Can’t Sleep? Reset your Circadian Rhythm

As we move from summer to fall and the days are getting shorter, it is a good idea to adjust your sleeping cycle as well. But, even more important than the actual sleep you get is what you do during your waking hours.

Have you ever had a full night’s sleep only to wake in the morning feeling exhausted or like a truck hit you? As my body and mind got healthier, I was still waking up feeling tired and fatigued. I became determined to find a solution. If you have been feeling the same, try some of these tips which helped me tremendously:

  1. Waking Up: A consistent wake-up time is key (yes, even on the weekends). You’ll be honoring your body’s natural circadian rhythm, but you’ll also be taking advantage of the rise of cortisol, your natural “alarm clock.” It may get a bad rap for being responsible for that “fight-or-flight” feeling, but cortisol naturally rises in the morning to help you wake up to start the day. You don’t really need artificial stimulants like coffee or sugar. Also, when waking early, you can take advantage of the morning sun exposure directly on your skin. Go stand outside for 15 minutes or take a walk – the sunlight in the morning feeds your body essential Vitamin D and helps with the production of melatonin for a good night’s sleep. What started for me as a self-imposed challenge to wake up every day at 5:30 a.m. has turned into a healthy habit that contributes to a positive difference in my sleep quality.
  2. Evening Routine: More and more studies are showing that limiting artificial light, especially blue light, after the sun goes down, is essential for a good night’s sleep. When we expose ourselves to light from any type of “screen” (TV, phone, iPad, etc.) and light above us (think bright fluorescents in stores), we are essentially telling our cells that it is still daytime. Melatonin wants to be released to help wind us down after the sun goes down, but our hypothalamus doesn’t know the difference between sun light and artificial light. So, turn off the screen, read a book or enjoy some candle light before bed. My night time routine involves spending time sitting outside, petting my dogs, 15-20 minutes of meditation, and reading. All of these practices are done without artificial light.
  3. Movement: Any type of movement during the day can help improve sleep. The jury is still out on the best time and what kind, but it’s commonly known that movement releases anti-stress hormones into our body. In our on-the-go society, we tend to be in a continual low-grade state of sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight). Any opportunity you can take throughout the day to engage the parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest) will show up in all areas of our life. Try starting or ending your day with a yoga, breathe, or meditation practices – all of which help activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies like this one show that yoga and meditation have a significant effect on quality of sleep. I start my day with 30 minutes of asana (postures) and pranayama (breath work), and end each day with 15 minutes of meditation right before bed.
  4. Watch WHEN You Eat: Eating well is a given to health. But when to eat is equally important. Often, we approach food from an external relationship – how does it look, what does it taste like, and have social experiences around food. However, the real power of food starts after it enters your body and how it affects your metabolic system. This article from April 2019 discusses how timing of eating can help reset our circadian rhythm. Also, keep in mind that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to digest food, so allowing yourself a break before you sleep is important for quality of sleep. Ayurveda as well as the old advice of my grandmom have informed my own way of eating. I eat between the hours of 10 and 4, giving body the chance to rest, digest, and grow.
  5. Quiet Time: While I’m not sure exactly if having some form of “quiet time” in your day helps your circadian rhythm, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out its importance in creating better sleep. How many times have you gone to bed and immediately your mind wants to begin to process the day and start to problem solve? Having some form of quiet time during the day allows for self-reflection (leading to personal growth), limits stimulation to the brain (creating more relaxation), and helps with emotional self-regulation. Some great forms of quiet time to help with sleep: a short walk on a familiar route, meditation, yoga nidra, closing your eyes and letting your mind wander, petting you cat or dog, or sitting in a sauna or steam room. Give yourself the benefit of time without thinking and you may find yourself happier and sleeping better as well.

Conditions for Change

This past weekend, I attended a workshop titled “Creating Transformational Workshops.” It sounds like a big promise, doesn’t it? A big, intimidating, and inspiring topic that I was game to try. When I teach yoga, my hope is that people will experience the same transformative power that I experience from yoga. I show up, offer opportunities for mindfulness, movement, breath, and rest. I hold a space for reconnection and healing. But this workshop seemed to be saying that there was an actual formula to transformation.

