It’s 2022, and people are stressed and anxious. After a recent yoga class, some students mentioned how much they appreciated the opportunity to practice presence for 60-minutes and take a break from worrying. I won’t bother reiterating the list of troubling current events. If you’ve read the news, seen the weather reports or paid for groceries lately, you know what I’m talking about.
There’s a saying, ‘anxiety lives in the future, and depression lives in the past.’ I’m not a psychologist, but this makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level. Unproductive worrying about the future or ruminating on the past steals our ability to fully inhabit and enjoy our lives in the here and now. That’s not to say you can’t or shouldn’t think about your past and future. By all means, DO your estate planning, plot to save the planet and go to therapy to process your traumas, but peace cannot be found through worry and rumination.
If peace is to be found anywhere, it’s in the moment you are living NOW.
According to a 2010 Harvard Study, we spend almost half our waking hours thinking about something other than what we’re doing. That’s half the day spent with your mind and body doing different things! And participants reported less happiness when their minds and bodies weren’t aligned with the same task.
People that live in the present tend to be happier and more relaxed. It’s not a stretch to understand why. The ability to let go of heavy overthinking is a gift! Being in the here and now puts us in touch with the wonderful human qualities of openness, creativity, playfulness and positivity.
Don’t get this twisted, though. It’s perfectly natural and healthy for your mind to wander. The key is to be able to be present when your presence matters. And to ensure that you’re not living life absorbed in an imaginary alternative timeline that doesn’t exist. Here are five time-tested techniques for gifting yourself the presence of ‘here and now.’
1) Set an Intention
An intention is a force – like a magnet – that pulls your attention towards wherever you directed it. Set an intention to focus your attention, time and energy on what is happening NOW and you will be more present in the NOW.
Your presence is a powerful force! Your happiness and your ability to create change in the world only exist in the NOW. So, set an intention to stay present. Take any one of these statements (intentions) for a test drive for the day and see how it feels:
“I am here in the present moment. All that exists is now”
“My power to affect change is in the present.”
“My presence is powerful.”
Repeat it to yourself often to focus your attention, time and energy on what is happening in your NOW.
2) Integrate Your Body and Mind
On the most basic level, being present means your mind and body are aligned and oriented around the same task — without distraction, without wanting to be somewhere else, without being ‘in your head’ as you have an ‘out of body’ experience. Have you ever driven to a familiar destination and not remembered any of the journey? That’s an ‘out of body’ experience!
Think of your mind like an untamed puppy. Puppies are famous for getting into mischief. They’ll chew up your furniture or get into the garbage and drag it across the floor if you leave them unattended. Yet, if you give that puppy a bone it will sit quietly and chew. You can align your mind and body by using a mantra. It’s like giving your mind a bone to chew – so IT doesn’t start dragging out the garbage of your past or imagined future.
Try the mantra ‘Just this.’
Anytime you need to bring your mind back into your body and into the present, say ‘Just this… Just this breath… Just this feeling of my feet on the ground … Just this feeling of sunlight on my skin … Just this…
Just try it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what it does for your mood.
3) Tune Into Your Senses
Another way to reel your awareness back into your body is with this quick mindfulness trick, known as the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique. Sit quietly. Tune into your surroundings and notice:
This exercise helps to bring your awareness into THE NOW
4) Tune Into Your Breath
Follow your breath .This is a basic mindfulness meditation practice that settles your body and mind. Your breath acts like an anchor that keeps your awareness tied to the present moment. Your breath is always with you and it’s always happening, so you can tune into it anywhere, anytime you notice your mind wandering away from the NOW. When your mind wanders and internal chatter begins, return to your breath. This trains you to steer and re-focus your attention and calm your thoughts.
Here’s how to come back to the present when you get lost in thought:
1. Feel your breath moving in & out of your nose and your belly rising & falling.
2. Follow the full cycle of each breath: inhale, pause, exhale, pause.
3. Recognize when your mind wanders, and gently nudge your attention back to your breath.
4. Use the phrase “breathing in, aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, aware that I am breathing out” to help yourself stay focused.
