What’s your favorite Christmas song?

Do you have a favorite Christmas song? We all do, even if we don’t celebrate Christmas. We all notice ourselves whistling or humming along to a tune on the radio with an inevitable shoulder wiggle to the happy tunes that seems to follow us into every venue during the month of December. Two weeks ago, when I was on shift in the intensive care unit (ICU), the family of a patient I had been caring for all week came in and surrounded her bed. I was sitting at a computer station close to her room, and suddenly heard “Last Christmas” by Wham! playing. It’s not often that one hears music in the ICU – the only sounds are typically a flurry of alarms that signal at different pitches and speeds to help the listener quickly decipher the acuity of the distress. Happy, winsome music is not the norm.

 

Then the family, which consisted of her adult children, their spouses and some nieces, all started singing. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart… but the very next day, you gave it away….” They had horrible pitch; all singing at different tempos. “This year, to save me from tears… I’ll give it to someone special.” I noticed my forehead wrinkling as I tried to hold back tears, but they came anyway, a steady quiet stream of thick salty drops welled up in my eyes and down my cheeks. I wrapped it up and sent it… with a note saying, “I love you, ” I meant it”… Music unites us. It brings us together, and it’s what we recognize, even when we are about to take our last breaths. They were saying goodbye to their mom.

 

One of the daughters peeked out to me, and asked, “Is this ok? It’s her favorite song.” I sniffed back my tears, smiled and nodded, Of course it is. They played it over and over again and sang it to her, over and over again, for the next hour until she passed. They let her go with the embrace of music, and their united voices, in love and tribute to her.

 

The holidays are strange, aren’t they? We look forward to them for the time off, but we often forget that it is a time to connect and unite. Look to the person next to you and ask them what their favorite Christmas song is, then tell them yours. We never know when it may be our Last Christmas. And when it is, I hope they sing you your favorite song too.

The Waiting Game

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time waiting. Waiting for business emails, waiting for responses on job opportunities (I graduate in 6 months from residency! yikes!), waiting for patients to make time-sensitive decisions, waiting for vacation to arrive… it has been a strange season of waiting. And for someone who is used to getting things done the minute they are put on my plate, this has been an interesting exercise of letting go. This waiting has pushed me to let the outcome and response unfold as it will, without trying to influence the outcome. My best analogy is waiting for that wave. When I am surfing, I truly have no idea what will come at me next. It could be the sweetest, smoothest wave I’ve ever tasted… it could come at me with it’s jagged edge to remind me it is my master… it could peter out before it even meets the nose of my board…. Whatever it throws at me, it is an opportunity to let it be exactly what it is, and let the wave roll out the way it’s going to. I can’t control it, for goodness sakes; it’s the ocean! Do you know any surfer that has been able to control the wave coming at him? So I paddle out, I take in a deep breath of clean ocean air, and I wait. It has been so interesting these last few months watching each and everything in my life manifest into that wave that melts away before I am able to meet it. When I took a step back to examine my swelling frustration, I realized that the universe is sending me a message. This is my season of The Wait. My anticipation when sending out the energy, the hope, that this will be the wave I will ride into the beach… that has been replaced with a sense of acceptance, letting go, and contentment in the present moment. Rather than trying to force my timeline, I’ll let the outcome unfold the way it should when it’s ready for me. Because what’s the worse that could happen if I wait? In the wait, still in the ocean, on my board, breathing in the sea air, watching the sunset, and waiting. Sounds pretty good to me. How can you infuse a little more patience in your life and wait for the right things to unfold when the energy is right?

This is water

There is a story of these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” They nod politely, and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

These two fish, so innocent and unknowing merely show ya that the obvious, most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see, and as a result, we miss simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of us and inside us. This very esoteric idea of being present is constantly bombarding us, but what it means really is learning how to think and learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. So today, I encourage you to make the choice to be here and present in the exact space you are in right now.  Knowing that the choice is yours.  And whatever it is that you are feeling whether it is with fear or inadequacy or joy and elation; it is your job to be present with it.  Be here now.