On occasion, I’ve had the honor of hearing of someone’s “moment of clarity.” I’ve had those moments of clarity myself. Moments of transformation and healing that show up as tears of happiness or relief, feelings of success or moments of re-evaluation. Practice anything long enough and things start to shift. Change is inevitable but purposeful change requires the right conditions.

So, what is different about the experience that feels transformative versus any other experience? Transformation occurs when you are in the right place mentally, emotionally, and physically. Sometimes it may appear that transformation just “happens” to us, but I believe that we are co-creators of our experiences. Our decisions, actions, and experiences add up to the outcomes of our lives and so when the transformation occurs, we must take credit.

Your experiences will accumulate, and the time will come when change needs to happen. Depending on the environment and conditions we are in at that moment in time, we either experience transformation or deterioration. A seed will either grow, lay dormant, or disintegrate into the soil. The seed wants to grow and transform into the plant. It just needs the correct conditions at just the right time of the year.

Your soul also wants to transform and grow and luckily it’s not a seed planted in one spot in the earth. We get to grow by moving, having experiences, learning, and interacting. We don’t always have the luxury of the right conditions for every experience of life.Sometimes we need a bit more time before transformation is possible. A death may occur that utterly shakes you to your core. I’ve seen death bring greater appreciation for life to one friend but watched another wither before my eyes in her grief. A fire could take away a home and possessions and a person may transform by seeing that they can start over or someone may disintegrate from a sense of loss. A health crisis may cause a person to blossom into a model of health while another person may follow a health crisis to their own end.

So, what are those conditions for transformation? Feeling safe is first and foremost. Safety is often built through trust – trust of those that hold us with their presence, guidance from our “tribe,” a teacher or mentor who is embodied and relatable. All of these create a sense of trust. Our tribe, mentors, and teachers help us feel that we are heard, that we belong, and that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This type of support allows us to be embodied and get out of our heads. We can connect with our heart. These are some of the conditions that foster transformation. We are not seeds planted in one place. We can move to more fertile soil. We can weed out those things in our lives that don’t serve us on our path.

I myself had a huge transformation last year. I look back and I often wonder “why then.” I was at a low place physically, mentally, and emotionally. I had been at that low place other times in my life and I would always just pick myself up to move on, but never transformed. So, what was different about this time?

This is where I acknowledge my own part in my transformation.Yes, at times it felt almost magical, but I know that my own choices had fostered exactly what I needed to transform. I had created an environment where I was surrounded by love, support, trust, and safety. I had a practice that brought me into my body and got me out of my head. I had a mentor I could turn to that made me feel seen and heard. All these conditions together allowed me to change my mindset. And once my mind changed, I was able to see my own innate power to change everything else. That feeling of growth and transformation is what fuels my passion for supporting others in seeing their own empowerment.

So, am I going to suddenly create workshops that will create huge transformation in people’s lives? I honestly don’t know. But the training helped raise my awareness of the roll I play to create the conditions of safety, empowerment, and connection. When we feel safe, our minds can shift, and when our mindset changes, anything is possible. So, when you feel most loved, at ease, and completely supported, be prepared. Transformation may just happen for you.

Tapping into Your Inner Fire

Amy’s one-year transformation

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word “discipline?” I used to think of misery, pain, boredom, and lack of energy. However, my understanding changed in the last year.

At the beginning of 2019, I had reached a significant goal. I had lost a total of 70 pounds, 25% body fat, and I had done it all with a smile on my face and with an ease I never thought possible. When I talked about my journey, people thought I was joking when I said it was fun. The idea of eating clean, exercising routinely, and creating healthy habits is so often associated with pain, suffering, and sacrifice. This is exactly the attitude I had most of my life. However, something in me shifted and I felt driven and guided by an inner force. I would wake up every day excited to see what the day had in store for me. My new lifestyle took little thought – it was just part who I was. The word “discipline” never dawned on me because I never felt miserable, bored, drained of energy, or like I was suffering.

A few months ago, a yoga friend pointed out that my tapas practice was strong. Tapas is one of the five niyamas of yoga in which our focus is on ourselves and living a positive life. The mere mention of tapas was all that I needed to help me realize that my practice had shifted. I love studying the Yoga Sutras and teaching what I can about them in an accessible way, but tapas always eluded me. I had never truly known what it was like to have the energy of tapas propelling me forward in life.