5. Tune Into Sensations
Try a Body Scan. Body Scanning invites you to notice how your body is feeling from head to toe — and to adopt an open, welcoming attitude toward every ache, pain, or sensation you might be feeling. When you breathe into these senses, you are learning to sit in the present moment and pay attention to all the physical and emotional feelings that come to light. You’re not trying to change anything; you’re honing your ability to accept and be with things as they are — which is the first step in becoming present.
This teaches us to sit with our feelings — comfortable and uncomfortable. Over time, this helps us to work through all kinds of emotions and circumstances in everyday life. You expand your capacity to be with uncomfortable situations and even find a sense of ease in those moments.
Stay Happy in the Now
When your mind drifts unproductively into the future (worry), into the past (rumination), or into fantasy, you can always re-direct your attention to the here and now. You’re practicing presence when you:
· Tune into your senses and feel what is happening in your body right now.
· Notice your reactions, thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions without being harsh and judgmental.
· Concentrate on a present-moment experience such as your breath, bodily sensations, or listening to the birds sing.
Presence is a gift you give yourself and others. When you’re present, you’re the most potent version of you. You’re engaged with life; you’re happier; you expand your ability to listen; you open up to your creativity and playfulness and are able to fully spend quality time with others.
All these practices are great ways to spend time in the here and now.
1. Matthew A. Killingsworth, Daniel T. Gilbert. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 2010; 330 (6006): 932 DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439
If I asked you what your skeletal muscles do you'd probably say that they give you strength, stability and your ability to move - or something like that. And you'd be right. But that's only part of the picture. Skeletal muscles have another lesser-known and incredibly cool function.
Your skeletal muscles are also secretory organs. What does that mean? Good question. When you move, you contract your muscles. And when you contract your skeletal muscles, they produce and secrete healing proteins called myokines that travel through your bloodstream to your brain and other body organs. Myokines are naturally occurring biochemicals that play a pivotal role in protecting and enhancing your physical and mental health.
The word ‘myokine’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘myo’ and ‘kinesis.’
‘myo’ = muscle
‘kinesis’ = movement
We’ve long known that exercise protects against diseases as varied as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer, to name a few. And we know that it helps with bodily processes as wildly different as immunity, digestion, bone strength, and fat metabolism. And let’s not forget the mental health benefits of exercise, particularly on memory, depression and anxiety. Our understanding that exercise is beneficial isn’t new. It’s been clear all along that when muscles contract, something good happens to every other system in the body. Myokines explain what that something good is and how it works.
Whenever you walk, dance, bike, play soccer, lift weights, run, practice yoga, roller skate, play frisbee, or work in the garden, you contract your muscles, producing and releasing healing myokines into your bloodstream. Myokines then make their way to myokine receptors located in your fat, liver, pancreas, bones, heart, brain cells, and the muscles themselves.
Your muscles act like an incredible self-replenishing medicine chest. Take that in--a self-replenishing medicine chest. I’ll wait…
As we shall see, myokines exert their influence on everything from brain function to bone formation, from muscle growth to tumour growth and more. And all you have to do to access this incredible natural resource is move! Our understanding of myokines—how they are made and how they impact our health expands and influences our understanding of the role of movement, muscle, and fitness in our lives.
THE HUMAN BODY IS DESIGNED TO MOVE!
A basic principle of biology is that structure dictates function.
If you look at the basic structure of the human body, one of the things you’ll notice is that your musculoskeletal system is the largest and most obvious thing about you. It gives you your distinctly human shape. It also gives you strength, stability, and the ability to move. Your body contains an impressive 200+ bones, 300+ joints, and 600+ skeletal muscles. Muscle is the largest tissue in your body. Skeletal muscle makes up about 30 – 40% of your total body mass. Your bones make up another 15%. This suggests that your musculoskeletal system is super important and that humans are designed to move. We rely on movement for our survival.
Even though we can meet via Tinder and Bumble, you still have to move through the world to meet and woo a potential mate to ensure the survival of our species. In the millennia before Skip the Dishes, you would have relied on movement to forage or hunt for food and to ensure that you didn’t become food for a predator, yet you still have to answer the door, reach for the dishes and clean up after yourself. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, wired you so you’d be rewarded by movement. Movement allows you to survive and satiate yourself. But you’re also rewarded for moving by flooding your body with healing myokines. Our changing landscape means that today you have to consciously seek out movement to get access to your self-replenishing medicine chest.
