26 October 2013

Yoga and Chiropractic Care: Gentle, Complementary Ways to Heal Your Body

Dr. Ellen Wolk is a Waltham-based chiropractor I had the pleasure of meeting a few months back. Since that time we've had some fascinating discussions about how yoga and chiropractic care complement each other to encourage the body to heal itself, and Ellen has dispelled many misconceptions that I know I had about chiropractors! I've been personally adjusted by Dr. Wolk several times, and I was thoroughly impressed by her gentle touch and the lasting results, especially around a hip imbalance that has plagued me--and my yoga practice--for years.

In this guest blog, Dr. Wolk answers a few of my burning questions about chiropractors, how chiropractic care works, and how it jives with yoga. Isn't it fortunate that there are so many choices when it comes to self-care, health and wellness? Hope you'll find this post interesting and explore a new modality in the near future. :-)
  1. How did your interest in chiropractic care begin? 
    I had always been interested in healing, even as a young child.  Then in my 20's I had a fairly serious car accident and experienced whiplash and shoulder injuries.  I went the "traditional" route of seeing an orthopedist who gave me drugs that did nothing but make me sick to my stomach. He also sent me for physical therapy, which felt good but months later I was still struggling with the effects from this accident.  I finally went to see a chiropractor and was astonished at how quickly I felt better!  I began talking with my chiropractor and decided that this was where my interest in healing was meant to go.

  2. When I first heard the word "chiropractor", I thought of people who crunch you and crack your back. Yet, your approach is gentle, nothing like that perception.  What do you want people to know about chiropractic care that is different than they might assume? 
    First off, I specialize in "gentle" chiropractic care which means I use only low and non-force adjusting techniques.  I have an instrument that I use that uses very gentle impulsing to move vertebrae and other bones back into alignment just enough to get the pressure off the nerves, then the body can heal itself.  I also make non force adjustments using my thumbs and use muscle work to relax the muscles so the adjustments can hold better.   People feel VERY relaxed with these techniques that are so gentle yet very specific.   There is no popping, snapping or cracking.  What many people don't realize is that the major premise behind chiropractic is that the body can heal itself.  However, when you have pressure on the nerves (also known as "nerve interference" or "subluxation") the body can NOT heal. So, we are freeing up the body's natural ability to heal itself. And the body can heal from amazing things when it has proper nerve flow.  The profession of chiropractic began when a janitor in D.D. Palmer's building in Davenport, Iowa, was checked by D.D. and had his hearing restored with an adjustment.  Yes,  a vertebra was found out of place; it was the vertebra that provides nerve supply to the ears so chiropractic is really about full body healing.  Pain may be in the low back, the neck, the arm, headaches, etc. but the nerves that are causing that pain to let you know the body is not getting proper nerve supply also supply every organ, muscle and gland in the body. This is why people are often surprised to find their allergies, fatigue, sinuses, PMS, reflux, etc.,  improve along with their spinal or joint complaints.  The only thing that chiropractors "treat" is nerve interference; this however, has a major effect on everything in the body.  With 100% nerve supply we have the best chance for full and robust health--and who doesn't want that!!!

  3. What is the most common issue you see in your patients, and how do you help them heal? 
    Nerve interference can occur anywhere in the spine or our joints.  I would say that the most common symptoms that bring patients in to see me are low back pain and shoulder/arm/hand problems (numbness, tingling, pain down arms/hands).  A big part of both those complaints is related to folks sitting on computers all day at work.  Symptoms are most often what bring folks into a chiropractor but then they learn how good they can feel without constant nerve interference in their bodies and often will continue to get adjusted on some regular basis in order to stay healthy,  in balance and prevent bigger problems from recurring.

