In a previous article earlier this year, I talked about change: why it is so difficult to create change and what can be done about it. We discussed awareness as a key principle of initiating change. Awareness and clear seeing of old habits that no longer serve us begins the process of dissolution of these habits and reinforces healthy habits. The mind-body connection has a huge role in transforming unhealthy patterns into healthy ones.
Yoga can help, whether you have a physical practice or choose just to employ the philosophy. In yoga, we call conditioned or habitual
patterns, samskaras. Yoga asana (the physical practice of yoga postures or 'seats') teaches us to 'sit with' what is arising in our mind and our body. What are our habitual ways of reacting? How do we show up in the real world when we face challenge? How we show up on our mat, what we practice every day, the mind- body connections we set, all determine whether a pattern in life will be reinforced or transformed. The change simply starts with awareness. Yoga is no different from the health and lifestyle habits that we practice.
In my naturopathic practice, I see numerous patients who are unhappy with the lifestyle habits they have been practicing. They aren't eating healthy, or not making time
to exercise, or staying in relationships that are unhealthy for them. The first step is guiding them to see the pattern. Awareness creates the ah-ha moment. We see how our thoughts and actions are contributing to a negative health outcome. The next step is setting goals. We need to identify the habits that create the life we want, and work towards them. Most patients find baby steps are easiest and more sustainable. If too many habits are challenged at once, we can become overwhelmed and end up doing nothing at all. They key is to take the next right step, in the right direction, and be content with your effort. This creates momentum and positivity for more positive change to occur. If in every small thought, action or reaction, we can ask ourselves "Is this serving me? Is this in my best intention? Is this contributing to my goal?", then all the moments will add up to big change.
Our state of health is a result of a combination of many influences: genetics, environment, diet, exercise, relationships, thoughts, emotions, addictions,
reactions, etc. The nervous system, immune system, endocrine (hormonal) system, emotions, pain pathways, enteric nervous system (our 'gut brain'), and our mental body (thoughts) are all intricately connected. A disharmony in one system effects all others. A positive change in one system causes a change in all others. We can't separate ourselves into compartmentalized parts. We are not machines. We need to look at the whole. This is also true for setting goals to change habits. If we only address the physical, for example, we won't completely heal the pattern or habit because other systems have not been addressed. This can still be accomplished in baby steps, one thing at a time, but it is essential to look at the whole picture. One of the principle philosophies in naturopathic medicine is to 'treat the whole person in an individualized manner by addressing the root cause'. When patients initially come in to my office, they often have 10 plus health concerns they want to address. Let's say for example, their main concern is weight gain but they also suffer from fatigue, mood fluctuations, body temperature dysregulation, and seem to catch every cold or flu that comes around. If I just gave them something for each symptom (‘this for that’ mentality), they would never fully heal. These concerns are not separate issues. My job is to educate the patient around how these symptoms interrelate. They are all different ways the body is flagging us to look at the underlying disharmony. When we treat the root cause, all symptoms will start to heal concurrently.
You can apply these principles of creating sustainable change to any habit! Not sure where to start? Below, I have outlined a few healthy habits you may want to consider working towards transforming.
1. Food does matter!
The most optimal diet for preventing chronic disease, maintaining a healthy weight, and increasing energy and mental functioning is a whole-foods, mostly plant-based, organic, local diet. This can be further individualized based on your unique make up, but provides a general guideline for health. Regular consumption of whole grains, nuts, seeds, a variety of fruits and vegetables especially dark green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, and healthy quality oils such as hemp, olive, avocado, almond, flax, and coconut to name a few. If my patients are consuming meat and dairy regularly, I always recommend the animals be organically fed, free to roam, hormone and antibiotic free. This diet supports optimal cardiovascular health, decreases inflammation, enhances the immune system, is a rich source of minerals and vitamins, and high in fiber. I also address food sensitivities as these can contribute to inflammation, increased discomfort, and poor absorption of nutrients.
Learn to read labels!
The simpler the ingredient list, the better. Chances are, if you don’t know what an ingredient is, your body doesn’t either and won’t be able to utilize it to create a healthy internal environment.
Create an individualized diet that is optimal for YOU!