My first introduction to tapas was in 2001 and the description used was “austerity.” Is austerity in your vocabulary? To me, it provokes images of monks flailing themselves or a practice of living sparsely. I understood in yoga the concept meant discipline. I used to explain “it’s something you know is good for you, so you do it every day whether you are in the mood or not. You get on your yoga mat and practice every day because you know it will help your spiritual development.” What do you think? Does this description inspire you? No? I don’t blame you.

When teaching all the niyamas, I would give this description and quickly try to move onto the next niyama because I honestly had no life experience with tapas. I had little to no understanding, try as I might, from reading many books with many great commentaries. I just couldn’t connect it to my life.

Tapas’ first job is to move us out of inertia. So, my limited understanding in the past was partially correct. The trick is to stick with whatever new discipline you are cultivating. But the fun part starts AFTER you just “stick with it.” The fun comes when tapas builds and starts to burn inside of us. What felt like a fight to dig myself out of inertia, changed into feelings of determination, fierce action, and unwavering commitment. Tapas starts to build on itself and we can feed off this energy. I found myself more confident, feeling self-esteem, seeing results from my practice, and it was all due to the energy of tapas burning away the things that held me back. It can actually detox impurities in the body, clear our minds of the mental impurities that held us back for so long, and lift our energy and spirits upward.

The initial work isn’t easy. It’s damn hard. I had hit my bottom in October 2017 and was determined to make the changes needed. That determination drove me until tapas started to burn in me. Tapas fueled my fire and passion for my new life and it still drives me and gives me the enthusiasm and love of life. I still wake up every day excited about what’s to come and in fact, I love this feeling of tapas so much that now I find myself looking for new disciplines to add into my life.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait discusses tapas in his book The Practice of the Yoga Sutras. He explains that tapas is “Practice that ignites our inner fire, brings out our inner radiance, and makes us vibrant and energetic… enables us to recapture the joy and spontaneity of childhood and the enthusiasm and stamina of youth.” So, how does this description make you feel? More inspired, I hope!

Keeping a Student’s Mind

I had the pleasure of speaking with Megan Ridge Morris about why I’ve decided to work towards my 500-Hour Yoga Certification. I share here because it speaks towards my love of the practice and my love of teaching.

Click on the Image to Read the Interview

What the Bees Tell Us

honeybee2013DKirk
Photo by Douglas Kirk

Who or what in your life reminds you that you aren’t alone? Is it your spouse, your pet, a family member, or long-time friend?

The other day a friend shared an article about an old tradition of “Telling the Bees.” As the granddaughter, and also sister, of two beekeepers, the article piqued my interest. I feel lucky to be part of a small group of people who grew up around beekeeping. It’s a labor of love and a large responsibility.

There are people who are afraid of bees and don’t like them buzzing around their heads, but there is an unmistakable twinkle in the eye of almost everyone when they hear about beekeeping or think about honey. I grew up watching my maternal grandfather keep bees. He taught us not to fear them but also to have a healthy respect for them. I’d watch him at the hives completely dressed from head to toe in a delicate white suit, using a devise to pour smoke into the hives. Then a day or two later, we’d have honey for sale in front of our house.

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but wonder that my grandpop must have known something that we didn’t know. My grandparents were tough farm-folks and never struck me as the type to anthropomorphize bees. But, as I get older, I’m starting to think that farmers know more about universal energy than anyone else. The tradition of “telling of the bees” is fascinating and reminds me a little of how Michele and I talk to our dogs. We make sure they know of everything going on in our lives.

Grandparents1984
Amy with her brothers and grandparents in 1984

I wonder if my grandfather talked to his bees. When he passed away, my grandmom had enough respect for the bees to take care in finding the hives a new home. With so much going on – losing a husband of 50+ years, dealing with grief, being alone in a large house, dealing with what was left of my grandpop’s tools, etc. – the bees could have easily fallen to the bottom of the list and ended up dying off, but my grandmom found them a new home.

Unlike my conversations with my dogs, the tradition of telling the bees seems almost sacred. We know their value in our ecosystem, see them pollinating flowers during the warmer months, and know that the honey and wax they produce cannot be manufactured or recreated. And we have a healthy respect for them, knowing that they will sting us if we try to take advantage or harm them.

