where to point my attention. There are times when focusing on what is difficult or not working makes sense. There are other times when shifting my focus to what is working and what feels good is essential. Practicing this choice in low-stake environments – on my cushion, on my mat, on a walk – make it easier to make those choices when the creepy guy flicks the switch and I start to spin.

The practice is to know that I actually always have the steering wheel in my hands. It’s just a matter of choosing where to turn it.


For more information on Dr. Dan Siegel and The Wheel of Awareness, go here.

You might also enjoy these posts:
Inquiry
Banana Trees & Fireworks

memory brain mapIn addition to training and conditioning our bodies in Nia this week, we also played with training our brains with focused attention.  Directing our awareness in this way increases the richness of the moment, enhances the memorability of each day, and expands our neural plasticity (that is, the brain’s ability to change itself). Pretty good deal, wouldn’t you say?  And even though I’m sure you remember every song, below are the playlists for the week!

Check out this week’s main post for more on the brain science of memory and neural plasticity, and below are the videos from the 100 Word Post:

Have a great weekend and make it memorable!
As always, let me know how I can help more.
Love,
Susan

Making Memories – Monday, May 27, 2013, 1045am

Éireann – 5:10 – Afro Celt Sound System
Pavement Cracks – 5:10 – Annie Lennox
Freedom – 6:31 – George Michael
Praise You – 5:22 – Fatboy Slim
Dream Machine – 3:53 – Mark Farina
Ma’ Africa – 4:49 – Mahotella Queens/Ulali
Ecstasy – 5:02 – Rusted Root
Stairway To Heaven – 8:03 – Led Zeppelin
Stolen Car – 3:58 – Sting
Tom’s Diner – 3:50 – DNA, Suzanne Vega
High – 4:04 – James Blunt
I Will Remember You – 4:53 – Sarah McLachlan

Making Memories – Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 9am

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – 5:48 – Paul Simon
Signs – 4:38 – Badmarsh & Shri
Marisi – 6:33 – Cantoma
Praise You – 5:22 – Fatboy Slim
Dream Machine – 3:53 – Mark Farina
Freek – 7:16 – Shakatura
African Drug [Original Tribal Mix] – 6:02 – Bob Holroyd
Samb Adagio – 5:58 – Safri Duo
History Repeating – 4:03 – Propellerheads feat. Shirley Bassey
Long Bone – 5:16 – Sofa Surfers
Angel – 4:30 – Sarah McLachlan
Prayer Of St. Francis – 2:02 – Sarah McLachlan

Making Memories – Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 1055am

Aquarius – 4:48 – Hair, the Musical / Renn Woods
What I Got – 3:21 – Gift Of Gab, Michael Franti, Spearhead
When Doves Cry – 4:04 – The Be Good Tanyas
Qalanderi – 6:55 – Cheb I Sabbah
Sunshine – 3:34 – Matisyahu
Legend In My Living Room – 3:46 – Annie Lennox
Give Love (Infinite Love Mix) – 5:29 – MC Yogi
Freek – 7:16 – Shakatura
The Time is Now – 3:55 – Moioko
Sorrento Moon (I Remember) – 4:54 – Tina Arena
I’ll Always Remember You – 4:23 – Robert Cray
Peace – 4:44 – FrUiT

Making Memories – Thursday, May 30, 2013, 9am

Wonderwall – 4:09 – Ryan Adams
You Can’t Always Get What You Want – 6:47 – Rusted Root
Love The One You’re With – 5:03 – Luther Vandross
Freedom – 6:31 – George Michael
Super Freak – 4:04 – Bruce Hornsby & Ricky Skaggs
Ecstasy – 5:02 – Rusted Root
Samb Adagio – 5:58 – Safri Duo
Sorrento Moon (I Remember) – 4:54 – Tina Arena
Sweet Child o’ Mine (Rick Rubin…) – 3:56 – Sheryl Crow
Long Bone – 5:16 – Sofa Surfers
High – 4:04 – James Blunt
I Will Remember You (Original Version) – 4:53 – Sarah McLachlan

memory wordsAdult life is often dull, repetitive and boring. Ever notice how easy it is for it all to run together?