  4. You do yoga and meditate. What are your thoughts about the relationship between chiropractic care and yoga?  
    Chiropractic and Yoga are a terrific combination. I know that I personally find that I hold my adjustments better when I have some kind of regular yoga practice.  I find the same with my patients. Especially, as we age, yoga is so great for maintaining flexibility, for balance and in general, to help our bodies deal better with stress.  Meditation is also wonderful to help with "de-stressing" our minds and bodies.  Stress is what causes "nerve interference", be it physical, chemical or mental/emotional stress.  Our muscles tighten up in response to stress and the job of muscles is to move bones.  Once bones in the spine ("vertebrae") move far enough out of place, they put pressure on nerves and the body will at all costs try to protect that nerve.  The way the body protects the nerve is by tightening (sometimes "spasming") muscles  and creating swelling around that area--none of this feels good, but it will limit our ability to move fully or to move with comfort so we won't create further pressure in an area where nerve interference already exists.  Anything that will reduce stress on our  bodies and minds including chiropractic adjustments, yoga and meditation will help our bodies have less nerve interference.  Chiropractic care can allow bodies to have more "ease" in doing poses.  Sometimes yogis find that one side is much tighter than the other, this can often be due to muscle tension resulting from nerve interference so many yogis see me for care and find more ease in their practice.

  5. Many people today live fast-paced lives and are extremely busy.  How do you work with people who think they just don't have time to take care of themselves? 
    This is VERY common. Most of us live lives that are extremely fast-paced and busy. Taking 15 minutes out of that busy life, on a regular basis, to make sure your nervous system is functioning at 100%, allows the body to better deal with the constant stress coming at it and for folks to be as healthy as possible.  The nervous system controls all other systems of the body so if someone is under constant stress eventually their immune system will not be able to work at 100% and they will be more prone to getting sick.  The nervous system controls the immune system.  So, often my patients who get adjusted regularly seem to get sick much less frequently because their bodies can work as well as possible to fight illness.  First thing I do if I am feeling run down or perhaps something is "off" in how i am feeling, is get adjusted.  Yoga can help with decreasing the stress load on the body.

  6. If someone doesn't have an acute problem, would they still benefit from a chiropractic session? 
    ABSOLUTELY!  I have many patients who seem me for what is called "Wellness Care".  This means they are past any acute problem/symptoms and we are able to address the root cause of the problem--nerve interference (also known as "subluxation").  In this way we are able to get them past the symptoms (Symptoms are the last thing to show up and the first thing to go away, when there is a problem.  Bear in mind, that "lack of symptoms" is not health.), get them healthy and keep them well. PREVENTION really is the key.  In the same way we want our dentist to find a cavity BEFORE we have intense pain, we want to find nerve interference, BEFORE your body has to let you know with intense pain.  I would say that most patients come due to an acute problem/pain.  When they see the many positive changes in their health that come from getting adjusted regularly, often they come to understand that they are healthier with getting adjusted and want to stay that way.

  7. What would you recommend to people to have a healthier spine?
    Get adjusted and MOVE (yoga is great for that).  Don't sit a lot. Stay hydrated.

Dr. Ellen Wolk is conveniently located in Waltham.  She can be reached by phone at 781-894-4890 or by email at: drgentle@verizon.net. If you want to know if chiropractic care could help you or if you have questions, a FREE consultation is always available. Start on the road to better health NOW!

22 October 2013

Butternut Squash & Leek Soup

  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 butternut squash (cut lengthwise)
  • 1 leek
  • 3 scallions
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic or 1 Tbsp chopped garlic from a jar
  • The tops from one fennel bulb
  • 2 c water
  • Salt and peppa
To soften:
  • Roast the squash in the oven until really soft. Cool until you can scoop the innards into a bowl.
  • Roughly chop the garlic (if fresh), leek, the scallions, and the fennel tops. Then heat a medium-sized pan or wok over medium heat, adding a few Tbsps of olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the garlic, scallions, leek, and fennel. Sauté until they soften.
To soupify:
  • Place the quash innards and the sauté mixture into a pot. Add the water, salt and pepper.
  • Cook on medium-high heat for 30-45 minutes, or until everything is squishy.
  • Place near soup mixture into a blender (I love my Vitamix!). Run it through until the soup reaches your desired consistency. (I did mine by moving slow through variable speeds 1-10 and then quickly back down.)
  • Ladle into a bowl and ENJOY!

18 September 2013

Space Expectations (Chapter 7)

Here's chapter 7 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.”
- Eli Khamarov -

Whether we realize it or not, many of us are affected by expectations we have for our physical spaces. For example, we might expect a vacation resort to induce a state of deep relaxation in our overworked mental space. Prior experiences with a physical space might cause us to try and recreate a feeling we've previously experienced there (with varying degrees of success). Or, not understanding what is expected of us in a space might cause some discomfort. Understanding why we have certain expectations of physical spaces, and adjusting the thoughts in our internal spaces can help, and set us up for new adventures we may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.