It make sense to me that those who have created a home for bees would include them in such traditions as telling them of major life events – deaths, births, marriages, or a prolonged outing by a family member. The belief seems to be that if the news wasn’t shared with the bees, there would be repercussions. In yoga, there is a saying that what happens in the microcosm, also happens in the macrocosm. What’s going on internally shows up all around us and vice versa. As we grieve, so will the bees. As we celebrate, so can the bees.

The tradition may have started based on superstition. But it seems that beekeepers were really just tapping into that universal connection – that whatever may be happening on a smaller scale could also affect the colony. We must all work together to get through this life. The bees are happy to live in harmony with us. They allow their keepers to take the fruit of their own labor, but only if done with respect and care.

It’s such a sweet tradition because it reminds us that we are not alone. The internet has helped us connect with people from all around the globe and be informed of events and news. But our connection to the ones buzzing around us in our day to day lives is where we begin to make the shift. In our grief, in our joy, our times of struggle or triumph, we have the opportunity to reach out and share. We have hundreds of friends around us (some with wings, some with two legs, or four legs) that can listen to and understand us. And by connecting and sharing – not isolating – we are stronger and will not only preserver but blossom and grow.

Prenatal Yoga

I cut open this gorgeous pepper today for my lunch and was gifted with this little baby pepper inside. I immediately had to show Michele, and we whispered to each other (as if we were going to wake a sleeping baby) how cute it was. I don’t believe in coincidences and I fully believe the universe has a sense of humor.

As my 45th birthday is quickly approaching, thoughts of family and my parents and how fast time has gone by have been on my mind. It also seemed fitting, so close to my own birthday, that I would spend this past weekend learning about childbirth and motherhood.

Hold on to your hats! No, I’m not announcing a pregnancy on my blog. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of completing the Childlight Foundations of Prenatal Yoga teacher training at The Yoga Loft in Bethlehem. This training was long overdue for me. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had formal training in prenatal yoga.

The 25-hour training was compassionately and skillfully led by Megan Ridge Morris. Megan has a natural gift of creating community and holding a space that feels safe and almost like a womb. Surrounded by 10 incredible women, I had the opportunity to learn all about what happens to a woman’s body during pregnancy, why yoga is beneficial during pregnancy, as well as what should be avoided. There are a lot of myths out there about what to do and not do during a yoga class, and I’m happy to know the facts now.

A fun part of the weekend was hearing everyone tell their birth stories. Megan loves to hear and read these stories and has even started a website to allow others to submit and share their own stories. You can read some beautiful stories here. It is amazing how different each story is and how we all enter the world in our own unique way.

My mom recently recounted my own birth story and filled in some details that I didn’t know. Her emphasis seemed to be that I was safe and loved and truly wanted. I fully acknowledge how privileged I am to have this start to my life. Not everyone is this lucky.

Yoga is an incredible benefit for a pregnant woman. The movement in a safe environment, the “me time,” the relaxation, breathwork, and most of all community with other pregnant women are all what make these classes so special. And while it’s nice to have the training and information now to keep a pregnant woman safe should she enter one of my classes, I do not feel drawn to teach prenatal yoga classes. I do, however, now know 10 incredibly caring and nurturing women who can skillfully provide a prenatal class. If you know anyone looking for this kind of yoga experience, drop me a note and I’ll put you in touch with one of them.

Improve Your Performance

Sometimes the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word massage is “relaxation.” Sometimes it’s “stress release.” Or maybe even “luxury.” Of all the images conjured by massage, an often forgotten benefit of massage is improvement with your performance.

I recently visited Warriorfit Performance in Easton, PA, partnering with the athletes to improve their performance and help prevent injuries. Watch these two videos to get an idea of the what and why, and call me today to schedule your appointment!

Pre-Workout Massage

The Secret to Longevity?

Charlie Gubish’s 100th Birthday Cake

Earlier this month, on Ground Hog day, my grandfather turned 100 years old.  Amy’s grandmother passed-on at the age of 104.  With those genetics on our side, we are both planning on being here a while.  If you think about it, we really haven’t even lived half of our lives yet if we do live as long as our grandparents.  That is a bit scary to think about for too long.

