7 Guaranteed Steps To A Good Night’s Sleep

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels  

You’re exhausted. And you’re counting the minutes until you can just collapse into bed. But when you finally lay down your mind races and you can’t relax enough to go to sleep. 

Why is falling asleep so hard for many of us?

Heightened levels of stress and anxiety can make getting to sleep (and staying asleep) a challenge. But it’s not always about stress. You could just have a lot on your mind left over from the day or already prepping your to-do list for tomorrow. Your room is too warm or there’s too much noise. 

So many factors can play into having disrupted sleep. But there are simple steps you can take to transition into deep sleep quicker and easier. 

Here are seven guaranteed tactics to bridge the gap between you and a solid night’s sleep. 

1. Your Bedroom Should Feel Delicious. 

If you’ve had trouble sleeping a problem could be that your bedroom isn’t cutting it. For maximum somniferous effect you want to create a sleep cave of sorts full of linens and things (pun fully intended) that lull you to sleep. 

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine the three things you want your bedroom to be are “quiet, dark, and a little bit cool.” 

The reason for the cooler temperature is that our body temperature naturally decreases during the night. “When you go to sleep,” says H. Craig Heller, PhD, professor of biology at Stanford University, “your set point for body temperature — the temperature your brain is trying to achieve — goes down.”

So you want to create as cool of an atmosphere as makes you comfortable and helps you stay asleep. 

What’s comfortable for each person differs – thus the never ending battle of the sexes for setting the thermostat—but you want to shoot for a room temperature that hovers around 65 degrees

Along with adjusting your thermostat you’ll also want to choose linens, pillows, and a mattress that draw heat away from you. Because, even if you get the room temperature right, your linens and clothes can make you too warm, causing you to overheat during the night. If you naturally run hot, this can spell disaster for a sound sleep.

That means, as much as you may love your memory foam because of how it contours to you, it holds heat. So, buh-bye. Toss ‘em. And replace them with natural fibers that don’t trap heat. 

You’ll want to check out switching your mattress for a cooling model. And for natural sheets—a fantastic and little known natural option is bamboo. Bamboo sheets are deliciously soft and durable. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more luxurious, check out the cotton percale sheets that, because of their tight weave (percale describes the type of weave and not the type of cotton), are so luxuriously soft they earned a spot on our The Best list, which is the definitive repository for the greatest of the great. 

There’s also a new all-natural pillow made from organic cotton and buckwheat that will make giving up that memory foam pillow a painless transaction. Unlike foam or down filling, buckwheat doesn’t collapse under your weight. And you won’t have awake pulling your sweat soaked shirt away from you—the pillow stays cool. 

2: Filter Your Phone Light

We’ve all heard it dozens of times—the light from our phone is bad news as far as sleep is concerned. And we’re like ‘Yeah, uh-huh, scroll, scroll.’ But seriously, when it comes to falling asleep, the light from our phones is doing us more harm than good. 

The problem is that our screens emit short-wavelength blue light that sends signals to our brain that it’s still daylight. A study has shown that this blue light “damages the duration” and “quality of our sleep”. Could be a reason you find it hard to wind down enough to sleep. Just sayin. 

Lisa Ostrin, an assistant professor of Optometry at the University of Houston College, explains, “that blue light prevents special photoreceptor cells in the eye from triggering the release of a sleep hormone.” The hormone she’s talking about is melatonin. Without sufficient melatonin our bodies don’t know to become sleepy.  

Ostrin and a team of researchers conducted a study where they provided participants with special blue-blocking glasses to wear after sun-down. Two weeks after the study began, participants experienced an increase in melatonin production of 58 percent. Not surprisingly, they reported sleeping better. 

But if you can’t really see yourself sporting blue-blocking glasses around your house, then the next best thing is a blue-light filter for your screen.  

3. Be Picky With Screen Time 

Seeing as we’re all on our phones 24/7 telling people not to use their devices before bed is just impractical, lame, and unlikely.

If you’ve done your homework and dimmed your devices with a blue-light filter then the next important thing you can do is choose things to do or watch that you find calming, soothing, or mindless. 

Reason being, according to the National Sleep Foundation, “Using electronic devices before bedtime can be physiologically and psychologically stimulating in ways that can adversely affect your sleep.” To mitigate the stimulation, choose things that are super chill. 