Patients will often ask me what I think about current diets like the Zone diet, Bernstein, Paleo, Raw Food Diet, Blood type diet, etc. The truth is, there is scientific evidence for all of these diets and many people experience success in reaching their health goals by following them. However, an equal amount of people try these diets and feel unwell, gain weight, or move further away from health. The point is this: there is no one perfect diet for every person. For most, it takes time to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. You can also use lab tests to determine food sensitivities. Elimination of these will decrease inflammation and stress in the body and lead towards greater health balance. Often times, following a diet based on your ayurvedic dosha or Chinese meridian diagnosis can be beneficial. If you are suffering from a specific physical disharmony/diagnosis, a diet tailored to address the underlying cause might be best. Your Naturopathic Doctor or health care provider can help you determine and experiment with the diet that is right for you. Most importantly, let your body be your guide. It is your best teacher!
Rather than focusing on what you don't want in your life, set your
internal dristi (gaze or focus) on what you DO want. For example, integrating healthy foods into your daily diet, by default, omits unhealthy choices. If half of your dinner plate is green vegetables, you will naturally eat less meat and be less likely to overconsume carbohydrates, or sweets after dinner. Start on a positive note. Being hard on yourself won't get you to your goal any faster. In fact, it's more likely to suck up a lot of the energy you could be using to manifest what you do want.
Drink at least 2L of CLEAN water daily. If you drink coffee, alcohol, or soda (not recommended), you need an extra glass for every dehydrating beverage consumed.
2. Move it or lose it.
Move your body every day. We all know exercise improves mood, helps with sleep, aids in maintaining a healthy weight, and benefits overall health. It is one of the best medicines available to us! If you’re not exercising regularly, check in with why. Is it a time issue? Lack of motivation? Is it painful to exercise? Low energy? Identifying the reasons why we choose not to exercise is the first step. For example, we know that exercise helps to produce endorphins and increase energy, but if you are starting at a point of adrenal fatigue, you may need help to create a movement routine that is suitable for your state of health at this point. Going from exhaustion to trying to run a marathon will likely leave you feeling defeated, more fatigued, and frustrated. I will often design a tailored therapeutic yoga practice for my patients based on their energy level, physical health, underlying health condition, or pain tolerance. Specific practices can be designed for health conditions and dis-ease including stress and fatigue, headaches and migraines, insomnia, anxiety and depression, menopause, PMS, hypertension and heart disease, attention deficit/hyperactivity, chronic pain syndromes, hypermobility or joint laxity, scoliosis, injury prevention and rehabilitation, as well as for performance enhancement. No matter where you are starting from or what your health goals, an exercise program can be tailored for you. If time is the issue, start small. Creating 20 minutes to move your body in the morning can give you more energy, focus, and productivity for your day. It practically creates time! Is it lack of motivation that prevents you from exercising? Join a local hiking group where you can make friends and depend on each other for motivation and accountability. If you have the finances, hire a personal trainer or private yoga therapist to keep you on task. Don’t let excuses get in the way of living the vibrant and healthy life you deserve!
3. Choose to get Un-stuck
If it's not working for you, let it go. You don’t need to keep the jeans that you haven’t worn for ten years, and you don’t need to hold on to the habits that aren’t serving your life any longer. I’ve heard it said that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. Makes sense! Perhaps easier said than done. Again, baby steps. Become aware of the limited pattern or habit. Acknowledge the underlying causes in order to begin to move through them. Take the first step. Shift something. Shift anything, no matter how small. A good friend of mine uses an analogy I have come to love: If there is a vase full of yellow balls and one red ball in the centre, and you want to move the red ball but can’t get to it, start by moving a yellow ball. This will cause a shift in all of the balls in the vase. Eventually the red ball will be affected.
Be accountable. Call yourself on your excuses. No time? We create time for what is important to us. Our bodies are a gift. Health needs to be a priority. Is organic food too expensive? What are you willing to trade off for? Packaged food? Alcohol? Eating out? When you make your health a priority, your body will pay you back ten fold! Any movement in a positive direction is worthwhile. Staying where you are will give you exactly the same outcome.
4. Connect with nature daily
There has been a recent term coined ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a hypothesis that less time in nature has contributed to many of our physical, mental, and emotional health concerns. Coming back to the understanding that WE ARE NATURE is the first step. Nature is in us and all around us. Our bodies cycle with seasons, moon changes, day and night. We are dependent on our environment, and the earth is affected by our every action. When we come back to this remembrance, every choice in our life becomes more healthful and in balance. We eat organic because we understand what pesticides are doing to the state of health of the environment and our own body. We are mindful not to litter (yes, this includes cigarette butts!!!). We walk more instead of driving. We are more mindful of eating and don’t overconsume. An activity that a yoga instructor I know once encouraged is to make time every day to note your ‘nature appreciation moment’. It could be the sun setting over the Bay, the way the snow stays heavy on the branches, noticing a bug on your front porch, the vibrant green moss on the rocks as you hike the Bruce, robins frolicking with each other in the early spring, or whatever else touches your heart. Setting this intention daily, brings us back to nature: our true essence. It brings us into the present moment. It invites us to remember to be grateful for the simple things. All of this naturally augments our state of health on all levels of being: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and energetic.
