So this ^^^ is me. More specifically this is me in a rare moment in which the downward (stabilizing) and upward (energizing) currents of my body were in perfect balance. Despite my instruction to students in all my yoga classes that every single asana begins with strength and stability (the rooting down actions), my floaty drifty vibey vata forces don’t usually let me touch down long enough to experience this kind of equilibrium. Bare feet rooted to the earth with the ocean swirling around me … equally powerful and soothing. Gaze raised to the sky. Heart open and lifted to the sunbeam that had escaped the clouds at that very moment. Pure bliss.
preamble: It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love the sunshine and the heat. However, those in my innerest (yes … innerest) circle know that this goes beyond simple preference. I have struggled with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) my whole life. Some years are better than others. This has been a particularly brutal one. It’s been months since I felt truly myself. My energy is low, my resilience is low, my mood is low. My impromptu trip to Venice Beach in November was truly an act of survival. At that point, Vancouver had already set new rainfall records. We had rain on 29 of 31 days in October and 25 of 30 in November. Since then we’ve gone back and forth between rainy days and frigid temperatures. I have struggled to stay above it all this year.
However, something pretty cool happened yesterday. I realized that the simple act of looking up at the sky makes me feel better. Instantly. I noticed it when I was writing. Something outside my window caught my eye and I looked up from my notebook. My eyes landed on a patch of bright blue sky and I found myself smiling. That tiny little moment sent me on a 24-hour journey through intellectual and internet wormholes. So here I am to share what I’ve discovered. It has to do with loops and gaze and light and the physical shapes we make with our bodies.
biofeedback goes both ways: When we are sad, our instincts move us towards the earth. Our eyes drift downwards, we slouch, we frown, our heads tilt forward. We feel heavy. We feel low. This is programmed into our DNA. It’s a natural response to sadness of all forms (situational, seasonal, clinical depression). We curl in on ourselves as a form of protection and self-preservation. Evolutionarily … this posture signals to others that we are withdrawing to heal and recover. This posture also triggers a biofeedback loop and … at some point … it becomes tricky to know whether we are physically slumping because we are sad or sad because we are slumping. Classic mindfuck.
drishti and posture: For me, yesterday’s discovery of how quickly my mood changed when I looked up at the sky made me realize that I am unwittingly and unnecessarily contributing to my SADness by how I am physically holding myself. Like many of you, I spend many of my waking hours on some device or another. Usually sitting. Looking down. At my phone, at my computer, at the road ahead while I drive. The postures we adopt when we are texting, typing, swiping, scrolling, driving, etc. mimic the posture we naturally assume when we are sad and inevitably … the loop is initiated. Our bodies signal our brains that we are sad so our brains release / withhold specific neurotransmitters and hormones to align with that state. In turn, that chemical state signals our bodies that we are sad. We loop and we loop and we loop. However, we can use this knowledge to our advantage. It turns out that simply looking up can help break the cycle. We need to put the phone down, step away from the computer, and get off our asses more often if we want to feel less depressed. Check out this Fast Company article – Surprising and Powerful Links Between Posture and Mood.
facebook warrants an honourable mention: My guy recently took a break from social media and (once the initial feelings of anxiety passed) he said he felt dramatically happier. I saw it happen. It was real. He smiled more. His eyes met mine more often. He had more energy. I’m sure part of that was transcending faceSCAPE (a term I have just coined to refer to the pictures we all paint on social media platforms to convince the cyberworld that our lives are pretty damn perfect). However, I am fully convinced that a huge part of his mood shift was the result of the fact that he broke the biofeedback loop by simply lifting his gaze from the screen. So yup … take breaks from those platforms. Not just because of their content but because it will allow you to lift your gaze to the real world and change the downward trajectory of your energy.
let some light hit your retinas: Turns out I’m not making all of this up. Light therapy has been used for years to effectively treat seasonal affective disorder. If you live somewhere like Vancouver where the light disappears for months at a time, you need to be very intentional about making that happen. So … looking up when the sun is shining is not a bad idea when your mood is depressed. And no … it turns out that the ambient light from your phone doesn’t do the trick. You need natural light or light that comes from a special lamp that mimics daylight. Check out this Psychology Today article – Light Therapy Can Help Treat Depression Year Round (bonus … it references a study from the University of British Columbia).