Meditation and Cancer Therapy

The outward benefits of yoga seem almost too obvious when we begin to practice: strength, focus, peace of mind, balance… if you’ve practiced, you’ve felt it too. As we begin to peel away the layers, we may also discover other unexpected and invaluable benefits such as the way in which we relate to ourselves. The term that my meditation teacher uses is “making friends with yourself”; it is the process of letting go of that recurrent voice inside that tells you that you have to be something different than you are, when in fact, you are already all that you need to be. It is about accessing your true self, and it is the ease that you build in a yoga practice that molds the key.

 

In this manner, yoga heals. I regularly teach Yoga for Cancer Recovery workshops and my students cannot sing enough praises about how yoga has healed their body, mind, and souls. For a cancer survivor, nothing feels better than to proactively participate in promoting her own good health. What is most exciting to me is that my recovery classes actually encourage the students to do less, and I incorporate this concept by starting each class with meditation. The whole practice, meditation combined with yoga, is about waking up. In our modern lives, we are programmed to think that we will be happier if we do more and accomplish more. I am personally guilty of the same mindset, and it seems radical to break this paradigm. Not that I am denouncing productivity – it is important to realize and pursue our goals. A meditation practice may actually help us achieve our goals by understanding that there is nothing we can do that will make us healthier or happier than something we’ll find is already inside us. This concept, which seems so enigmatic and unattainable at first, is actually something that we can wake up to while in our practice and learn to meet in each moment as it arises. There is nothing mystical or religious about it. In fact, it is the most pragmatic principle that exists. Our practice simply asks us to be ourselves. When we accept and make friends with our true selves, our goals become within reach because we truly understand our potential. The hard work of uncovering that true self is up to you.

 

So now that you are convinced a meditation practice can be part of your yoga practice, how do you begin? Start by committing yourself to 5 minutes a day for a week. Then build up to 10 minutes the following week, 15 minutes the following, and finally 20 minutes in your fourth week. Be patient with yourself. No one is able to run a marathon without training, and your brain is the most difficult part of your body to train. Start by sitting up straight. Some people like to have an icon to focus upon, their eyes closed, or their eyes slightly open. I am for all of the above – choose the method that works for you. Find a comfortable seat in a chair, on a block, or cushion, or the good old floor will do just fine. The reason we sit up straight is that we believe that there is something dignified about our practice, that it serves us as much as we submit to it too. While practicing, own it and commit to it. Fight the urge to get off your cushion or mat to check your phone or jot down that item on your to do list that you miraculously remembered while “clearing your mind”. This practice teaches us that there is no thought so brilliant that you must hold onto it. In this manner, you begin to forgive, let go, and create ease in both your body and mind.   Remember, start in baby steps, but really engage in it. Consider it your mind’s commitment to train for the Iron Man-Brain. You’ll find the training will pay off as you begin to meet each moment as it arises, let go in challenging situations, and find the best in yourself.

Pranayama for Cancer Patients

Yogic breathing “pranayama” has been shown to be an effective treatment for cancer patients in improving their sleep, relieving anxiety and improving quality of life. In particular, a dose–response relationship has been found in numerous studies relating pranayama use and improvements in chemotherapy-associated symptoms and quality of life. Indeed, further studies have also shown that pranayama can have immediate down-regulating effects on the HPA axis response to stress. In the classes that I teach for cancer patients, I often teach a pranayama practice called “nadi shodhana,” or “alternative nostril breathing.” However, there is one key difference in the traditional practice – we do not hold breath. Due to the circumstances of their health, and all the other ancillary stresses that accompany a cancer diagnosis (financial, relational, occupational, etc.), cancer patients and survivors already experience vast amounts of stress. The “flight or fight” response of the nervous system is already on overdrive, and breath holding can intensify the feelings of stress and anxiety. So, no breath holding in the traditional nadi shodhana. But! We do want to practice alternative nostril breathing because it is the perfect tool to bring our attention to our breath and learn to control our breath, thus taking back control of our hyped up nervous systems. So try this with me today: Close your 2nd and 3rd fingers into your right palm, keeping the thumb and 4th and 5th fingers out. Take a deep inhale, and close your right nostril with your thumb, let go of your left nostril. Exhale out through your left nostril, close the left nostril with the 4th and 5th finger, open the right nostril, and inhale through your right nostril. Exhale through the left, and continue for 10 rounds. Switch hands for 10 more rounds, switching nostrils, exhaling through the right and inhaling through the left. Then let me know how it feels on your nervous system!