And then there was loss…

Awareness Svadhyaya


Empathy is popular these days. At least it is in my circles. It seems like something on how to develop empathy – in ourselves or in our children – crosses my path every few days.

One of the key messages I have taken from all this information about empathy is this: try not to respond to someone’s struggle with anything that starts with “at least”, because empathy rarely takes the form of pointing out the fortunate in someone’s misfortune.

I used to do this a lot. And sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort not to. Pointing out the “positive” comes so easily to me in those moments, but in doing so, I am missing something huge.

The interaction I am having is not about the experience of the person in front of me; it is about the emotions of the person in front of me. Brené Brown has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and she writes:

Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us … Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.

If I focus on the story and the experience, I am missing the opportunity to support the person in front of me.

Shifting gears slightly, another piece I have taken from my explorations into empathy (and emotional intelligence, in general) is the expression: “Feel it to heal it.”

Some emotions are harder to feel: anger, sadness, grief, jealousy, and anxiety, to name a few. The idea behind the expression “feel it to heal it” is that we need to feel our challenging emotions to process them and move through them. If we ignore them or deny them, they stay with us.

I lost a friend recently. I am thinking about misfortune and challenging emotions because of this personal experience.

I’ve noticed how I have embodied the things I have been learning about. I didn’t try to tell a story of why it was okay. It’s not. It’s tragic and awful and heartbreaking. I didn’t try to numb or distract myself from feeling the pain of the loss. Well, full disclosure, I did some Netflix bingeing and I ate enough vegan spelt brownies to change the way my pants fit, but I mostly felt the depression, ache, and sadness. Some things are hard to feel 24/7.

Sitting with it has been new and different and hard.

I notice an absence of personalization. This experience is different too. I haven’t made it about me. I haven’t moved into a place of fear where I am worried that I will die or that my husband will die in a similar way.

So, here I am: feeling loss. To be honest, there is a part of me that keeps thinking, “So, what do I do now? If I am not putting a spin on the story, if I am not making it all about me, if I am not distracting myself, what do I do with this pain and sadness?”

I’m new to moving through emotions in this way, but my best guess is that I just keep feeling it. I practice patience and acceptance. I learn how to take better care of myself. Before this experience, my sense of “feel it to heal it” was that it was a faster process. I had a sense that acknowledging emotions made them go away, but I’m thinking of the other expression: “name it to tame it.” Acknowledgement can take the edge off, but it doesn’t resolve deep emotion. I see now that processing challenging emotions is more of an allowing and an unfolding.

As we allow ourselves to feel our grief, it begins to integrate within us. It never goes away, but we learn, with time, to hold it with more ease.

Accepting Life’s Limitations

Awareness Living Yoga Pain Relief Svadhyaya

When people are living with persistent chronic pain, they very naturally become focused on reducing that pain. In my work with people in chronic pain, I generally encourage people to change this focus. Specifically, I suggest that people focus on being able to do more (which, in pain management jargon, is referred to as increasing function) and improving their quality of life.

If you are interested in learning more about the rationale behind this suggestion, you may enjoy listening to this webinar on Functional Measures for Assessing and Managing People with Chronic Pain with Dr. Jane Ballantyne (1hr).

I invite people to consider that chronic pain is largely a function issue. Every human body has a maximum amount of activity that they can engage in before they end up in an incredible amount of pain. For some human bodies, that amount of activity can be as much as doing a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. For other human bodies, that amount of activity might be simply washing the breakfast dishes or taking a shower.

For people who end up in incredible amounts of pain after something like washing dishes, we want to coach them to slowly increase the amount of activity they are able to perform before their pain flares up.

This podcast with world-renowned pain researcher, Lorimer Moseley, offers insight into this process of slowly changing what the body can tolerate (45min).

For many people, an important part of the healing process is reducing expectations around how much they will be able to do. To clarify what I mean, I ask the people in my programs: what are the things you give up in an effort to get more done?

Here is a list of the most popular answers:

  • Sleep
  • Eating well
  • Self-care
  • Spending time with family and friends

It’s a short list, but I would argue that everything on that list is essential to being a healthy human being.