Navigating Spaces

My friend Vianne and I are planners. Whether it’s for dinner, dancing, or other activities, we mutually agree on when and where we get together—very much in advance. My husband is a planner too, so Vianne has also gotten used to receiving invitations to our gatherings, along with a list of suggestions about what would be helpful for her to bring. So during Independence Day weekend, when Vianne and I received a text message from our friend Craig about an impromptu cookout at his place, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Text messages between the three of us flew by: between he and I and she and he, trying to ascertain when the event would start and what we should bring; and between she and I, expressing frustration over Craig's confusing or nonexistent responses to our questions. We wondered: did he think we would bring food and contribute to its preparation? Or, was he wanting us to just show up at his house and allow him to host? I don’t think Craig had any expectations for us, yet we were troubled by all this uncertainty. At dinner one night after Craig's gathering, I asked Vianne whether we would have minded if he told us he expected help. Her response was, “No, not at all.” Then I asked, “And if he wanted us to sit back and relax so he could pamper us, would that have been OK too?” Her response, “Of course.” This got me thinking—if either outcome was fine (and in actuality, we did a little bit of both), why did it cause us so much angst beforehand? Why did we feel so strongly like we needed to know what to expect when we were visiting Craig’s house?
When I told this story to my friend Paige, she put her finger on it: Vianne and I needed to know what to expect in Craig’s space because we didn’t want to “get it wrong.” See, Vianne, Paige, and I have all experienced significant uncertainties growing up, which means that as adults, we try to avoid it at all costs. When we aren’t clearly told what to expect, the children in us still believe we might do something inappropriate, or won’t be prepared for or live up to what is expected of us—and we’ll suffer the consequences. Whether this means people will cease liking us and wanting spend time with us, we’ll get in trouble, or be humiliated, these concerns are not at all rooted in the present day.
When Vianne and I chatted more about this, we decided we needed a way to regain some balance in such situations—in other words, one of us needed to cue the other so we could recognize when we were truly curious and wanting to be helpful, versus when we were being neurotic! This would require moving the amount of consciousness we had of ourselves after the fact to when we first found ourselves getting into such a state, which is easier said than done. In retrospect, calling her and talking it through to see how we really felt about each alternative could have helped us both discover that either option was fine, and that our worry wasn’t really about what it appeared to be about.
A more significant issue for me about Craig's impromptu invite was whether to go at all. See, when I received his text mid-morning that I could head over any time that afternoon to enjoy food, drink, and the lake behind his house on what really was a gorgeous day, it actually stressed me out. I knew Craig wanted to entertain in his new home, but my husband and I had already made a slew of other plans. I went into a tailspin about what to do with my “time space”, for which I already had some pretty high expectations. In addition to my normal morning routine of journaling, working out and meditating, I had plans to work on this book, and we had a whole chicken in the fridge, on which we planned to try out a rotisserie attachment for the grill, since I had given it to my husband as a birthday present. It was supposed to rain on Monday, so Sunday (the day of Craig’s cookout) was the only day we had the time required to actually rotisserie a chicken! I spent what felt like hours going back and forth, evaluating pros and cons, trying to figure out the best thing do to: act spontaneously and change my plans, or deny Craig’s request because it was too last minute, and potentially miss out on a fun time?
Looking back the whole situation sounds quite ridiculous, but at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. As I said, I am a planner, and there’s something oddly rewarding to me about making a list of “to do’s” and crossing things off throughout the day. This was instilled in me early in life—even as a young child, I had a long list of chores to complete, after which completing I would get some recognition from my parents. Logically I recognize that I don't need their approval now, and that I could stand to be more flexible, but old habits die hard! Thanks to my husband’s extreme flexibility with our plans and Vianne’s encouragement to go with her, we did all end up going to Craig’s party. We had a great time, and Monday turned out to be sunny enough for us to rotisserie the chicken after all!