If playing Candy Crush or Pokémon Go are your wind down go-tos, so be it. Or if watching Brooklyn 99 or Parks and Recreation on repeat chills you out, do it. Just hold off on binging Ozark or Breaking Bad until the next day. And skip scrolling through your newsfeed, Facebook, or Twitter feeds which are gloom-and-doom anxiety-inducing mines waiting to explode right before you’re ready to go to sleep. 

Although experts say that watching TV before bed “makes it more difficult to fall asleep”, in my experience, falling asleep while watching a movie is like a no-brainer, it just happens and  it’s a deep sleep. So you do what works for you. 

4. Try Essential Oils. Seriously, They Are (Sometimes) Legit

Essential oils are fantastic for relaxation. Trouble is, certain purveyors of essential oils have been caught making totally unsubstantiated claims about the curative properties of essential oils, telling people to ingest them (please don’t) and claiming they can cure fatal disease (they don’t). DoTERRA, a huge purveyor of essential oils and a multi-level marketing company, was the biggest offender of this and since the crackdown by the FDA has backpedaled and is now training their sales reps not to tell customers that ingesting essential oils will cure their cancer (that’s progress, I guess?). 

Barring the bad name with which quackery sales gimmicks have smeared essential oils, there is ample evidence that scent affects our brains and that essential oils have proven psychological and physiological benefits, as has been shown in numerous studies. One study focused on Intensive Care Unit patients who weren’t sleeping well. After fifteen days of receiving lavender oil through an inhalator the intervention group reported significant improvement in sleep, whereas the control group didn’t.   

Northern California based dermatologist, Cynthia Bailey, MD  explains, “There is definitely credible science behind certain benefits for certain essential oils. But you have to choose wisely, and you cannot use them indiscriminately.”

So bring out all the smell goods—your yummiest candles and your essential oil diffusers—to help you relax into sleep. 

5. Choose The Right Sounds To Unwind 

Remember when people started listening to whale songs, falling rain, or chirping toads to fall asleep? Maybe you even still have that Sharper Image sound maker you got as a gift stored away somewhere, forever buried.  

The effect of sound on our sleep has led to the distinction of various color-coded noises. Stay with me. We all know of white noise—radio or TV static—an unobtrusive continuous hum. But there’s also pink noise, which is akin to those nature sounds mentioned earlier; brown noise—think waterfalls, roaring rivers, or thunder; and black noise—which, weirdly enough is just another word for silence. “Silence” wasn’t a good enough word, apparently. 

White and pink noise have both been shown to help you sleep better. It’s still too soon to say which is better, more research is needed. In the meantime there are plenty of sleep sound machines and apps to help you explore the spectrum of soothing noises. 

Those looking for new ways to wind down are discovering the soothing sounds of binaural beats. The music described as an “auditory illusion” is achieved by layering two different sound frequencies that are allegedly picked up separately through each ear (thus the bi- in binaural). 

Technical stuff aside, listening to binaural beats is utterly calming. There’s nothing there to distract or rile the mind. It’s just chill.  

Another wildly popular option is watching/listening to ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos—those softly spoken words or actions, like hair brushing) are great for falling asleep. The effect is quasi-hypnotic. Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Maybe a playlist of ASMR, wind rustling through leaves, and binaural beats will be your magic sleep cocktail. 

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I failed to mention meditation apps that are also great for getting to sleep. We like Insight Timer—a meditation app perfect for those who aren’t really into meditation. They offer guided meditations of varying lengths. There’s also the Calm app for meditation and sleep. Fun thing about this app, if you’re not feeling meditation, and you’re of the opinion that you’re never too old for “bedtime stories ” or Sleep Stories, as they call them, and I will shamelessly profess that I am of that ilk, then Calm has gently narrated stories to lull you to sleep.  

6. Have Relaxing Night-Time Rituals

A big part of falling asleep easily is tricking the brain into slowing down and readying itself for sleep. Simple night time rituals—things that you probably already do—can flip the switch in your head so that your body detects sleep being near. 

Perhaps the most obvious night-time routine to cultivate is your skincare routine because, unless we’ve just given up completely, we will still wash our faces before bed. Long, tiring days that end in, “I can’t even” notwithstanding. Think of this as time to look forward to, where you get to pamper yourself with all your favorite skin care products like this, and this, and definitely this, and decompress. 

Once you’re all dewy and dulcetly scented drop deeper into relaxation with some gentle stretches. As little as ten minutes spent stretching before bed will ease tense muscles exponentially. 