Friends, you were designed to move—and your body and mind function best when you do. There is healing power in movement!
YOUR INNATE HEALING POWERS!
Hundreds of different types of myokines have been identified, and there are, no doubt, more to be discovered! They go by names like BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and LIF (leukemia inhibitory factor), which clue you into their effects. But you don’t need to know any of their names or a medical degree to understand how Myokines can benefit your health. We’ve touched on their benefits, but let’s explore this topic a little more.
Myokines promote muscle growth and improve body composition. They regulate fat metabolism and change where your body stores fat—from abdomen to subcutaneous. Abdominal fat is associated with a variety of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, breast cancer, and more.
The magic of movement and the release of Myokines is:
DON’T LET YOUR MUSCLES GO TO WASTE!
Now that you understand the pivotal role that muscle and myokines play in your overall health, it’s probably pretty clear why movement matters and why you need to maintain muscle mass. Muscle wasting can occur for many reasons, some of them controllable (how much you move) and some of them not (neurological problems). People commonly lose muscle mass because they simply don’t use their muscles enough—which is 100% fixable. It’s also true that as you age, your body composition changes. As early as your 30s or 40s, muscle mass appears to progressively decline over time. This age-related loss of muscle mass is called sarcopenia. Decreased strength and an increase in fatty mass go hand-in-hand with sarcopenia. Since muscle is the source of your miraculous myokines, losing muscle mass isn’t ideal. From a functional standpoint, reduced muscle mass, strength, and power result in reduced mobility, quality of life, and the capacity to recover from illness as you age. From a mental health standpoint reduced muscle mass can also give us the blues.
Luckily, there’s a simple solution. You can counteract sarcopenia with strength training. Sarcopenia is muscle wasting, and strength training is muscle building. It’s a simple enough equation. And no matter how old you are, you are never too old to start. I’ve seen clients in their 90s make gains. Yoga utilizes your body’s own weight to strengthen your body, making it cost-effective and aligned with the efficiency and effectiveness of human design. Movement is your birthright. We’ve been moving since we crawled out of the womb. You don’t need the latest clothing, shoes, or workout gadgets to get started. If you’re a yoga lover, like me, it’s also helpful to supplement your yoga habit with resistance bands, weights, and other movement styles that challenge your strength in different ways. Just make sure you get your doctor’s blessing to begin an exercise program and work with a qualified professional.
When you move, you set off a beautiful cascade of healing biochemistry that benefits your body and mind. Your muscles aren’t just there to move you from house to car to couch to bed. Muscles are your hidden healing power.
Muscle-Organ Crosstalk: The Emerging Role of Myokines
Exercise-Induced Myokinens in Health and Metabolic Diseases
Proof That The Human Body Was Made To Move
Stanford Psychologist Reveals Why Movement is Medicine
“I enjoyed practicing with you online,
but there’s something special about a live yoga class.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this sentiment since yoga studios re-opened. Which got me wondering … What is that thing that makes practicing together feel so magical?
Movement science has the answer.
Essentially, we’re wired to love the feeling of moving together. Whether we’re running for the Cure, marching for Human Rights or moving through Sun Salutations together for peace. When we move together, united around a cause, we tap into something called ‘we-agency’, the sense that we can make a difference in the world together - and it feels beautiful, hopeful and powerful.
Collective activity is at the core of human happiness. That’s not to say you can’t have a good giggle watching cat fashion shows at home alone on Youtube—but we find our bliss in moments of collective effervescence.
This charming term was coined by pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim way back in 1912. Collective effervescence describes the feeling of upliftment, energy, joy and self-transcendence that bubbles up inside us when we sync our movements with strangers on the dance floor or in a Vinyasa Flow class. Deep down, we all want to feel a sense of connection and belonging. Synchronized movement is an accessible and powerful way to capture that feeling.
Yoga philosophy defines suffering as feeling ‘separate’ or ‘disconnected’, In fact, the word ‘yoga’ itself means to ‘yoke together’ or ‘unite.’ The whole aim of yoga is to transcend suffering caused by the idea that we are separate from one another, and to achieve a state of union, a blissful feeling of connectedness with everyone and everything.