Sometimes, a memory is forced upon us, like on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. But we can choose to make any day, any moment, memorable by using focused attention. The direct experience of what is happening now allows the brain to move from “top down” entrainment to “bottom up” which lets us see beyond “been there, done that.” (See Mindfulness & The Brain for more. )

It takes conscious choice to pay attention. Don’t let your life pass you by. Make a memory now.

memory brainQuick. What did you do last weekend? What did you wear yesterday? What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Can you remember? Did you have to scrunch your eyebrows and think? Did you have to check the laundry basket? Did you confuse last weekend with the one before? (Frank is always asking me how many eggs I picked up today and I usually say something like, “I got three, no wait, was that yesterday or today?”) Ever notice how it all runs together somehow?

Now how about this: where were you on Tuesday, September 11, 2001?

Unless you’re under 18 years old, I bet you can tell me where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, and what you were feeling with a fair amount of detail even though that day was almost 12 years ago.

What’s the difference?

Obviously, September 11th was a spectacularly tragic and historic day. Of course we remember it. But what is it in our brain that makes us remember it? I would argue that there are some specific aspects of that day that made it memorable:
1. Unusual – None of us had ever experienced anything like it. Everything about the event was brand new to us.
2. Sensory richness – There were so many images, words, sounds, feelings on that day – all our senses were alive.
3. Directed attention – We were paying attention to what was unfolding. For better or worse, we were riveted by the experience and it had our attention.
By recognizing these things and by understanding how the brain works we can make any situation memorable.

Our brains are designed in layers (for more details on this, see Mindfulness & The Brain by Jack Kornfield and Dan Siegel, especially Chapter 5): the bottom layers are the more primitive, pre-verbal parts of the brain which take in direct experience from our senses. The top layers are the language-based parts of the brain which name and label things and experiences. As children, everything is new, so most of our experiences are integrated “bottom up.” We see a bright, fluttery thing moving in the air and we take it all in (bottom brain) and then we learn that the word for it is “butterfly” (top brain). When we’re young, our brains are mostly integrated “bottom up.”

As we get older, our brains use more “top down” integration as we have more experiences and name and categorize them. This is a great and important function of the top brain (the most human part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex) which allows us to function with efficiency. Without it, we would never make it out of the house in the morning, we’d be so engrossed in the smell of the coffee and the taste of the Cheerios! The problem is that over time, our brains shift to a “top down” dominance so that we spend much of our time on auto-pilot in the “been there, done that” mode.

On that morning in September – the unusual, sensory rich, morning in which we focused out attention on what was happening – our brains were integrated “bottom up” rather than “top down.” Instead of watching the same old Today Show with its usual parade of unmemorable, fluff stories, it was a day of strong sensation and image and rapt attention. As Dan Siegel points out, “bottom up” integration is the neurobiology of mindfulness. If we can disrupt the top down dominance of our adult brains, we can make any situation memorable. You can do it right now, by awakening your senses and paying attention to what is happening right now. Feel your body, take a deep breath and smell the moment, listen to the sounds (cicadas, perhaps), notice what is unique about this moment in time. Nicely done. You just made a memory.

Focused attention is also key to awakening neural plasticity at any age. Until very recently, scientists believed that the adult brain could not grow or change. Neuroscientists now know that the brain can change throughout its lifespan. The ideal conditions for neural plasticity are focused attention (awareness), aerobic exercise, good sleep and good nutrition. Most particularly, awareness is, as Dr. Siegel says “the scalpel that lets you remold the structure of the brain.” In that way, it is absolutely true to say that we were all changed by 9/11. It is also true that with its focus on awareness, aerobic movement, and emphasis on breaking habits, Nia is also an excellent way to make memories and build neural plasticity!

But it doesn’t have to take a tragedy of such epic proportions to make something memorable. All it takes is our focused attention. The more we can let the lower parts of the brain receive information through direct experience, the more memorable any situation will be. This week, we can use the practice of Nia or any kind of mindful movement (preferable that which gets your heart pumping and your muscles working) to encourage neural plasticity and to make a memory.

unityIntegration is health.

Dan Siegel said it. I love it. His book, Mindsight, rocks.

Any complex system – a human body, a family, a company, a country – is integrated when the parts are both differentiated and linked. Integrated is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized and stable. Without integration (dis-integration??), systems move into either rigidity or chaos.

My Teacher, Carlos, retired from Nia in 2011. Sigh. His last routine, Humanity, focused on yin and yang. My routine, Unity, integrates his music and mine, his choreography and mine. Student honors Teacher…and lets him go.

Integration. Balance. Harmony.

Unity is within Humanity.

Inlakesh, Carlos.

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