7. Get The Feels From Sex Or Self-Pleasure

We can’t really do justice to talking about relaxing night time rituals without talking about sex and self-pleasure, the penultimate of relaxation rituals. Much has been written on the topic of how sex improves overall wellbeing. And you don’t need me telling you that reaching orgasm releases a cascade of feel-good hormones, like oxytocin.

But interestingly enough, there is another hormone responsible for that post-coital crash that many slip into and that’s prolactin. You can probably guess by the “lact” that it has to do with producing breastmilk. According to psychiatrist, Sheenie Ambardar, MD, “After orgasm, the hormone prolactin is released, which is responsible for the feelings of relaxation and sleepiness”

Because prolactin is released after orgasm, any orgasm, you can feel the soporific effects with self-pleasure as well. So, keep your favorite toys nearby, ladies. 

This has been substantiated by a study out of the Appleton Institute for Behavioural Science in Australia, reported that while “orgasms with a partner appear to have the most benefit in terms of sleep outcomes, orgasms achieved through self-stimulation can also aid sleep quality and latency.” 

And, as if you needed more reason to pounce on your partner, another study showed that prolactin production after an orgasm reached with a partner was 400% greater than from self-pleasuring. 400%! Numbers don’t lie. 

So if sound sleep has been eluding you, by taking an intentional approach to ending your day and cultivating habits that will promote better sleep, you create an atmosphere of rest all around you. Sounds dreamy, right? Now go try out that whole prolactin business. 

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Tamara Jefferies MA is a freelance wellness writer and holistic counselor/coach based in Long Beach, CA. She has worked in the wellness field since 2005 and holds a Master’s in Somatic Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, several certifications in the specialization of trauma and trauma resolution, and is a certified yoga teacher and holistic practitioner offering transformational counseling to women.

Writing on topics that help women heal, grow, and live fulfilled and happy lives is her passion as is writing for wellness businesses, publications, and brands. She is a regular contributing writer to the wellness brand, The Candidly, and a Brand Ambassador to ADORAtherapy.

Contact her at info@growandthrivewellness.com for all your wellness writing or counseling needs.

Or just fill out the form below.

Be Well!

4 Super Easy Stretches To Help With Your COVID-19-Related Stress and Anxiety

(Article first published on The Candidly.)

Being cooped up in the house with few outlets for our stress and anxiety has us all on edge. We’re constantly learning how to balance productively working from home with educating our children with maintaining our relationships. It’s a lot. And with gyms and yoga studios closed because of the quarantine, our fitness routines have been totally thrown off schedule.

Add in our constantly terrifying news cycle, and you’ve got a recipe for frazzled nerves, stiff necks and shoulders, and tension headaches. Now, more than ever, managing stress is necessary to keep our immune systems functioning properly.

And while exercise, taking a walk, and limiting your news intake are just a few things you can do to stay sane right now, here’s another: stretch.

Yes, really.

Stretching might seem like a simple, semi-useless task we only ever seriously consider before or after working out. But stretching can do more than just prevent an exercise-induced muscle pull. It can actually be soothing. Think of that breath you take when coming out of a deep stretch—doesn’t it kind of feel like the first good breath you’ve taken in years (or months? weeks? How long has this thing been going on for now? Is time just an endless abyss?).

So here are four super easy stretches you can do right now, no equipment needed. You don’t even have to change out of your pajamas.

1. Seated, Forward Extension

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This stretch can be done seated with legs crossed or kneeling while sitting on your heels (if sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable). Once seated comfortably, take a deep breath in as you place your hands on the floor in front of you and slowly “walk” your fingertips away from your body as far as you can.

Not everyone can go all the way down to the floor, as in the photo, and that’s fine. Find your limit and stop there, taking long deep breaths. Let your head drop, relaxing your neck. After a few breaths, see if you can walk your fingertips a little further. Grip the floor with your fingers and feel the stretch down the sides of arms and the length of your back down to your hips.

Now, remaining low to the ground, walk your fingers to the left, leaning your torso to your left side. Go as far as you can to the left, then stop and breathe long and deep. Repeat on the other side.

Finally, with your torso still low, walk your hands back to the center and then slowly walk them back towards your body until you are again sitting upright. Take a deep breath. Exhale.

2. Seated, Spinal Twist

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To transition from sitting cross-legged or kneeling, stretch your legs out in front of you then bend your right leg in a sort of half-butterfly stretch, so that the outside of your leg rests on the ground, your knee is pointed outwards, and your foot is near the left inner thigh. Then bend your left leg so that the knee is pointing up at the ceiling and the bottom of the foot is flat on the floor. Scoot your right leg inwards, so that your right foot (still resting on the floor) is underneath the left knee, and then lift your left foot off the floor, take hold of the ankle, and bring your left foot to rest just outside of your right thigh. I know—that sounded incredibly complicated, but just try to mimic the leg placement in the photo above, if that’s easier.