Thought Experiments
  • Consider finding or writing an affirmation that you can repeat to help you be open to new experiences in a physical space, without having to know exactly what’s going to happen. These can be as simple as: “I am safe and open to new experiences.” or “Everything is OK.”
  • If you find yourself getting caught up in overly regimented ideas about how your day should go, ask yourself: “If I don't get this task done, what is the worst that will happen?” Or, “What will I miss out on if I don’t adjust my plans?” Question your assumptions about what you have to get done, and who are really doing these things for. If you're not doing them for yourself or someone currently in your life, consider whether following your plans to the letter will give you the satisfaction or approval you're really seeking.
  • Limit yourself to doing between one and three tasks on your “to do” list per day. You may find you accomplish more than that anyway, but you will also feel freedom—more mental and emotional space to help you focus, and less resentment about how busy you are!

Transferring Expectations across Spaces

Every year, my company treats its employees to a weekend outing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This outing includes accommodations for our families, live music, and plenty of food and drink. The first year I went to the outing, I brought my boyfriend, Jason. The series of events that unfolded are still, almost five years later, not comical. We underestimated traffic, turning the three hour trip into something like seven. Our first hotel room smelled strongly of mold, and when we went to open the slider door to postpone dealing with the issue until morning, we discovered a whole army of spiders congregating around the handle! After driving back to the front desk securing a new key, and driving to a new building, we stared in amazement at a row of rooms numbered seven, eight, and ten, feeling like we were in some bizarro world with our key labeled “#9”. Back at the front desk we were told our room was tucked back in a corner we’d missed. The next day we tried to do several activities, all of which were thwarted for various reasons. I did end up having a lovely lunch of lobster roll and chips, and we shared a milkshake for dessert. Unfortunately, this was before I realized that my body was starting to become intolerant to lobster—violently intolerant. My stomach twisted and pulsed for the rest of the day, which I spent almost entirely in room #9’s bathroom. Saturday night I tried to be a trooper and get ready for the big feast (so Jason could get something to eat). This required us to drive a half an hour to the main hotel, during which my insides felt like they were going to burst, and I was deep breathing as if in labor. We had to park the car about a mile away, and walk up a steep hill or take the shuttle. Since I couldn’t wait for the shuttle, we raced up the hill (me with a sprained ankle that wasn’t healing well to begin with). At the top, I made a bee line for the restroom and told Jason to get some food. I was able to make a quick appearance in the dining room to tell him we had to leave, and then a similar drive back to our room ensued. Obviously, neither of us had very much fun!
The following year I didn’t go to the outing, and felt completely comfortable with my decision. The year after that, I found myself in a quandary. I was dating a co-worker who had been with the company for almost fifteen years. He really enjoyed the outing and wanted me to go with him. He had seniority and would get a room in the main hotel, so there would be no driving back and forth. But even after two years, I still had all the horrible memories to overcome—my default expectation was that if I went, I’d be absolutely miserable. But because it was important to him, I decided to see what I could do to take my experience of this space from horrible to truly fun and relaxing. After all, this was a free weekend vacation at a beautiful resort in the mountains—something most people would pay a lot of money for. I found a restaurant with an interesting martini menu to visit the Friday evening we arrived, and arranged for a colleague and her husband to meet us there for dinner. Since it had been a long day of working and passenger-ing (my husband did the driving), I decided that when we got back I would take some of the chill out of the mountain air by making use of our room’s lavish fireplace. Thoughts of curling up on the sofa with a blanket and a good book made me smile with anticipation. In fact, this reminded me of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox Massachusetts, where I try to go every year for some rest and relaxation. I figured that if I could do some Kripalu-like relaxing at this resort, I could definitely make the outing into something I would enjoy!
Since we were in the main hotel, our room was “near the action”—right over the action, actually. The music was loud, but I simply adjusted the volume of the Chinese bamboo flute music streaming from my iPod dock, and continued to read just fine. When my eyes started to get heavy around eleven o’clock, I decided I would turn in. Unfortunately, no amount of effort on my part (and there were several different attempts to be resourceful!) would stop the bass from reverberating through every cell in my body, mercilessly chasing sleep away. My husband came in around one in the morning (when the party ended), and I was finally able to sleep. What I realized the next morning was that with best intentions, I tried to use the space in a way that conflicted with its clearly designated weekend purpose, which was to party with fellow co-workers. I’m happy to say that I learned from my experience—the next night I had drinks and danced badly to bad music with my colleagues, and I had a great time! My understanding (and acceptance) of how this physical space would be used allowed me to flow with the current, rather than against it. And sometimes, you just need to do that!