your mom was right … pay attention to your posture: As a yoga teacher and someone with a background in counselling psychology I probably should have put all of this together sooner but … whatever. The more I think about it, the more I know it to be true for me. Standing, moving, rolling my shoulders back and down to lift my heart, looking up, the act of smiling, etc. all make me feel good. (See the picture above for photographic evidence.) Back to the biofeedback loop for a moment … good posture allows for deep breathing as there is lots of room for our lungs to inflate without hitting any kind of compression. This signals to our brain that we are relaxed and at ease. It brings our bodies into ideal alignment which makes everything we do feel a bit more effortless. We remain in our parasympathetic nervous system functioning rather than activating our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. By changing our posture, we can have an immediate and powerful impact on our internal emotional state. Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk that introduced us all to the concept of “power posing” is definitely worth watching (or rewatching) in this context – Your Body Language Shapes who You Are.
putting the puzzle together: Despite it’s dubious inception in the ruthless corporate culture of the 1980s …”fake it til you make it” is not a bad mantra for those of us who struggle with some sort of depression. It all goes back to the biofeedback loop. We can make a positive impact on the sadness loop with our drishti (the point on which we focus our eyes), with light, and with posture.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that these simple actions, in and of themselves, are not enough to cure serious depression or mend a heart that is torn apart with sadness and grief. I know they will not be enough to completely get rid of my own seasonally affected symptoms. I’m just saying they are worth trying and are good tools to have in our toolbox. We can use them to give ourselves little breaks and to check in on whether or not our depressed mood continues to be real or is simply a lingering biochemical trace of sadness that was once genuine.
In my case, I know it these actions will help me tackle the demons that regularly assail me at this time of year. I’m 24 hours into this experiment and have already noticed a bit of a difference. I feel a little lighter, a little happier, a little more hopeful. I feel less weighed down and less consumed by my own thoughts. I’m noticing the world around me just a little more than I had been simply by lifting my eyes more often. I feel more awake and feel myself breathing deeper. I’m optimistic and am grateful for the wake up call I received yesterday.
Dearest andrea. It turns out that you are not invincible. I’m sorry to have to be so blunt but holy shit you are STUBBORN. I don’t know how else to get through to you. I gave you lots of hints along the way, but you actively (petulantly) ignored them all.
I started whispering to you at least 12 years ago when you had that cycling accident. Yeah the one on Lion’s Gate Bridge that happened when you were on your way to work … the one where you bounced off the asphalt during rush hour traffic. The one where you got back on your bike … banged up and bruised and in shock and continued to ride to work. The one where where you wandered into the meeting with blood pouring out of a few different places and apologized for being late. After a few days of feeling sore and stiff, you decided to go to a walk-in clinic. I was pretty impressed at the time. You even took the doctor’s advice and went to physio. ONCE! The appointment took too long and you got bored with the exercises after doing (some of) them at home a couple of times. That was it. You decided you were healed.
Despite my creative and subtle warnings, you carried on for a couple of years … working through the occasional searing jolts of pain that would shoot through your right shoulder and neck … getting super irritated when your shoulder would freeze up completely because you had to support your right elbow with your left hand so you could dry your hair. You’d switch to lighter weights at the gym and would lift in a way that didn’t require you to rotate your shoulder … you’d focus on cardio for a few days until the pain subsided. Pretty smart. (Right?)
Somewhere along the way … when your shoulder had been frozen for a couple of days and you couldn’t turn your head well enough to drive safely … you were walking through your little neighbourhood in Kitsilano and saw a sign for “ashtanga yoga”. Up to that point, you had considered yoga to be something that was done by the peace+love generation in church basements and community centres. But … the shiny, buff, fit-looking young people on the poster caught your eye and (miraculously) permeated your rigid world view. I held my breath and crossed my fingers as you stared at the image and made the decision to give it a try. I was shocked but optimistic. It was a good decision. A great decision. You went once and were hooked. Yog-AH. It took you on a path that increased your flexibility, agility, mobility, concentration, and strength. It brought you into contact with a wonderful community that cared about overall well-being. Those were good days.
But then you inevitably started playing around with the dark side side of yoga … lured by its promise of invincibility and immortality … using it to push aside and mask any signs of weakness. You had developed enough strength and proprioception that you could work around that old shoulder injury. You could find ways to isolate that muscle group and keep doing everything you wanted to do. Sure it still hurt when you pushed through the pain and it would sometimes ache afterwards but … that’s what ice and advil are for. (Right?) I will sincerely never forget those few weeks when you were “recovering” from a broken hand. Why (the fuck) the hospital gave you a removable half-cast is beyond me. You truly sunk to new depths when you kept doing handstands with it on or taking it off before you arrived at the studio so nobody would judge you for practicing with a serious injury. I’m sure everyone was very impressed that you were able to do adho muka svanasana and chaturanga dandasana with just your left arm.(Right?)