Take a deep breath in and extend both arms up overhead. Exhale as you turn your torso to the left, bringing your right arm to rest in the space between your left knee and chest. You can bend the elbow (as pictured) or keep the arm straight.

Twist your torso completely and bring your left hand to the floor behind you. Look over your shoulder as far as is comfortable for your eyes and hold the posture. With each exhale, see if you can twist just a bit further.

To come out of the twist, slowly bring your head around first, then unwind the rest of your body. Shake out your legs and transition to the other side.

3. Seated, 1 Leg-Extended, Side Stretch

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Sit with your legs extended in front of you then open them as wide as is comfortable. When you feel a stretch in the groin, stop. Take a bend in your right knee and bring your foot to the inside of your left thigh.

Stretch both arms up overhead as you inhale, then exhale and bend at your hip toward your left leg. Stretch the left arm as far as it can go. If you can grab your toes, great. If not, no problem. Just let your hand rest on your shin. Stretch your right arm up and over your head as far as you can, extending your fingers toward your left foot until you feel the stretch along the side of your body down to your hip.

If you want to deepen the stretch, extend all the way over until you can grab your toes with your right hand. Believe me, it can be done. And if it doesn’t happen today, know that in time, with practice, your flexibility can increase and it can happen.

4. Forward-Fold

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This has to be the most beautiful and unsung hero of stretches. Simply stand up with your feet parallel to each other, hip-width apart, or with big toes touching, heels slightly apart, extend the arms overhead, take a deep breath in, and exhale as you bend forward at the hips, letting your torso come down and allowing your head to hang toward the floor. Breathe long deep breaths and hang out like a rag-doll. Alternatively, you can bend your arms and grab hold of opposite elbows and gently sway from side-to-side.

To experience different intensities of the stretch, gently shift your weight from your heels to the balls of your feet and back again. What I love about this stretch is how gravity helps you and the longer you stay in it the further down you can bend with the eventuality being that your forehead can touch your knees.

For those of you that just muttered ‘Yeah right,’ under your breath, I understand. Some of us have incredibly tight hamstrings that will forbid us from ever reaching the floor. Not a problem. You still get the benefit of the stretch just by allowing your body to hang and extending your fingers towards your toes. If you’d like to feel greater support during the stretch, do it while standing with your back to a wall and let the wall support you.

When you’re ready to come out of the stretch, do it slowly, slowly, slowly, rising up one vertebra at a time, with your head coming up last. If you rise too quickly, you’re likely to get a headrush and feel dizzy. Take a deep breath and feel the difference in your body.

Really savor each stretch. Take as much time as you can; I recommend staying in each stretch for a minimum of three breaths, which is what really works wonders on your stress and anxiety levels.  You’ll feel renewed and refreshed afterward. And maybe you’ll even feel motivated enough to change out of your pajamas.

But, no pressure.

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Tamara Jefferies MA, is a freelance wellness writer and holistic counselor/coach based in Long Beach, CA. She has worked in the wellness field since 2005 and holds a Master’s in Somatic Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, several certifications in the specialization of trauma and trauma resolution, and is a certified yoga teacher and holistic practitioner offering transformational counseling to women.

Writing on topics that help women heal, grow, and live fulfilled and happy lives is her passion as is writing for wellness businesses, publications, and brands. She is a regular contributing writer to the wellness brand, The Candidly and a Brand Ambassador to ADORAtherapy.

Contact her at info@growandthrivewellness.com for all your wellness writing or counseling needs.

Or just fill out the form below.

Be Well!

HelloWellness – October’s Featured Wellness Biz

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About two weeks ago, I received an invitation via LinkedIn to a fundraiser benefiting the National Breast Cancer Foundation. That is how I first came to know of the very cool and relatively new wellness business HelloWellness.

HelloWellness, founded in 2017, hosted the Charity Fitness Festival LA this past Saturday. And on the same day, on the other side of the country, they also hosted a similar charity event in Manhattan.

The faces behind these fantastic events belong to Sarah Casden and Jenna Sands, two friends who saw a need to move influencers, brand sponsors, and their audiences out of the virtual world and into actual spaces where real connections can happen. So they started a business that creates wellness events in L.A., Boston, Chicago, and N.Y.–part social, part educational, all wellness.

