Meet Amanda Lee, humanitarian and therapist

My friend Amanda is an amazing woman that I want everyone to know about. She’s a trauma survivor who went on to spend many years of her life working in the world’s crisis zones on humanitarian projects.

Honestly, I started to call her a super-therapist, but I decided not to because it might convey the impression that she’s inaccessible, beyond the human. She’s definitely living in this world, has worked through many of her own struggles, and she’s accessible. (And still super in my heart.)

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Breathing naturally

Given that one of my investigations is to find out how relaxed I can get and still be awake, I have something to share. I’ve become aware that some of us do not breathe naturally, and I think it could be keeping our nervous symptoms from experiencing the relaxing, healing benefits of going into the parasympathetic (rest and digest) state of the autonomic nervous system.

I imagine everyone is aware that breathing is a function that we have some control over, and also that when we don’t pay it any attention, the breath will continue on its own, unconsciously. We may be told how to control our breathing in yoga or meditation classes, or in voice or speech classes, and some students may then infer that these ways of using the breath are somehow better than normal breathing and adopt them into their everyday lives.

Stress and trauma affect our breathing too, and unfortunately for many, living with stress has become a way of life, at least temporarily. The breathing pattern, however, may remain disordered.

We may also adopt a disordered way of breathing due to pollution and attempts not to inhale smog, smoke, aromas, dust, pollens, and so on. Some people who believe they have asthma may actually have a breathing pattern disorder.

There are many benefits to learning how to breathe naturally. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and experienced myself regarding breathing.

First of all, the natural relaxed breath does not have a rhythm like a metronome, where inhalations and exhalations are regular and evenly paced. Yes, when we exert ourselves, our lungs work rhythmically to bring in the oxygen and release the carbon dioxide that our bodies need.

The relaxed breath is different.

If you have an opportunity to watch an infant or young child breath when asleep, you will notice that sometimes the breath is like that, with regular inhalations and exhalations. And sometimes it’s not. The child may take a fuller breath. There may be pauses between breaths when it seems they skip a breath. This is not like sleep apnea, which is a disorder where people struggle to get enough oxygen in their sleep.

Some of these pauses can last for awhile, but the inhalation does return. (If it happens a lot, see a specialist.)

Thank you to Dr. Fritz Smith, founder of Zero Balancing, for educating me on this in Inner Bridges and classes.

This pattern — sometimes regular, occasionally with bigger breaths and pauses — is what I mean by natural relaxed breathing.

I noticed in meditation that sometimes I lightly controlled my breathing. This is probably something I adopted from a yoga class years ago or from meditation instructions.

I wanted to stop doing that and breathe naturally. What I did was check in with my breath, pause after an exhalation, and simply allow the next inhalation to arise on its own. I’d repeat that cycle a few times, and then I would move my attention to something else. I did this a couple of times a day for a few days. My body took to this more relaxed, effortless way of breathing, and I don’t manipulate my breathing any more unless I consciously want to. Natural breathing has become easy and joyful.

I’m not saying that breathing exercises are bad or not to do them. I’m glad to know that I can influence my autonomic nervous system with my breath, because sometimes I want to calm down quickly (by lengthening my exhalations), and other times I want to quickly increase my alertness (by lengthening my inhalations). I also love nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) for calming and balancing.

What is particularly bringing me joy now is something that happens when I’ve been meditating for awhile. (I’m guessing at least 30 minutes.) Sitting still means the body doesn’t require as much oxygen as when active, and my breath naturally slows and gets shallower. Often, my breath gets so light that I can’t tell if I’m inhaling or exhaling.

Watching my breath doesn’t change it. There’s a principle in physics that when you observe an object, it changes the object’s behavior. But when you are in a non-dual state, everything is one, and there is no separation between subject and object. It’s a marker, if you like.

I may segue into a state where I am simply being breathed. There is no effort. There is no will. The breath rises and falls on its own, and I simply witness. Source takes over, and I surrender. I feel touched by the sublime.

What to bring to a vipassana course

Just got back home yesterday after taking my second 10-day vipassana course at Dhamma Siri, Kaufman, Texas. I reached new abilities to sense subtle sensations and found deeper stillness and inner silence. Reentry into the real world has been easier this time as well.