Transferring expectations across spaces apparently is a very difficult thing to do, even when a whole group of people is trying to make it happen. Every Tuesday night for as long as I can remember, a West Coast Swing dance is held at the Elks Lodge in Arlington, Massachusetts. This is a small space, but usually gets a good crowd. On the left side of the room there are three rows of chairs lined up, on which dancers put their jackets and under which they leave their street shoes. It’s a single file in, single file out kind of thing, and you’re inevitably in someone’s way. Toward the front of the room, where you enter, is the table where you are greeted and where you pay, and slightly behind that, the table with the DJ’s equipment. On the right is a small bar. There’s nowhere to stand and have a conversation without being in the way or being relegated to the dark alley of chairs. The floor can get sticky, wreaking havoc on one’s knees. Most of the year it feels like you’re dancing in a sauna, regardless of attempts to get the air conditioning working.
To their credit the Elks started updating and renovating the space, and at one point we needed to find a temporary place to dance. For a few weeks, the Arlington dance was held at a nearby Elks Lodge in Lexington, which for all intents and purposes, was a superior space. It was much larger, the ceilings were higher, with round tables and chairs spread out on one side so people could hang out. Although the quality of the floor was still variable, it wasn’t as hot and sweaty as Arlington. The dances were held on the same night, at the same time, and with the same DJs—yet, it lacked the same energy as the Arlington space! As I sat in the back of the hall at a table with my friend Jason, we got to talking about it, and theorized that having too much space actually killed the vibe. Because it’s small and there’s nowhere really to congregate, its very nature pushes people to get on the floor and just dance. Plus, while gross, the whole concept of being in a sweaty, lackluster space together is a mild form of mutual suffering that bonds dancers. Just the “ugh, I’m so gross!” comments one hears and makes to others creates a feeling of being in this “terrible” situation together. By the nature of the space, Arlington forces intimacy, and that intimacy alone makes for a great night!

Thought Experiments
  • What physical spaces do you have negative associations with, or bring up strong feelings for you? Can you identify the circumstances that lead to your discomfort?
  • If it’s not possible to recall any event that would explain how you feel about a space (I have a fear of high spaces that’s like this), give yourself the emotional to accept and embrace your fears or concerns. See how it feels to be OK with that!
  • Experiment with making small changes when you’re in difficult spaces to make them more manageable for you, like the dinner I organized on the way to my company’s outing. Or, try acknowledging what happened there (and how you felt about it)—then, as if taking an eraser to a chalkboard, visualize wiping the slate clean so you can be more open to new experiences there.
  • List some major characteristics of your favorite spaces. Consider whether it’s realistic or possible to bring some of them into spaces you like less. If it isn’t, think about what work you can do to your other (i.e. mental and emotional) spaces to increase your enjoyment.
  • Is there a physical space you’re trying to use in a way that’s in conflict with its intent? Is this dissonance negatively impacting you in any way? How would it feel to let go of the expectations in your internal spaces, and flow within the physical space instead?