The L.A. event was in the ultra-hip West-Hollywood hotel Andaz. From 10 am to 2 pm, in a spacious hall with floor to ceiling windows, people stretched, planked, and sweat on all-natural cork yoga mats provided by event sponsor, Corc Yoga.

There were 20-minute workouts throughout the day that were legit ass-kickers. After doing just one, my legs were shaking and my arms were like, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’

Right outside the event, you could enjoy the hotel’s rooftop pool, bar, and cabanas if you were so inclined. Grabbing an afternoon cocktail at a fitness event didn’t feel quite right, so I abstained. But any other day, I’d say that the rooftop bar is a winner.

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It was a great turn-out for the event – mostly millennials with a few Gen Xers (like myself) and a bit older thrown in the mix. Around the perimeter of the room, people took advantage of the HelloWellness Selfie Wall, organic juice samples, massage therapy, and spray tan stations.

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At some point, I introduced myself to the event manager, Alysia Pope, a bright, friendly, and quite fit young woman. She filled me in on upcoming events in the L.A. area which include a yoga session, a smoothie demo, and Q&A happening in November.

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That would be Alysia, Director of Events, in the pink.

Past events include topics such as, Financial Wellness; Sex, Sleep, and CBD; Love your gut: all things gut health; and The greatest wealth is mental health.

According to the founders, the idea behind HelloWellness is to build community and foster inclusivity.

After attending the event, I will say that they are living their mission.

Why You Should Still Do Yoga Even Though You Hate It

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(Article previously published by the wellness brand The Candidly.)

Let’s be real. Yoga is weird. I know it’s incredibly trendy, and it seems like everyone is doing it but the bottom line is it’s just a semi-bizarre thing to do. It feels strange moving your body in ways that seem wholly unnatural and counter-intuitive—leave “Happy Baby” to actual babies.

And then there are the people. Typically, skinny women outfitted in Lululemon, carrying brightly colored metal water bottles filled with Kangen water because regular water isn’t evolved enough. And then there are the bearded men, with their calf tattoos, and their man buns, all of them also sporting Lululemon. Lululemon is making a shit-ton of money off people easily parted with their cash.

So I hear you. The ick factor is high.

Then there is the 20ish yoga teacher, with her perky Instagram celebrity glow, who speaks in a low, airy voice—the kind of voice that should only ever be used when you’re waking somebody up from a deep sleep or trying to put someone in a deep sleep. They tell you things like “breathe into your ovaries,” and” rotate your inner thighs out toward the wall” (wut?) and then they try to pixie dust you with essential oils to help you “deepen” into your Savasana. Get back, lady. I’m juuuust fine.

As someone who has done yoga for years, taught yoga for years and watched yoga transform to fit the needs of the American consumer, I can attest to the downright eye-rolling annoyingness of it, the hype of it, and the over-priced expense of it. For the longest time classes were around $10. Now the average hovers between $20-25 for a drop-in class. And I get it—overhead. You gotta pay teachers, cover the rent, supply the evolved Kangen water, and have the square footage for all those prayer beads and $65 gauzy tank tops.

But.

If you can put all that noise aside and get down to the essentials of yoga, you will find something that is real, that can be used in everyday life, and that has tremendous value.

These are the things that yoga has taught me that I use several times a week even if I don’t step foot into a yoga class.

Breathe

Just breathe. You’d be surprised if you took the time to notice how many times a day you aren’t breathing. Lots of people hold their breath periodically throughout the day and never notice it. If you’re a woman in the workforce and you’ve had men talk over you or take full credit for your ideas, then you probably hold your breath. A lot.

Holding breath equals holding emotion. Why? Because one way we control our emotions is through our breath. When someone does something that really angers you and you can’t say anything at that moment, what do you do? Usually, you suck in your breath and hold it for a second, then breathe out with clenched teeth. It’s something we do when we’re angry or scared or sad.

Yoga makes you pay attention to your breath. So much so that with time, you will quickly make the connection between a change in your emotions and a change in how you’re breathing.

When I teach, I tell my students that the poses of yoga are secondary. Yoga is about connecting you with your breath. In each pose ask yourself, ‘How am I breathing in this pose? How does my breathing change from one pose to the next?’ When you move with the breath, each posture becomes an expression of that breath.

There are different breathing exercises for different purposes ranging from those that calm you to those that energize. Alternate-nostril breathing is a technique that helps calm you down.

Breath Therapy

Here’s how to do it:

Using your right hand, curl the middle three fingers down against the palm, leaving the pinky and thumb extended. Press your thumb against the right nostril, cutting off the air, and inhale through the left nostril. Hold the breath in as you pinch your nose with both the pinky and the thumb. Then release your thumb, opening the right nostril and exhale through the right side. And repeat, closing by closing the right side with your thumb and inhaling through the left. Do this for a few minutes and I guarantee that you will feel calmer.

You can use this anytime you need it. And don’t worry if you’re in public and others can see you. You don’t know those people and what they think doesn’t matter.

One of the big payoffs to breathing exercises is that they have a direct impact on your ability to focus (more on that in a minute) and the health of your brain. A study reported on in Science Daily from Trinity College Dublin found that “The way we breathe… directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.” The goal of this study was to see if the things yogis and meditation teachers have been saying for years about the benefits of breathing exercises were true. Turns out, yes, y’all!

Knowing how to control your breathing and the ability to transition from regular breathing to a long, deep breath is one of the key take-aways from yoga class for managing daily stress and anxiety.

Focus

Today things move so fast that being able to focus on one thing for even five minutes can feel like a challenge. Yoga teaches us how to focus. During a class, our focus will shift from our breath to our alignment to our gaze.

‘Set your gaze on a spot on the floor in front of you,’ is something you typically hear when doing a balance posture like “Tree Pose”. Where you place your eyes is important because it becomes your focal point. Think about when you drive your car. If you take your eyes off of the road ahead of you and look to your right at an accident on the shoulder, the car will veer slightly to the right. The car follows your gaze just like your focus.

Your practice will only be as good as your focus. If you are distracted and looking at the person on the mat in front of you or looking at your toes thinking, ‘It’s really time for a pedi,’ then you won’t be able to feel the subtle shifts in your body, or your breath. You won’t reach that inner stillness of mind that comes from putting all of your attention on one point.

Paying attention in this way is an act of mindfulness. And mindfulness has been proven to have countless benefits on emotional and psychological health. Studies have proven that mindfulness practices work to bring your attention to the present moment and enhance your ability to focus overall. In a recent article from Positive Psychology, current studies stated that “In the research it was discovered that mindfulness cannot only positively impact attention… [it] can help keep attention stable and help one remain focused on the present.” This is one of the great things about practicing yoga—what you learn on the mat about being mindful and maintaining focus—can be used in your everyday life.

Meditate

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Have you heard the expression, “monkey mind”? It refers to the incessant chatter that goes on in your head. Based on practically nothing, monkey mind can take your emotions on a roller coaster, leave you exhausted, and keep you spouting off at the mouth about things that really don’t matter, that are just neurotic, anxiety-driven nonsense. Pull up old episodes of Felicity. That entire show was monkey mind.

To deal with all the mess that anxiety churns up, we meditate. When it comes to alleviating anxiety and anxious thoughts, meditation has been proven to help tremendously. At the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, gives her take on monkey mind this way, “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power”. In her work, she uses mindfulness meditation practices to help her patients overcome their overpowering thoughts.

Most people go to yoga, twist and bend for about an hour, then bounce. What few yoga teachers teach (in this exercise-based fitness culture that yoga has squeezed itself in) is that yoga was meant to be a preparation for meditation. By exerting the body, you prepare it for stillness. Once in meditation, you can still the mind in a couple of ways. But before I share those, I want to clear up a misconception: It is almost impossible to completely quiet the mind. You may, at best, achieve a moment or two. Rather than silencing the mind, we are giving the mind something to focus on. And here’s how:

  1. Focus on the breath. You can pay attention to the way air flows in and out your nose, feeling the sensations of air passing over your upper lip. Or you can focus on the feeling of your lungs expanding along with your belly on the inhale and the lungs contracting and belly emptying on the exhale. Paying attention to these gentle movements of the body gives the mind just enough to focus on that it slows down and gets quiet.

  2. Mantra. Mantras are sounds or words that convey a meaning or message. “Om” is the most common mantra in the yoga world that you’d most quickly recognize. They can be spoken aloud or silently. Mantras are my go-to for getting out of monkey mind. When I’m stressed, can’t sleep, or when I’m stuck in a loop of catastrophe thinking (a loved one is late getting home- they must be dead on the freeway. You know that one.), mantras always work for me and bring me back to a calm and peaceful place.

Now that we have things like free yoga videos on YouTube, accessibility is much less of an issue. You can do yoga in your living room in your underwear if you want to, and not be bothered with all the unnecessary gobbledygook that yoga comes with. If you can look past all that to the essentials of what yoga was meant to be–a spiritual practice that aligns body and spirit through movement, breath, and meditation—you will find a treasure trove of tools that will carry you through all the days of your life.

Oh, and you may even live longer if you do yoga. So, there’s that.

Why Spiritual Bypass is Problematic

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My partner came home from his weekly yoga group very upset. It seems that on that night the class got into a discussion, prompted by the teacher, on the subject of enemies. Turns out, quite a lot of the people in the class felt that they had enemies. And to the bewilderment of my partner, they shared a common enemy – the rich. Here were these “spiritual people” saying things like whenever they see the house of a wealthy person they want to go up to the front door and slug the person living there.

How is that spiritual?

His experience got me to thinking of the things I’ve seen, experienced, or thought myself as a once self-identified “spiritual seeker” and the ways in which spirituality can be used as a cover for a whole host of unseemly behaviors.

We all come to spirituality with different needs but I think the one thing that a spiritual life is meant to deliver is a state of “Wholeness”. To be a truly spiritual person is to live a life of spiritual integrity, one that reflects this idea of wholeness.

Unfortunately, too often spirituality has been corrupted by being used for selfish purposes or to permit a prolonged adolescence in which one eschews the responsibilities of a healthy adult life.

People are hiding behind the curtain of a spiritual life in avoidance of taking on the responsibilities of this world. Because, look, wouldn’t figuring out how to astral travel be more fun than figuring out a 401k?

I get it.

This is why spirituality can be problematic – because if you are not conscientious in your pursuits, it is far too easy to be seduced by the realm of spirit and lose your grip on all things practical and mundane.

 What Spirituality Is and What It Isn’t

Spirituality offers lessons for being a good person, exhibiting traits such as compassion, tranquility, and love for all beings. Each spiritual path teaches in a slightly different way but there is more overlap than there is divergence and the main tenet within the major spiritual teachings and wisdom traditions is that of Peace. Another is selflessness and abandoning the ego for the benefit of all humankind.

One could argue that spirituality doesn’t teach you practical life skills like how to interview for a job or how to balance a checkbook. Yet what spirituality does teach are ways of being and ways of living day-to-day. It teaches discipline, for example, and the importance of self-mastery – controlling your mind and the impulses of the body.

But there are a number of areas in which “spiritual” people have been witnessed not using these teachings or adhering to the very doctrines they say they live by.

If we take a look at what was happening that night in my partner’s yoga class, for example, you see a yoga teacher prompting a conversation on enemies by first confessing his own problems with people with money. This started a popcorn effect of “Yeah! Me too! I hate those people!” And as it went on anger, hostility, and resentment grew.

One of the foundational books in yoga is the Upanishads. Within it, on the first page in fact, is the Peace Chant, “Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!” One of the most revered prayers in yoga calls for peace to all beings and the universe.

How strange and disturbing then to find a yoga teacher speaking hate into the world and fostering that within his class.

This kind of thing (hating people with more than you) isn’t new and within this context may stem from the misguided application of what has long been revered as a virtue: poverty. Many who devote themselves to a life of asceticism, eschewing worldly comforts, take a vow of poverty.

Depending on the lineage, people may do it be more “Christ-like” or they may do it to turn away from the materialism of this world like the revered guru Ramakrishna who vowed never to touch money in all his life.

With scriptures such as it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven, it’s easy to understand why people have come up with the idea that money is bad and rich people are evil.

However, that is just flat-out wrong thinking. Money is a means to an end. It is an exchange of one thing for another. And it’s necessary to live a life of security of dignity. Granted, there are some unscrupulous people making money in dishonest ways but they are not the norm.

What many people with money find out is that once they have discretionary income it is so much easier to help other people. That is what many of them choose to do. And this kind of charity isn’t limited to the wealthy. A regular person who once knew what it was to be broke and has found their way out of that is often eager to extend a helping hand and assist others in doing better themselves.

Charity and generosity are spiritual virtues – virtues that are applied every day by regular people not claiming to be spiritual.

This misguided valorizing of poverty and the vilifying of riches may explain why so many “spiritual” people are habitually broke and struggling to make ends meet. Living out of your car because you’d rather be destitute than take part in a system that only makes rich people richer isn’t virtuous. It’s dumb. Having to “bum” money or bum rides off your friends and family may lend your life a sheen of just the right amount of melodrama but becoming indebted to those closest to you can build resentment over time and alienate you from those you love.

Yogi Bhajan, the man responsible for bringing Kundalini Yoga to the west taught that Kundalini Yoga was intended for the “householder” – the people who go out and make a living every day. It wasn’t for the ascetics who vowed to be penniless and live their lives meditating in caves.

This yoga was created with the understanding that there is a world outside your door that you must be prepared to interact with. Yogi Bhajan, through his teachings and example (he was a successful businessman) taught that money isn’t evil, that hard work is a virtue, and that creating a cozy home for you and your family is a worthy pursuit.

Ways People Use Spirituality to Avoid Life

One of the great books in the yoga tradition is the Bhagavad Gita. It serves as a timeless metaphor for real-life challenges. In the Gita, we have our hero, Arjuna, who has a moment of crisis upon the battlefield in which he sees his brethren on both sides about to engage in bloody warfare.

He is aided in his time of need by the god Krishna, Lord of Love. The moral of Krishna’s teachings are this – You must live, Arjuna. You cannot remain here paralyzed in fear. Your actions will have consequences. You cannot avoid that but you can choose and make of those consequences either beneficial or detrimental.

Oftentimes you will find people who profess to be spiritual not living by this principle and trying to avoid life. They do this in any number of ways, one of which is “spiritual bypass”. In spiritual bypass, a person avoids dealing with the tougher realities of life by hiding behind their spirituality.

Adyashanti, Buddhist teacher and author of the book The End of Your World shared the story of a man who was doing very well in his spiritual pursuits, taking on greater responsibility and rising higher in his spiritual community all the while allowing his marriage and home life to suffer.

Yet, I have also been guilty of this. Years ago, someone I knew did something that hurt me deeply and I spoke with my spiritual teacher about the incident. Yet when I did, I spoke quickly and rushed to words of forgiveness and understanding. But my teacher told me, “No. Don’t do that. Don’t jump to forgiveness when you haven’t even given yourself time to feel. What she did hurt you didn’t it? Then feel that. You have to let yourself feel pissed off and hurt before you get to forgiveness.”

Had she not said that I surely would have bypassed my more difficult emotions that made me uncomfortable for the transcendent spiritual high ground.

And what of the man whose marriage was in trouble? He was ordered by his guru to stay in his room with his wife during a retreat in which he had intended to work. But his teacher saw what he was doing and made it so that he could not run from his wife but was forced to stay in a room with her and work on their problems.

Nothing comes from running away from your problems but more problems.

Granted life is hard sometimes with feelings and situations that we would sooner not deal with. But spiritual teachings are meant to help us face life with courage not run from our feelings or our responsibilities.

The Trouble with Ego

One of the more ironic guises of spirituality is “spiritual-ego” – ironic since the whole thing is supposed to be about transcending the ego. Listen to the popular spiritual teachers of today – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti – and they will all talk about getting beyond the ego, the self-limiting, self-centered ego.

Spiritual ego is witnessed when someone becomes so puffed up on themselves because they think that being spiritual makes them special. You see this in yoga classes where people are bending themselves this way and that, not as a true practitioner of an ancient tradition but just to show off.

Or you hear it when someone starts speaking and you can hear within their voice this very big “I” as in “I’ve done this cleanse or I’ve done that retreat or I’ve been to that studio and I know that teacher”.

It’s one of the uglier sides of “being spiritual”. Beware the wearer of prayer beads as a bracelet who sips kombucha and dispenses arm-chair spirituality while they show you how popular their yoga pics are on Instagram.

Oh, it’s real.

A person who has advanced in a legitimate spiritual practice is humble. They use the word “we” before “I” and they tend to shy away from the limelight. Such humility comes from the understanding that we all come from one source and this source connects us all.

No person is any better or worse than any other person.

Because we are all one.

The great, most enduring wisdom traditions in the world agree that we emerged from one thing and we will return to this one thing.

To sow discord, to hide from the challenges of life, or to live only for oneself – these are not the ways of spiritual life. And anyone who does these things and calls themselves spiritual needs to take a closer look at themselves and where they are not living in integrity.

Living the life of a truly spiritual person means applying the teachings so that you live your life not with hate but love, not in chaos but harmony, and not with aggression but peace.

 

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Tamara Jefferies is a holistic life coach and wellness writer based in Long Beach, California.  Through her coaching, she guides women at major life crossroads to discover their worth and their way.

To learn more, please visit http://www.tamarajefferies.com and www.evolvinglifeco.com.