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Plus, I made eye contact with a bobcat. More about that later.

While it’s fresh, I want to put into writing what to bring next time. I am into avoiding unnecessary suffering for myself, and others. It doesn’t mean that I can’t sit with some discomfort and be equanimous — and discomfort is inevitable unless you already are sitting still for 12 hours a day, day after day. Your low back, mid-back, upper back, shoulders, hips, knees, feet — at least one area of your body is going to feel the strain — and this is an unavoidable part of the process.

The pain and discomfort are necessary to get the full vipassana experience. Meditation isn’t all about transcendence. It’s about learning to witness and accept the truth of what you are experiencing with equanimity. You become more familiar with your mind, craving what isn’t there and feeling aversion to what is there. Continue reading

Breath of Fire relieved my hiatal hernia symptoms

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, just someone interested in self-care, anatomy, physiology, and wellness who is relating her personal experience working on her own issues. If you are in a similar situation, the techniques described below may or may not be helpful. Always pay attention to your body’s yes and no, and seek medical care when needed.

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A couple of years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with chest pain. I didn’t know what it was. I sat up, just feeling it, trying to figure out what was causing it and whether I needed to call an ambulance. That I was having a heart attack was my big fear. From the top of my solar plexus, the pain ran up through the middle of my chest underneath my sternum and up my throat. It was very unpleasant.

It went away, and I went back to sleep. I woke up feeling fine. Although scary, it didn’t seem to be any kind of an emergency. I put it out of my mind and went about my business.

Then it happened again a couple of times. This seemingly random chest pain sent me to the doctor, who through testing was able to rule out heart disease, possibly pancreatic cancer, and stomach ulcer. She wanted me to go to a gastroenterologist and do a barium swallow with x-rays.

I didn’t want to do that procedure, and by then, being the curious researcher that I am, I had figured out that it was very likely a hiatal hernia. See the images below.

So I began self-treating, starting with reading online. I learned:

  • hiatal hernias are more common in older people
  • obesity can be a factor
  • acid reflux can be a factor
  • overeating can make it worse
  • you can avoid symptoms by not eating 2-3 hours before bedtime
  • posture plays a role

Yes, even though I’m a yogi and usually have pretty decent posture, I was sitting on my sofa using my laptop all hunched over for a few hours several times a week. My fix for that was to sit cross-legged with my back straight, with my laptop on a thick pillow.

I am 64, and although not obese, I’ve put on a few pounds in the last few years. I’ve been guilty of eating late after a busy day and occasional overeating. I haven’t felt any symptoms of acid reflux, though, but learned you can have acid reflux without symptoms.

I learned more about the anatomy of a hiatal hernia. Simply put, the diaphragm separates your chest cavity from your abdominal cavity and moves when you breathe. The hiatus is an opening in your diaphragm where your esophagus passes through to your stomach.

When the hole is enlarged, a little bit of your stomach can protrude upward through the hole, crowding your chest cavity. Thus…lying down or bending over with a full stomach brings the pain on.

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Copyright 2004 MedicineNet Inc.

There is reportedly no cure, and in severe cases, drugs or surgery may be needed.

My favorite quick relief for hiatal hernia pain? Drink a glass of water, 8 to 12 ounces. Then stand on your tiptoes and quickly drop your heels, repeating this several times. The weight of the water in your stomach combined with the quick downward motion will jostle your stomach back down into its proper place beneath the diaphragm. Here’s a video showing the technique.

I also read about yoga poses to avoid: cobra, inversions like downward facing dog, and other poses I was doing every day. This was a drag. I wasn’t liking this at all.

I still had occasional esophageal spasms and finally did get the barium swallow. The diagnosis confirmed my intuition: I have a small “sliding hiatal hernia”.

Not long after, I was meditating, and I suddenly had an insight that a yogic breathing practice I’d learned decades ago called Breath of Fire (Sanskrit kapalabati or “skull shining breath”) might be helpful. I hadn’t practiced it in years. This technique pumps the diaphragm through rapid breathing, and since the diaphragm is a muscle, it can be strengthened through training.