5. Rest, restore, and nurture dailyAnother helpful tool is to develop a ‘sleep routine’. Many of us push all day and use our relaxation time at night to watch television, catch up on emails or Facebook, or even finish work we didn’t accomplish during the day. This causes the nervous system to go into sympathetic mode (fight or flight response) and leaves us feeling tired but wired and often having difficulty falling or staying asleep. Our body loves routine! Our adrenals thrive on it! Physiologically our stress hormones are optimally lowest around 10 pm (when we should be going to bed) and highest first morning around 6-7am (to give us energy to start the day). Rolling with our natural cycle can give us more energy for our day, a more restful sleep at night, and affect many other systems including mood, weight, and mental clarity. I encourage my patients to begin a sleep routine at least an hour before bedtime. This is a time for calming activities only. A restorative yoga practice in low light, journaling, a slow mindful stroll, meditation, calming music or reading material, or a bath with calming essential oils and epsom salts are great ways to wind down.
Sleep is wonderful to restore, but it's not the only thing we can do. I recommend a minimum of ten minutes of active rest per day. Most people can integrate this even into a busy schedule. Active rest can be accomplished lying on your back or even sitting in a chair. The idea is to actively participate in the rest. Observe your body resting. Watch your breath ebb and flow. Notice the mind if it's busy but without attachment and choose to return to the sensations in the body. Other ways to restore and nurture may include a gentle yoga practice, mindfulness eating, tai chi, time in nature, meditation, and journaling.
Do your best and be content. Our minds need rest too. If your body is resting but your mind is continuously running a story about what you should or could be doing that is more productive, you are not completely resting. A helpful way to slow the mental chatter is to notice the mouse on the wheel and smile at it. Maybe even giggle. The nature of the mind is to think. We don’t need to work so hard to try and stop it. In fact, this can just be more frustrating! Simply noticing the busyness of the mind and having compassion for yourself can begin the process of calming.
6. Be Your Authentic Self. Be Real. Be Open.
For most of us, this is not likely a habit we want to change. Our mental habit tends to revolve around wanting to appear as if we are strong, productive, and have it all together. The truth is that most of us underneath it all are afraid to say that we need
help, love, validation, and reassurance. We think admitting this makes us look weak. I would argue the contrary. Asking for help is one of the most courageous acts we can make. It takes strength to be vulnerable. It takes guts to put ourselves out there and admit we don't have it all together. I am constantly blown away by my patients' courage to tell their story. Most of us have suffered some grief in our lives, have struggles or challenges we are trying to overcome, and feel lost at times. These feelings are all part of the whole picture of health in an individual and need to be addressed and nurtured as well in order for optimal change to occur. Again, changing the physical alone is not enough. We need to address our whole being. This includes taking a closer look at the underlying emotional or mental habits that motivate our lives. Embracing, accepting, and loving all parts of ourselves, just as we are, is one of the keys to becoming more of who we want to be.
Sound like a lot to swallow? Remember, it’s okay to start slowly. Commit to one thing at a time perhaps. Every baby step counts. When we change our lifestyle habits, we can transform our health. You will notice a change on the outer physical level, of course, but what’s more, creating healthy habits also shifts our DNA expression, which influences the state of our health in the future. You might be even more amazed to watch yourself move towards living a more aware and empowered life. You may notice yourself inviting more of what you want into your life - love, energy, healthy relationships, and joy. You could notice that life feels like a little less of a struggle and more fulfilling and enjoyable. All of this, simply by becoming aware of a few subtle changes of habit that make a world of difference! You CAN do it!
Laura is a licensed naturopathic doctor and certified yoga instructor. Her naturopathic practice Awaken Wellness Within is located in the heart of downtown Collingwood. She can be found teaching yoga at Buddha Rider Yoga & Cycle studio.
"As a naturopathic doctor, through education, empowerment, and example, I endeavour to guide patients toward manifesting optimal health and living their most inspired life!"
“As a yoga instructor, my intention is to guide students towards getting in touch with their breath, listening to the innate wisdom of the body, observing the connection of the mind, body and spirit, and awakening the life force within.”