It struck me that there is a common bond amongst our grandparents; they both grew up on farms.  I don’t know the details of farm life, but I imagine it involves waking up early, doing a lot of physical work out in the sun and other elements, eating good food produced on the farm, and retiring to bed at an early hour – likely not long after the sun goes down.  After all, you literally have to get up early with the chickens the next day.  And, in the present day my grandfather still acts like he’s getting up with those chickens (or maybe even before!) to do calisthenics and use the resistance machines in the center he lives in as early as 3:30-4:00 am. 

I was thinking about the past when there were no gyms.  People just moved and got their “exercise” doing normal everyday tasks.  Amy and I do go to the gym but shun the automation of today as much as we can.  This allows us to get more movement into our day.  While the neighbors are using snow blowers to clear a mere 40-feet of sidewalk, we are using the shovel; they use the leaf blower in the fall for leaves (and on light snow days), we are using the rake and the shovel or even a broom.  And dare I mention the last unbelievable sight I saw of a man cleaning the snow off of his car with the leaf blower?  How lazy can you get?  And then onto summer and grass cutting–until recently we did cut our grass with an old reel push mower.  We finally got an electric push mower.  Granted our yard is not that big, but if it were, I’m pretty sure we would NOT be using a riding mower.  No robot vacuum in our house, and we’ve never used the dishwasher in our house. 

One of the keys to living long and healthy is just keep MOVING.  First, move in any way you can.  It is better than not moving.  However, it is also good to do some lifting of heavier objects to not only remain strong, but also to maintain and even gain bone mass.  This article discusses a study among women concerning bone density.  Please read the article for the full effect, but the gist is: the women who did light weight resistance training LOST bone density, but the group that used higher resistance of 80%-85% of the weight they could lift only one time actually GAINED bone density most notably in their low back and hip which is huge for preventing a fracture that could be debilitating.

Another favorite of mine, Dan John, writes in this article how he keeps it simple with only 5 moves that could make a great impact as they are based on moves we need to complete in everyday life. Also called “functional training” which is a buzz phrase that people toss around a lot these days. 

You can read more about the commonalities amongst people with the longest longevity here

You’ll notice that “move naturally” is at the top of the list.  So, turn off the electronics and go move; lift something, carry something, clean something, take your dog for a walk or walk with your kids, whatever it is just move, and move often.

Comfortable with Stress?

Shoelace Pose

As my body has gotten stronger, I’ve found a more physical asana practice a little less challenging and a lot more fun. So, it seems fitting that Yin Yoga would show up in my life right now. Two weeks ago, I completed the first segment of my Yin Yoga Teacher Training weekend at the Yoga Loft in Bethlehem. Under the guidance of the amazing Deanna Nagle and Sally Delisle, I gained a huge appreciation for this style of yoga. The foundation in Chinese Medicine and working with the meridians is fascinating. But it was the focus of applying stress to the tendons, fascia, and ligaments that really had me hooked.

One of the bigger lessons we can learn from yoga is how to be less reactive. The physical practice of yoga – putting our bodies in shapes called asanas – is good at teaching this lesson. We come into a posture and it may be challenging or uncomfortable, but we are instructed to stick with it, breathe and notice – unless of course we are feeling true physical pain, not just discomfort.

The same lessons of patience, equanimity, and perseverance can be learned from a meditation practice. Honestly, so far in my journey, this has been the MAIN reason I practice meditation. The ability to sit with the discomfort, boredom, and restlessness of my mind no matter what situation I’m in all come from my meditation practice.

Stress has gotten a bad rap from our overworked and overstimulated society. Yes, chronic stress does damage our whole being. But, not all stress is bad and in-fact, I’ve found that without a good dose of eustress I become dull and may actually have difficulty dealing with challenges when they do show up.

Yin Yoga reminds me a little bit of the yoga I was first introduced to in the mid-90s. That type of yoga was slow-paced, without flows or fancy sequences, and poses were held for a long time. While there are similarities, there are some big differences. I was immediately reminded that no matter how good I think I’ve gotten at having equanimity during challenging situations, I still have work to do!