Watch this video if Breath of Fire is new to you. Actual instruction starts at 2:50.

I started doing Breath of Fire for a minute a day. It was hard at first to breath rapidly in a steady rhythm, but it got easier. I worked up to 3, then 5, and then 10 minutes a day, building strength and stamina while maintaining a steady rhythm.

The diaphragm is a muscle that can be strengthened like any other muscle. At first, I felt some muscle soreness around the bottom of my rib cage, front, sides, and back, where the diaphragm attaches. After a few days, the soreness went away.

Not only does Breath of Fire strengthen your diaphragm, it also floods your body with oxygen, massages your organs, pumps your lymphatic system, and has other benefits. Since I started doing this three months ago, I’ve noticed a gradual increase in energy, mental clarity, positivity, and motivation. I feel more on top of things and happier.

I now do Breath of Fire for 3 minutes every morning for maintenance, and I haven’t had any hiatal hernia discomfort since I started. (I avoid eating near bedtime and lying down after eating.)

I do the yoga poses I want to do without any problems. I’ve long been a hatha yogini, but now I’m interested in learning more kundalini, where this practice originates, as far as I know.

It would take a truly open-minded, yoga-trained Western doctor to tell you to do this very simple technique, so I’m sharing. If you have a hiatal hernia and try these techniques, please share your experience in the comments.

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Addition, April 11, 2018. If you have a hiatal hernia, it’s important to know that you may have acid reflux, where you don’t produce enough stomach acid to break down the protein in food and to stimulate the production of digestive enzymes. You may burp, have gas, and/or feel bloated. You may also have acid reflux without any symptoms.

Low stomach acid signals the lower esophageal sphincter to stay open, making it more likely for a hiatal hernia to develop, and the stomach acid you do produce can splash up into the esophagus and possibly cause scarring and thickening. Not good.

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 8.39.27 AMThe remedy for low stomach acid — which becomes more common with age — is to take a supplement containing Betaine HCl and pepsin. It helps you digest protein and absorb amino acids from food. Protein is in all animal-derived food sources — meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy — and legumes, including soy, tofu, and tempeh, and other foods. Protein helps your body build and repair tissues, especially important in building muscle, bone, blood, cartilage and skin. You definitely want to assimilate the protein you eat.

HCl also helps kill off pathogens in food.

There are some cautions about taking this. I found this article very helpful in explaining who should not take HCl and why.

It also explains how to find out how much you need to take, so as not to take too little to be effective or too much and experience discomfort. (If that happens, take 1/2 tsp of baking soda in water to neutralize the excess acid, and then cut back on the amount you’re taking.)

If you can’t take Betaine HCl before eating protein, drink a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (shoot or dilute) to help acidify your stomach. These won’t help you break down the protein but may prevent acid reflux.

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 9.10.39 AMYou can also take digestive bitters. Bitter tastes stimulate digestion. Our ancestors knew this and ate bitter foods every day — such as citrus, greens, cruciferous veggies, artichokes, ginger and other herbs, pepper, chocolate, and red wine.

Herbalists have been making bitter elixirs since at least the Middle Ages. I like this brand and carry it in my purse for those times when I forget to refill my little pill container with Betaine HCl and digestive enzymes.

Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 9.45.17 AMYou may also want to take digestive enzymes to help your stomach break down substances in food into molecules that you can absorb. If you are eating a healthful diet, you want your body to actually absorb the nutrients in that healthy (and possibly expensive or laborious-to-grow) food. Enzymes help further break down protein and also fats and carbohydrates. Low stomach acid goes hand-in-hand with low digestive enzymes.

A note on the timing: my doctor, who is working with me on my digestive issues, recommends taking 3 digestive enzymes at the beginning of meals and 3 Betaine HCl capsules after. I aim at taking the latter about 20 minutes after I finish eating so the HCl won’t deactivate the digestive enzymes.

You can take a dropperful of bitters before, during, or after meals.

Let me know in the comments what your experience is with any of this, please.

 

After my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course

On Wednesday, August 9, I got up early, loaded my car, made a home visit to massage one of my regular clients, and drove from Austin to Kaufman, Texas, a 3.5 hour drive.