The research supporting links between sleep and our overall well-being continues to get stronger, and there are incredible links between a lack of sleep and pain. We are only ever going to feel as well as we eat, and caring for ourselves is an essential foundation of being able to meet the demands of life, long-term. We are social creatures. We need human connection, but many of us forgo opportunities to spend time with others in exchange for getting more done.

While many of us are already doing more than is sustainable, we also feel like we like we still have way too much to do, like we are just constantly trying to keep up. We want to take care of ourselves, eat well, rest well, and see our loved ones, but we also want to get sh*t done. How do we do both? How do we find balance?

I have gotten a lot better at finding balance over the years, and for me, the answers have largely come in the form of practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. (Though a husband who has a very low tolerance for “all business Sarah”, as he calls it, has also played a role.) If I were to summarize the way that my yoga practice has helped me to decrease my expectations around function, I’d say:

  • Practicing yoga has chipped away at an ingrained belief that we are what we do, that my productivity is my worth. Yoga has a way of teaching us that we are who we are; we are kind, compassionate, wise, and generous beings who are inherently worthy of love and belonging.
  • The tools of yoga have deepened my body awareness and allowed me to become much more aware of how I am being impacted by the choices I make. I notice that crappy food makes me feel crappy. I notice that upsetting movies really upset me. I notice the moments where I can choose to feel more ease. I notice that I am happier when life is slower.

I continue to work on being at peace with my sense that there is too much to do. Quite likely, I will feel this way for the rest of my life. I can choose to respond with urgency and try to get more and more done, or I can choose to respond with playful laughter and focus on enjoying whatever thing I am actually doing right now.

Whenever I die, there will be things left undone. I can resist that or I can accept it. The challenge of my practice is to continue to choose the path of acceptance because it brings me infinitely more joy.

Parenthood, Bathrooms & Flying Monkeys

Living Yoga Parenthood Svadhyaya

Parenthood has been like playing in the gold medal game of a high-level sport. But the sport isn’t hockey or soccer, it is patience. It is emotional awareness and emotional resilience. It is presence and mindfulness. It is empathy and compassion. And the game isn’t a few hours, it is all the time. You might get a timeout to go to the bathroom, but before you know it, a little fist is pounding on the door and you’re hearing, “Mommy!”

Back to the game.

And I’m in it. I get exhausted and frustrated and discouraged, but when it comes down to it, I eat this stuff up. I love being challenged to become more patient, more compassionate, more empathetic, more mindful, more present, more aware, and more resilient. I live for this stuff. When I rock this stuff, I feel like I am rocking life.

When I don’t, I usually need a timeout in the bathroom.

Time in the bathroom became sacred in our house. Until we read a book on potty training that said we should let our daughter watch us go to normalize the behaviour. But, what about timeouts?!

Anyway, I digress. There is an aspect of the yoga practice called Svadhyaya, and it is often translated into English as “self-study”. When I think about practicing yoga in the midst of parenthood, Svadhyaya is the aspect of the practice that feels most prominent to me, and I had an interesting revelation about myself in the context of putting my daughter to bed.

We have a very consistent routine before putting our daughter down to sleep. It has evolved as she has grown older to include flying her stuffed monkey around her room to her and then both she and the monkey “blast off to the sky” (we pick her up and raise her so she can touch her monkey to the ceiling). My husband developed this part of the routine, and the first few times I was putting my daughter down after this evolution of the routine, I avoided the blast off because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get her high enough for the monkey to touch the ceiling.

Eventually, I gave in to requests for the blast off, and as predicted, the monkey fell short of touching the ceiling. But here is the part I didn’t predict: she didn’t care at all. She was excited, and she had a huge smile on her face. She didn’t care about touching the ceiling. It was my story that the point was to touch the ceiling.

I learned something about the stories that I tend to tell myself about what matters, and I am trying to change those stories. I now do regular blast offs, always fall short of getting the monkey to the ceiling, and share lots of laughs and smiles with my daughter as I do. She taught me to tell a different story: that the point is to be playful.