Yin Yoga pushed me to my limit. Not because I was in danger of hurting myself or because any posture was complicated. I was pushed because of my mind/ego. As the ladies skillfully led us through just a handful of poses, the mental battle was waged within me. I went from blaming the pose to blaming myself for being so stiff to finally blaming myself for not being “good enough.” And then finally, when it all got to be too overwhelming, I just wanted to escape and get out of the pose and even the room!

Honestly, if it hadn’t been a training weekend, I may not have gone back for more. But after the 5 or so Yin practices that weekend, I started to soften. With each class, I started to recognize habits I have with creating drama and stress during situations that are challenging. With each class, I felt safer and less like I had to be in control. And I reaped the benefits of the practice! I slept amazingly well the whole weekend and my body felt more subtle and lighter. I felt at ease and happier overall.

I find myself craving another class and will be making Yin part of my life. Not only do I feel the physical benefits in my body, but I’m reminded of my life journey of learning to surrender and let go. I’m looking forward to the last two segments of this training and to offering Yin Yoga to you in 2020!

Staying Power

Amy with her Mom and Grandmom at her 100th Birthday celebration

For the holidays, Michele and I gifted ourselves one of those popular genetic tests. We were happy to find out that the stories of our lineage were true, but the real reason to do the test was to get the genetic health information.

The multitude of longevity genes didn’t come as much of a surprise, given that my grandmother lived to the age of 104 and Michele’s grandfather just celebrated his 100th birthday. Michele’s grandfather is still active and even still drives. What was surprising was finding out that only 35% of people actually have the longevity genes.

A quick internet search will show just how hot the topic of longevity has become. It would seem that everyone wants to live forever. Search results include everything from new books being published (The Longevity Paradox or The Longevity Code), to studies on the giant tortoise genome, and tips for 100 ways to increase longevity. The Bible talks about longevity, there are Buddhist sutras on longevity, and ways of eating that help extend life.

But, even if you were born with these genes, having them doesn’t guarantee anything. Lifestyle factors determine whether these genes will express or be inhibited. Managing everything from stress, eating, movement, sleep, and socialization can help turn on or off genes.

The idea of a long life is the first thing I think of when I hear the word longevity. In fact, if you look up the definition, it’s the first thing that comes up across all the dictionary platforms. But longevity applies to actions as well.

As someone who has never been athletic, the fact that I’ve made exercise and a healthy diet part of my lifestyle still surprise me. I sometimes say to myself “Who are you!?” when I’m choosing to go to the gym over staying home on a cold rainy morning. The trick for me was connection to an activity that had staying power.

Zone 2 training is practiced by endurance athletes the world over. It is a long slow process, but it gets results. Learning about this type of training gave me permission to slow down and take my time. It satisfied my appreciation for delayed gratification because it took months to really see the changes that were occurring. But during those long periods of time I built a habit and routine of doing something that I’ve come to love and I didn’t get burned out.

I tried HIIT workouts, the hyper intense exercise that aims to get you super sweaty in a short amount of time. Those workouts only ended up jacking up my nervous system and making me worry that I was going to “live fast and die young.” They definitely were not for me or sustainable in my life. There was little to no longevity in this type of work for me.

I can say the same for the yoga practices I’ve tried over the years. The faster flow classes are fun and entertaining, but they don’t have much staying power for me. I usually feel like I’m missing something and often times I end up hurting myself. I always go back to my slower paced practice where I can connect with my breath, alignments, and my spirit feels nourished. And to be honest, not even the asana practice alone has had staying power for me. There are eight limbs of yoga after all, and when my interest or desire in the physical practice wanes, I have a solid foundation of other yoga to work on.

There really is no “one size fits all” with anything in life. But dreaming of living a long time or just reading about it aren’t enough. Even being born with the genes isn’t enough. Just as unhealthy lifestyle choices can inhibit the very genes that can help us live a long time, choosing an activity that doesn’t resonate with you will not last. The key to finding longevity of life or activities is to nurture yourself rather than deplete yourself. Find something that lifts you up rather than pulls you down. Don’t be so drawn in by the latest and greatest thing that you overlook whether the activity has staying power. We want to give OURSELVES the power to stick around and live for a very long time so we can leave our positive mark on the world – no matter how long that takes!