Working through Discomfort in Spaces

After watching too many episodes of L.A. Ink and seeing too many women in yoga class with beautiful artwork on their bodies, I decided that I wanted to get a tattoo. This meant I also had to decide what to get and where to put it, find someone who could translate the concept in my mind to something tangible, and locate a reputable tattoo parlor and artist to do the work. A year or so after I had the idea, things fell into place and I met with a woman name Julia, who did both custom artwork and tattooing. Since she had her own shop close by, I decided I would get the tattoo as a present for my thirty-sixth birthday. The artwork would be ready on my appointment day, and I was assured that Julia and I would work together to make any needed changes. Then she’d do the tattooing. Although my husband was supportive, I asked my close friend Paige to accompany me because I felt like I could talk with her about anything and everything, and I might need some distraction during the procedure.
A week or so before my appointment, I shared some nervousness I had about getting the tattoo with Paige. What if the artwork wasn’t right and Julia didn’t understand what I wanted? How much did getting a tattoo really hurt? Paige responded in stern, motherly tones that I needed to really think about whether this was something I wanted to do. I was initially puzzled by her response, because I didn’t think I was feeling that anxious about it, but given how well she knew me I thought it was worth considering. Was I ignoring some a “gut feeling” that was telling me I was about to make a big mistake? Although I asked myself these questions, and chatted with my husband about it, I was never able to identify what Paige seemed to see. I searched and searched, but didn’t feel seriously anxious about it—it was more like a curious excitement, with some fear of not knowing what to expect. I kept the appointment, telling Paige I thought I really was fine about it.
The morning of the appointment, Paige drove me to Julia’s tattoo shop but seemed a bit distracted. Since she was in the middle of preparations for a cross country move at the time, I chocked this up to the fact that she had a lot on her mind. But as soon as we arrived and I started filling out paperwork in the waiting area, I could see her taking in the décor, which was as you might expect—lots of strange pictures and trinkets attached to the walls, including some skeletons with wings. Everyone working there was covered head to toe with art. It was difficult to ignore the fact that Paige felt uncomfortable in this space, so I tried to acknowledge her unstated feelings. I told her how nice Julia had been during my consultation, and about a dear, sweet friend I’d had whose style totally aligned with the look of this shop. Paige nodded but remained pretty quiet.
A few minutes later, I got to see the artwork and to my dismay, it wasn’t what I wanted at all. Yet, as Julia and I started collaborating, the piece started to take shape. After ten minutes or so passed, I felt badly about Paige sitting by herself in the waiting area, and asked if she wanted to join us. She declined, and then said she couldn’t stay. She was very uncomfortable being there and wanted to leave. I called my husband and asked if he could trade places with Paige.
Paige moved away, and I never found out what it was about the tattoo shop that caused her so much anxiety. But as she always used to say, “it’s never really about what it’s about.” Although she really wanted to be a good friend and support me through my experience, the concept, physical décor, or other people in the shop triggered some troublesome feelings that she just wasn’t able to bear or work through at the time.

Actually getting the tattoo—on my closest physical space—was a prime opportunity for me to work through discomfort. When I asked people who had tattoos about their experience, I received answers ranging from “it’s as painful as childbirth.” to “the vibration feels good.” After hearing so many different opinions, I decided it must depend on where one is getting the tattoo done, and one’s own tolerance for pain.
My tattoo took two and a half hours to complete. Julia started the process slowly, and at the beginning I was surprised because it didn’t hurt much at all. But as time passed and Julia started wiping the tattoo between inking sessions, I found I had to leverage some techniques to keep my mind in check. I closed my eyes, went inside, and tried to focus on taking long, deep breaths, noticing where in my body I was holding tension and intentionally trying to relax that area. When we were halfway through, the physical pain and intensity of my mind whining, “Are we done yet?” started to increase. Yet, I calmly responded to myself with, “We’ll be done when we’re done, just accept where you are right now and continue to breathe.” I believe these approaches to calm my mental spaces helped me tremendously in dealing with what was a voluntary, yet uncomfortable experience in the physical space of my own body.

Thought Experiments
  • When you strongly want to leave a space, whether it’s an emotionally charged room, an unfamiliar setting, or uncomfortable decor, try sitting with your discomfort or fear for just a moment and simply observe what you’re feeling. (I like to do this in glass elevators in tall buildings, to try and address my fear of heights.) Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that like everything else in life, the feelings will pass. Observe how you feel when you notice that what you feared most didn’t actually happen.
  • Do you find that breathing in the closest physical space of your body opens up some room in your emotional or mental spaces? Does it offer any clues to help you understand where the discomfort really comes from, or what specifically triggers your anxiety?
  • If you regularly have discomfort in your body or your mind, temporarily suspend any preconceived notions or assumptions you have about yoga and meditation, and give them a try. There is a lot of variety in both of these practices, and if you can think of your trials as just that—investigations or experiments—I expect you will find a style that makes you feel more content in all your spaces!