BTW, my client commented afterwards that it was really a great massage. He even had a waking lucid dream toward the end of the session. I attribute that to his learned ability to relax deeply while staying awake and to me having more presence and being more tuned into him and myself. I knew that for the next 10 days, I’d be stepping out of my everyday life and meditating quite a lot without distractions. I didn’t have my normal everyday thoughts about logistics (travel, meals, timing, errands), which made a huge difference in my ability to really be present. So it started before I even left town.

IMG_0175I arrived at the Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center near Kaufman mid-afternoon. I registered, was assigned a room in the women’s dorm, and surrendered my wallet and cell phone. I had left books, computer, and writing materials at home.

I unloaded my stuff and set up my room, which was small, furnished with an extra-long twin bed and a plastic chair and small table, with open shelves and a place to hang clothing, and a bathroom with a shower. And a big window looking out on trees and clothesline. Very simple and adequate, and yet this particular Vipassana center is considered one of the more luxurious centers worldwide. Continue reading

Habit tracking simplified

I do much better when incorporating new behaviors into my life when I have a way to track them that’s visual and shows more than just a few days. I found an online PDF, Habit Tracker, that has space to track up to 17 behaviors for one month, so you can easily view trends, skipped days, etc.

One of the activities that is motivating when trying to develop a new habit is checking off each time you do something on a monthly calendar. When you’ve done it for a few days in a row, you see your streak of successfully incorporating the habit, and you don’t want to break the chain. This technique was attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, but he doesn’t claim credit. Whatever. It works!

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Source: https://www.clementinecreative.co.za/reach-goals-free-printable-habit-tracker/

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Orienting to stillness, orienting to motion

I started this blog to document meditating every day in 2010. My blog posts got kind of boring and I ended up broadening the topic, but before the year ended, I had made some big decisions, changing my approaches to work and home that resulted in living a more authentic, self-realizing life.

Selling my house and quitting my job with no clear path ahead were not changes I would have undertaken had not my meditation practice compelled me to make them for my own well-being and trust that the Universe and my own capabilities would come through. There was uncertainty along the way, and luck, but I figured I could always rent a room and do temp jobs to support myself, and that gave me courage. (I rented a room and did a few temp jobs on my path!)

However, I really wanted more than that for myself: I wanted to own an affordable, paid-for home in Austin, Texas, and I wanted to do work that I really loved. And I got those things.  Meditation helped me understand that not living authentically was no longer possible for me, and I’m happy with those decisions. Continue reading

Frida Kahlo probably had fibromyalgia

While continuing to learn more about fibromyalgia, I found something interesting: Frida Kahlo probably had it.

If you’re wondering what fibromyalgia is, the Mayo Clinic says it’s a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Symptoms sometimes begin after a trauma, surgery, infection, or significant stress. Women are much more likely to develop it.

One researcher, Manuel Martinez-lavin, says it’s likely the iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo had fibromyalgia. The bus accident that badly injured her at age 18 must have been quite traumatic and was followed by many stressful surgeries. The accident left her with chronic pain, well documented in her art.

screen-shot-2017-01-23-at-11-07-37-amThe Broken Column

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Help for respiratory allergies

It’s cedar fever time again, and I want to share this story because it may help someone to suffer less.

Many years ago, I took prescription allergy medicine (Seldane and later Claritin) daily, all year round, and could count on getting at least one sinus infection each year. Austin is known for its allergens, so much so that the weather reports include the pollen and mold counts. We’re especially known for “cedar fever,” which comes on after the first freeze in the Hill Country, which is laden with Ashe juniper trees commonly called cedars here. The male trees release clouds of pollen, which some people are so sensitive to, they stay sick for weeks.

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What people are saying after Zero Balancing

So far in 2016, I’ve done 96 Zero Balancing sessions ranging from 15 to 45 minutes in length. Most were about 30 minutes.

Help me make at least 100 in 2016! [I made my goal!]

The part I love most about giving my clients a Zero Balancing session comes after the fully-clothed bodywork has concluded, when the receiver slowly moves from supine on my massage table to sidelying to seated to standing, taking a pause after each movement, and finally takes a few steps around my office.

I ask, “What are you noticing?” Continue reading