The last 6 months have instigated in me a significant re-dedication to myself. I came to recognise how much I was simply coasting through my days and weeks, and all too often reverting to the comfortable and familiar instead of making steps towards the life I really wanted. Does that resonate?
Interestingly, my body knew. The body always knows. And she told me in no uncertain terms on the day of my son’s 11th birthday.
What the body rejects is keeping you small
For weeks I’d been feeling off – and sluggish, and fat, and generally lacklustre. But I couldn’t seem to do much about it. On the evening before H’s birthday, I finished making his ridiculously extravagant cake (vegan & GF chocolate bundt cake with almond ‘cookie dough’ filling, chocolate ganache and vegan maltesers!). The next morning I could barely look at it, I felt so bloated and gassy. I drank some diluted apple cider vinegar (as I had been doing diligently for a couple of weeks) and ate nothing.
Around 7 hours later, after a day of feeling truly awful and unable to enjoy H’s celebrations, I projectile vomited into our bathroom. Yep, I never even made it to the toilet 🙁 I hadn’t been sick in about 10 years. There was nothing I’d eaten in the previous 24 hours or so that others around me hadn’t also eaten. It also clearly wasn’t a virus.
So I went to bed and slept it off. And the next day I resolved to do better. My body knew, and she had told me very clearly that I was not being a good guardian.
Since then (6 weeks at the time of writing), here are a few ways I’ve rapidly turned my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self right around and through an upwards spiral towards my next level of fantastic being:
1. NASAL BREATHING
I’ve been a dedicated yogi for a long time now, and I still recall a yoga teacher chastising me to “breathe through your nose!” during one particular savasana. At 18 years old, with a congenital, severely deviated septum and a lifetime of chronic sinus issues, I felt justly indignant and belittled. Even through my later yoga-teacher training, I breathed through my nose only when it was available to me – which was around 50% of the time. This, despite all the many benefits I understood and kept learning over years of reading and research. To all my students I’d say, “breathe through your nose if you can, but don’t worry if you can’t”. Compassion is everything – and one of my core values – and yet, YET, there is something to be said for motivating ourselves beyond our perceived limitations.
Use it or lose it
When I read the book Breath a few months ago – pre-ordered and eagerly devoured during lockdown in a couple of days – I was truly blown away at how much I didn’t know about the breath, and in particular why mouth-breathing is responsible for a multitude of chronic conditions and ailments: from sleep apnea to asthma. The most gobsmacking (haha, forgive the pun!) golden nugget of hopeful information was, however, that how we breathe – and chew – affects our facial structure, even in the short term!
So someone, say, with a smaller nasal cavity (most of us modern humans, hence our chronically crowded teeth and dental problems), or someone with a deviated septum (like myself and also the author of the book) actually has the ability, through simple breathing practices, to change the very bones in the face so that they learn to support open nasal breathing rather than making it difficult!
I could go on and on about this magnificent and massively inspiring topic, but suffice to say: go and read Breath right now, or at the very least listen to this podcast with Dr Rangan Chatterjee – and be prepared to be blown away by the untapped potential of your own simple, daily breath!
Conscious, compassionate effort
Ever since reading James Nestor’s book, I have consciously resorted to nasal breathing as much as possible during the day. Often I’m still blocked or stuffy, and yet I know from experience that a few minutes of trying to nasal-breathe (without force, EVER), and perhaps a few yoga poses, my passageways always open back up. Flaring the nostrils helps too. As does repetition and practice – I already feel after a month or two that my nose is working harder on its own, and that somehow I’ve created a little extra space in my nasal cavity. Plus, no more dry mouth, gasping during exercise, or swallowing flies ?.
2. COLD THERAPY & VAGAL TONE ACTIVATION
This is actually a group of practices that I’ve built up over the last few years. Having an overactive sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/freeze) for years on end is exhausting in every sense of the word. However, as I’ve slowly healed inside and out, I’ve also found ways to gradually, deliberately and intentionally stress my nervous system in small ways to maintain optimal vagal tone. This was especially important for me as I really wanted to enjoy outdoor pursuits again – wild swimming for example – and that meant teaching my hypervigilant body how to prepare for such things without inducing a panic attack, or create further trauma. To this aim, here’s what I’ve been doing more of:
- “Cold” morning yoga
- Strong, heating breathwork
- Wild swimming / cold water dips
“Cold” Yoga? What the heck is that?
Ok, why cold? Hot yoga may be fashionable, and have various benefits, but for me cold yoga just worked. My SNS was always high in the morning after waking and automatically entering a stress response (related to my cPTSD) so before getting dressed I always felt overheated anyway. Doing naked or semi-naked cold yoga – either inside or out in the garden in the cool morning air – felt incredibly soothing and refreshing. It helped me ease back into a parasympathetic state and cool down my outside (skin) as my insides and muscles warmed up. More recently, I’ve been embracing the cold yoga as a form of cold therapy now that my skin is stronger and less hypersensitive – more on that below!
Healing body trauma
More fundamentally, this practice helps me connect more fully and compassionately with my body, through all the trauma associated with it. The key elements in this practice for me are:
- First thing after getting out of bed: Getting in touch with my body and deeper self before my mind has fully awoken and had time to begin its logical and critical tirade, create a kind of soothing barrier for my body, mind and spirit.