During the pandemic, opportunities to experience the sense of connection and meaning that comes from moving and playing together was noticeably absent from our lives. And we did, indeed, suffer. Practicing yoga on zoom was okay—but the collective effervescence we get from moving in a group was missing.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains in her book, “The Joy of Movement”“Our experience of collective effervescence is rooted in our need to cooperate to survive. The neurochemistry that makes moving in unison euphoric also bonds strangers and builds trust…Collective actions remind us what we are part of, and moving in community reminds us where we belong.” (68)
As a dancer/friend of mine always used to say ‘Friends that sweat together stick together.’
Research also shows that regularly experiencing movement together enhances wellbeing above and beyond other types of social connection.
Here I am pictured with friends made at a movement training in Toronto. Over the last 15 years, I've made a lot of wonderful friends through yoga and movement.
Synchronization is another key to experiencing collective joy. When you experience the calm synchronized movement of a flowing yoga sequence where everyone in the room moves and breathes together, a social bond and a kind of group identity are formed. There is both a physical sense of connection, and a sense that the boundary of who you are dissolves. “The feeling of boundaries dissolving is one of the most powerful aspects of collective joy.” says Dr. McGonigal.
Human beings also synchronize with each other on a physiological level. Research suggests that when we feel connected to one another through group activities like singing, clapping and dancing our heartbeats, breathing and brain activity all sync up too - like we're one giant organism. That’s how eager our bodies and brains are to transcend the small self and feel part of something bigger. It’s like when you watch a hypnotic starling murmuration or a school of fish move together, changing direction as though they share a single intuitive mind.
THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER
Part of a yoga teacher’s job is to prepare for a group class by making sure they arrive feeling calm, grounded and emotionally regulated. Why? Because emotions are contagious. Emotional co-regulation is part of a process called neuroception. Neuroception is the subconscious process of scanning our environment for signs of safety and risk. We notice (consciously or unconsciously) whether facial expressions, tones of voice and body language indicate that someone is safe to be around. When we pick up on cues of safety from our environment, we can relax—mentally and physically.
When you experience a beautiful, blissful yoga practice, part of that magical feeling is due to the teacher’s presence. If the teacher has a warm, calming presence they create an environment that allows students to feel safe enough to let go.
If your yoga teacher arrives upset, angry and emotionally dysregulated, the chances are you’re not going to get blissed out that day. If they had a fight with a spouse before class, you might pick up on subtle (or not so subtle) cues that they’re upset. You might hear tension in their voice or sense something off in their demeanor. More obviously, they might react to a ringing cell phone with rage or snap at a student for talking during class. Students need to feel they are in a calm, safe space in order to un-clench and enjoy their yoga experience. The responsibility for creating that peaceful environment falls on the teacher.
The good news is that it’s not just negative emotions that are contagious. Calm is contagious too.
Hopefully, every yoga teacher understands that their emotional state is linked to everyone else’s in the room. And hopefully they prepare for class by making sure they arrive calm, grounded and stable. So they can ‘hold space’ - using their nervous system to help regulate the nervous systems of others.
MAKING MOVEMENT MEANINGFUL
In my experience, students don’t remember your pose sequences. What they do remember are class themes that felt meaningful to them. “I loved that class you taught about feeling grounded. It helped me get through a wild week.” or “Can you teach another class about taking a pause? That was so powerful.
It’s a yoga teacher’s job to create a practice that has a goal, intention or purpose. When we move together for a specific purpose—for example, to tap into heart qualities like compassion, contentment or courage, something special happens. A " group moving in unison is seen by others as united in purpose, connected by shared values, and acting as one…Those in the group feel more powerful, too. When people move together, they view external threats as less fearsome and their opponents as less intimidating… it’s part of why social and political movements organize marches. The collective movement not only demonstrates the strength of its coalition to outsiders but also bolsters the morale of its members. Studies of real-world marches and demonstrations confirm that participating in these events generates feelings of we-agency…” Kelly McGonigal, 87
When we move together as one in the name of peace or freedom or whatever – whether it’s in a march or in a yoga flow, we tap into our collective strength. We feel a sense of shared identity and purpose. We transcend our individual selves and become part of something bigger, more beautiful and more powerful than any one of us on our own. It erases our feelings of separateness. We achieve a state of yoga, a remembering that we are intimately connected to one another. That is the magical thing about moving together.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions