Have you ever wondered why people with addictions can't just stop what they're doing? Have you ever been addicted to something that was hurting you but kept doing it anyway?
A recent study shows that a drug's effect is equally determined by our expectation of it as the actual biochemical changes in the body and brain. See the full article here:
This study focused on the effects of nicotine, but similar results have been found with alcohol and cocaine. Likely, the same is true for many drugs. The beliefs of the person using substances is not always emphasized as an important component of the addiction process, but this evidence suggests we should pay close attention to it. Using this evidence, counselors can intervene in the thinking and belief process as a primary part of treatment, and provide better outcomes for clients earlier in the process of recovery.
For instance, if a person uses cocaine a time or two and experiences the exaggerated sense of confidence and increasd energy the drug is known for, it's likely they will come to expect those effects the next time they take it. They will start to associate using cocaine with the state of being confident and having energy. That association may lead to a belief that confidence comes from using cocaine, even when the drugs' effect begins to change with repeated use into sleeplessness, agression, and irritability.
Beliefs are different than thoughts or feelings. Beliefs are global assessments of the world, ourselves, and others, and are not easily changed once established. Beliefs are established from thoughts that are repetitive and seem to be grounded in reality. Hence, the thought "it's important to be confident and energetic" combined with the feeling "I feel confident and energetic when I do cocaine" turns into the belief that "cocaine can help me with my fundamental problem of lacking confidence and energy." And the individual keeps using because they believe this is true, even when the negative consequences of the drug start to outweigh the perceived positive ones.
Likewise, in recovery, new beliefs are formed and, with reinforcement and social support, can replace old ones to encourage abstinence. For instance:
Thought: "My boss just threatened to fire me, and without my job I'll lose my home."
Feeling: "I'm afraid of losing job and home."
Belief: "Using cocaine can cause me to lose what's most important to me."
These findings are important, not just in the context of how addiction develops, but also in how it's treated and overcome.
What beliefs of yours might feed a negative habit? It can be a helpful question to ponder.
This week we move on to downward facing dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana (pronounced Aw-do Mew-hah Shf-vah-nah-sah- nah... wow that's tricky).
It's the keystone pose of so many sequences in a vinyasa-based practice, and it's great to practice anytime you need a little time-out and energy boost. This pose elongates and releases tension in the entire back of the body, including the calves, ankles, hamstrings, lower back, upper back, neck and top of the head. It is an accessible way to turn yourself upside down, too. Placing the head below the heart keeps the circulatory system toned and running in top form. When the blood flows vigorously, the mind clears, resilience is nurtured, and heavy emotions may lighten. In addition to the back body stretching, downward facing dog allows the mind to behold the world from a new perspective and we see ourselves in a new way.
See the two pictures below for an example of positioning in this pose.
Physical Cues: There are lots of ways to get into downward facing dog, but here's my favorite. Come into Uttansana, standing forward fold. Check out the Week 2 blog for specifics on how to get into it. Bend the knees as deep as you need to place the hands flat on the ground and step both feet back until you are in the shape of an upside down V, usually about 3-4 feet depending on your height. The hands press down firmly into the mat, spreading out through all ten fingers. The head is in line with the biceps, and the neck is relaxed. The shoulder blades press flat against the back and together slightly, to engage the upper arms. The hips lift high toward the sky while the heels search toward the floor. Your heels most likely will not reach the floor yet, and it's ok! The calves and Achilles tendons will open more over time. Take at least 4-5 long inhales and exhales, and feel the back body stretch and open. To come out, I love to set the knees down on the floor, then set the hips to the heels, bringing the upper body to rest on the thighs and forehead toward the ground (Child's Pose). But you can also walk the feet back up to Uttansana, or just come to seated. Lots of options!
Mental Benefits: Have you ever felt stuck in a rut, moving through life in a way that is familiar but unexciting? Maybe you've also had the experience of shaking things up, trying something new, and challenging yourself in a way that brought back energy and excitement in your life? This energy may come from a new job, a new relationship, a new home, a new project, a new daily routine, a new hobby, or anything else that is "new" to you. I liken downward facing dog to that sense of "newness" that brings fresh energy into our lives. This pose gets the circulation flowing, so that fresh energy is carried throughout the body, especially to the brain. Turning ourselves upside down, we literally see the world differently and feel differently about it. We may be able to shift a mood of indifference to interest, or from anger to tolerance. Also, this pose wakes up our physical foundation, the back body. Think about how the back body is intricately engaged in all movements you make throughout the day, whether it's walking, running, resting, or sitting. Your back constantly holds you up and allows you to carry out the tasks required in your daily life. Taking time to invert, stretch, lengthen, and nurture the back also encourages this fresh new mental energy to emerge.
So there we go, downward facing dog. It's a beautiful shape to take!
Next week, let's move on to down dog's complimentary and opposite pose, upward facing dog, or Urdvha Mukha Svanasana.
Happy Wednesday, all! Here's your pose for the week, Utkatasana (Ewt-kah-tah-sah-nah), or chair pose. It's a staple of most yoga practices. As the name implies, the action is sitting down into an imaginary chair. Chairs, of course, are a symbol of comfort, rest, relaxation, and ease. And in this pose, we learn to balance ease with effort.
You may get so overwhelmed you shut down and say nothing. You may say "I don't know." You may leave the room in a panic. You may get angry at them for asking and go on a rant about something else. You may try to answer without making sense. You may feel awful about yourself. You may tell yourself you failed.
Or...before saying or doing anything else, you may remind yourself to breathe. You might take a deep breath and repeat the question to be sure you understand. You might breathe some more, and find that your shoulders relax. You might notice that your breath nurtures you, and the panic might subside. You might suggest further action to take. You might remind yourself that you are worthy, you are prepared, and that it's ok not to know all the answers. You might engage collaboratively with those around you to work toward a common goal.
Utkatasana makes me think of business meetings and how terribly uncomfortable we can sometimes be in chairs! This pose allows us to practice becoming comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Becoming and transforming are the important actions. Breathing with awareness is what transforms the situation, whether your situation is a tense meeting or is simply standing in Utkatasana.
Stand tall in mountain pose. Find strength in the belly by tucking the tail bone under. Slowly bend the knees, moving the tail bone down toward the floor. Keep tucking the tailbone, and engaging the belly. If you'd like, raise the arms above the head with the palms facing one another, while keeping the shoulders relaxed down away from the ears. If your shoulders are tense and uncomfortable, keep the hands at your chest, palms together. Sit as low as you can, while keeping the chest upright, with crown of the head and spine reaching toward the ceiling, rather than forward. Stay for as many breaths as you can breathe calmly. Then straighten the legs for a few breaths, maybe take a standing forward bend (last week's pose, Uttansana), and repeat if desired.
As I described above, Utkatasana offers us a reflection of how we handle static, tense, anxiety- provoking situations. When we are anxious but confined, like in that business meeting (or in traffic, in class, etc), panic can set in. When you practice Utkatasana, challenge yourself to stay in the pose to the point of discomfort just momentarily. Then, take note of your emotional reaction to your discomfort. Using the breath to manage that emotional reaction prepares you for life outside your yoga practice, off the mat. Your next business meeting or traffic jam is fertile ground to apply your breath and emotional awareness.
Namaste! Next week, let's talk about arguably the most widely known yoga pose, downward facing dog. In Sanskrit, it's Adho Mukha Svanasana (say that three times fast! :)
Last week, we learned about Tadasana, or standing mountain pose. This week, we'll move on to Uttanasana, or standing forward bend. Uttanasana (pronounced ew-tawn-ah-sah-nah) is often the pose we practice following Tadasana in our sun salutation sequence.
Stand tall in Tadasana and bring hands to hips. On the inhale, lengthen upward through the spine, keeping the shoulders relaxed down. On the exhale, place the hands on the hips and start to fold forward over the thighs. Use the hands on the hips to gently coax them forward and imagine the pelvis is a bowl spilling forward. Keep the spine straight and back flat as you lengthen down. Release the arms down toward the floor.
Optional: Bend the knees deeply when the hamstrings feel tight. Let the upper body drape over the lower body, resting the chest on bent legs.
If your hamstrings allow straight legs while maintaining a flat back, let the upper body and arms hang down.
Release tension in the head and neck letting it dangle down toward the floor and gaze at the legs. Breathe deeply for a few breaths, imagining tension rolling off the body. Use an inhale to rise back up to standing.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.