- Naked, or semi-naked: I used to be prudish about nakedness, believe it or not! But living with a body which felt so very broken – inside and out – for years as I went through my healing crisis really demanded that I revisit this harsh judgment repeatedly. It was too easy for me to disappear into my ungrounded, non-physical self in a desperate bid to overcome my body’s pain and discomfort. So deliberate, intentional connection to my physical meat-suit every day was (and is again) incredibly therapeutic. I would recommend this practice to everyone who suffers from body issues – both physical and mental/emotional.
Vagal tone activation
There’s now lots of research on how intentionally using low-grade stressors to “upgrade” our nervous system functioning actually works. My favourite research on this is Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress, but if you check out any bio-hacking podcast you’ll find a ream of in-depth interviews with current researchers making new discoveries in this field every day.
Of course, the most popular way right now for exploring this is the Wim Hof Method. Almost everyone knows about the “Ice Man” now, and how he teaches groups of perfectly ordinary folk – even 80 year-olds – how to plunge themselves into ice baths or trek up Kilimanjaro in shorts, with just a bit of training.
Breathing through chronic pain
Given my yoga teaching background, plus my own years of endless, intuitive experimentation trying to soothe myself through perpetual agony and insomnia, I consider myself an advanced practitioner in pranayama/breathwork. So although I’ve tried Wim Hof (and holotropic and conscious connected breathing) before, I never really found the love for it.
What I kept coming back to again and again in my own practice to shift through challenging sensations was ujjayi. In this practice you slightly constrict the back of the throat and breathe through this constriction easily as you inhale and exhale through the nose (it’s like sighing with your mouth closed). This is like turning on an internal heater in your body: it’s both warming and regulating, and as such, it is incredibly supportive during times of bodily stress in particular. I even used this practice during asthmatic episodes (when I still had them) to regain control and open my airways again.
Reclaiming joy and pleasure
More recently though, I’ve added in the Wim Hof breathing at least once a day, and I’ve been loving it. Here’s the big reason why: it connects me not just to my body, breath, spirit and sense of peace and stillness etc, but also to my heightened potential for joy, pleasure and quite simply, more! These are all essentials that I’ve struggled to allow myself to access since my cPTSD.
Getting deliberately cold and wet!
For years I experienced severe panic attacks whenever my skin got wet (especially before/after my morning salt bath) or too hot or cold. But there’s no way I was going to live the rest of my life terrified of temperature fluctuation or unable to get wet!
So along with my cold morning yoga, in the last few years I’ve dabbled with wild swimming. This Summer I decided to take it up several notches and I’ve taken to cold water dips (or at least paddles) every day. Last week I tried out my first ice “bath” and also took a full-on dunk in our icy river for several minutes. I can’t explain to you how exhilarating this is on both a physical and emotional level – especially so as it’s something I could previously never thought possible. For so long this would have been associated in my mind with extreme, unbearable stress and trauma. But now? It’s something I might fear slightly but I also look forward to!!
3. UNAPOLOGETIC & UNCENSORED CREATIVE EXPRESSION
Though it may seem innocuous, this has unquestionably been the biggest shift of all. The enforced isolation and loss of regular/familiar routines during lockdown somehow enabled me to break through my biggest excuses in not allowing my creative juices to flow unfettered. I’ll leave these typical excuses and their issues (and solutions!) for another post, but suffice to say there’s not one person alive who doesn’t suffer from this – whether you identify as “creative” or not!
The energy gotta flow!
Humans were designed to be creators, and we have moulded ourselves instead into consumers. That means all the instinctive energy we could be putting towards writing, crafting, cooking, painting, building, designing, playing and so on – is instead being drained, lost or stalled in its tracks. We all have it. And we all prevent this flow, to our greatest detriment: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
And even though it is my soul-purpose here on this planet to teach and support folk through this unnatural “anti-flow” state of being, I am no less human myself. So this Summer, I deliberately opened the floodgates!
Do it just for YOU
It’s taken me 20 years to come back to painting, even though I have wanted to – and tried – many times over. 2020 finally gave me the permission to do this for myself – with zero expectations or caveats. Even though my creative brain would persistently run away with itself and envision whole exhibitions on a singular theme – every painting already fleshed out in my head – I kept coming back to the following simple routine:
- Set aside non-negotiable painting time (completely separate from writing or other creation time).
- Prepare your energy and space for painting, even when you don’t feel like, or it’s inconvenient.
- Buy materials as you need them, not all at once (however tempting)!
- Dedicate yourself like a professional, even if it turns out just to be a hobby.
- Remind yourself daily that this practice is for YOU, nobody else (so nobody else gets a say in how, why or what you are doing!).
Having such a practice really is as crucial as brushing your teeth, exercising and meditating. “Unused creativity”, says Brené Brown, “is not benign – it metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame. We are creative beings. We are by nature creative. It gets lost along the way. It gets shamed out of us.”
So if you won’t take it from me, take it from Brené: and go create something today, just for you.
If you’d like to explore any, or all, of the practices mentioned here within an intimate and fully supportive setting, please check out my free Resonance and Radiance Expression Support & Mentorship Facebook group. This Autumn, I will be guiding the group in adding such simple, daily practices to support their own gradual and compassionate upgrades, for a healthier, more joyful life-experience and expression: in resonance and radiance!