Much to your frustration … your injury kept flaring up. Fortuitously (as far as I was concerned), the studio you practiced at shared space with a chiropractor. You walked by his sign at least 73 times before you finally decided it would be worth checking out. You had researched him and found out that he was the official chiropractor for the BC Lions football team and Vancouver Giants hockey team. Other athletes … professional athletes even … went to see him. So you convinced yourself that it would not (necessarily) mean admitting defeat by booking an appointment to see if he could help you out. And he did. He became your back pocket solution for the next couple of years. He was an unwitting abettor of another of your shining moment decisions … that time when you were invited to be part of a student photo shoot for the studio. Your shoulder was completely frozen but you didn’t want to miss the opportunity to participate so you went to see him the day before the 4-hour shoot (that involved holding various poses for extra long so the photographer could get different angles) and again the day after. I saw the final product. I don’t care how much they filtered them and edited those pictures … to me you look completely grey and I see nothing but pain and ego when I look at them.
Since then you’ve become a teacher. Another great decision. I am totally supportive of you furthering your knowledge of the practice and sharing that with others. (Yes … even despite the fact that you decided to go through the intense 200 hour certification program when you were still “recovering” from double pneumonia that nearly took you out. Literally.) I know you love everything about teaching but … it’s time that you learned to role model the other side of yoga. The side that doesn’t involve doing fancy arm balances in classes that don’t call for them just to feel like you’re DOING SOMETHING. You know that’s driven by ego and desperation … a need to prove to yourself that you can still perform at the level you’re used to. It’s over-compensation for the fact that you can no longer do simple poses that require external rotation of the right shoulder (because you have pushed through so much and caused so much damage). It’s time for you to explore and model the side of yoga that doesn’t involving manually moving your right arm and shoulder into positions that cause even more pain … the side that involves backing off and inviting space and fluidity to ease back into your body (a body that has become rigid with over-compensation) … the side that involves listening to what your body truly needs from you.
I whispered for years, but it obviously wasn’t working. You were having fewer and shorter reprieves from the pain. The damage was getting progressively worse because you were refusing to listen to my warnings. I didn’t want to do it, but I had get your attention and call you out on your dumb ass behaviour. It was a displaced rib that finally made you stop. You had no choice. You couldn’t even breathe without tears coming to your eyes. You’d yelp when you tried to put on your coat or rolled over the wrong way in bed. You were (finally) in pain every minute of every day. The x-ray, ultrasound, and MRI results told you what I had been trying to let you know all along. They laid it out for you in black and white – damage in 3 of the 4 muscle groups that make up the rotator cuff. Severe tendinopathy and partial bursal-side tear of the anterior fibres of the supraspinatus. Tendinopathy of the mid and posterior fibres of the supraspinatus. Tendonopathy of the subscapularus. Mild atrophy of the supraspinatus and subscapularis. Mild acromioclavicular degeneration. Fluid in the subacromion subdeltoid bursa. All of that got your attention right? So did the $650 you had to shell out in therapies (chiro, massage, physio) in November and December just so you could actually move and breathe without crying. So did the fact that you have to give up your precious time to continue specialist appointments and therapy for the next few months. So did the fact that you have been referred to a surgeon who specializes in sports injuries in shoulders. How much do you think shoulder surgery will slow you down … gofasterrabbit?
I know it sounds like I’m gloating but I’m not. I’m heart broken. I can’t believe you made me go this far. We need to work together this year … get this sorted out … once and for all … as best as we can. Remember … I am on your side. Don’t lose hope. As awful as it is … you’re not yet at the point of irreversibility. If you take care you will heal. It will take patience and time. It will take deferring to the opinion of the experts who are trying to help you. It will take commitment and effort … a whole different kind of effort than you’re used to giving … an effort that involves being gentle and still rather than forceful and active. It will take listening to me. Closely. Very closely. Let me guide the path for the next little while. I promise I will help you get back to where you want to be. I want you to be healthy and strong and agile and taking full advantage of all that energy you have. Just listen. For a change.
with deep sincere love,
your rotator cuff xoxoxo
monday musings … dealing with some old business that has been silently strangling me and pulling me under to the deepest darkest part of the ocean