Using Spaces to Feel Accepted

When I was twelve years old, my family moved from a house that was about an hour away from the nearest grocery store to one in a more populated area. Although there were many children on my street, I was the oldest—but by number only. In comparison to my new cohorts, my previously isolated environment had kept me young. I was still riding a Strawberry Shortcake bike that had originally come with training wheels when everyone else had dirt bikes and fancy ten-speeds. It didn’t take long for me or my family to realize that I had some catching up to do. Before I knew it, I had a twelve-speed that was too big for me to ride comfortably, new clothes, and a large in-ground swimming pool complete with diving board and slide. While several other kids on the street had pools, mine was the biggest, and all the kids knew it. Everyone—including the very same kids who made fun of me when I first moved in—all wanted to be my friend so they could be invited to swim. And as one might expect, there were some kids on the street who didn’t like each other, so if you invited some friends you were automatically excluding others. Looking back, it’s interesting to me how these material possessions and alterations to our home gave me a sense of power and control that I’d been missing when I first arrived. In retrospect I also recognize that most of the children I thought had wanted to be my friends because they liked me were mostly just using me for something I had.
As an adult, I often still feel like that backwards little twelve-year-old in unfamiliar social circles. I have a great husband, a good job, and a nice house. We have lots of friends, and we frequently have parties because we enjoy making new drinks, food, and entertaining. But it’s always interesting to see who offers us money for alcohol, who shows up with munchies, who asks what we need when we’re planning a larger get-together—and for those without much financial wherewithal, who offers time to help set up or clean up. At first glance, everyone appears to be a friend, but it’s sometimes difficult not to wonder how things would be if we weren’t fortunate to have all that we do. This is especially true for me I think, because I do have a certain level of insecurity about myself and am frequently concerned with how others perceive me. Growing up, I never really had anyone love me just for being me, and so I’m not sure how to recognize when people actually do it.
While it might be easy to leverage one’s physical environments to meet an unmet emotional need, there are also ways one might consciously or unconsciously pull directly at other people’s emotions to get something they’re lacking. When I was around thirteen years old, I remember having my first real boyfriend, who was then fifteen. We met at a music camp one summer, and I was smitten. Between home and school, my life was miserable, and Damian was the first person who made me feel truly loved. For a short time this made me feel really good about myself, but pretty quickly, so many years of love deprivation meant I needed more, more, and more from him. Although the affection and attention he gave me should have been enough, it wasn’t. I was an endless well, an unsoakable sponge. To make sure Damian really loved me, I made up stories I thought would upset him. And when he did get upset, such displays clearly illustrated just how important I was to him. Over the course of our nine month relationship, I was going to have to move away, I couldn’t see him anymore because my parents were against it, and even worse, there were days when I was potentially dying of some awful disease. I’m obviously not pleased with the things I said and did in that relationship, but with a lot of introspection and passing time, I realize I was using Damian and all the capacity for love to make myself feel as though I mattered. And although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I really, desperately needed that.

Thought Experiments
  • In social situations, practice developing self-awareness by paying attention to your body. Is it tense anywhere? Is your breathing shallow, is your heart pounding, are your palms sweaty? If so, ask yourself what you might be feeling—insecure, unaccepted, unloved? Don’t judge the feelings that come up, just observe them.
  • Do you have a wonderful home or other fantastic possessions to share with others? If so, consider whether you have ever used them to exert control over people in your life, to gain acceptance, or some advantage. What underlying emotional needs are you hoping these physical objects will fill? Are there other ways you can find to fill the gaps?
  • Do any of your friends have living spaces or emotional depth you have taken advantage of in some way? If so, try not to berate yourself—it doesn’t mean you’re an awful person, or that you behave badly all the time. Identifying your underlying fears or unmet needs, however, can help you be a more genuine friend.
  • Do you have friends you think might be using you? If so, don’t automatically assume they’re being malicious or write them off. Try talking with them about their fears and needs to understand their behaviors. If they are open and can gain an awareness of what they really desire, they will appreciate your interest. And just maybe, showing you care may be all the reassurance they need.

15 September 2013

My 24-hour Tech Detox

On the 6th day of my Yoga Journal Fall Detox (a Saturday), the only obligation I had was to teach a 30-minute yoga class at Breathe Wellness' open house. Fortunately I realized this early in the morning (before 8 am). With other plans cancelled, I decided that starting right then, I was going to try a true technology detox--meaning the iPhone, iPad, and laptop would stay completely OFF until 8 am the following morning (which is when I'm writing this).

I journaled pretty extensively throughout the day, and thought I would share some things that happened to me in case anyone who has a gadget addiction might want to try it.

Here are some highlights from the first half of my day:
  • What am I going to do? My first instinct is to make a list of all the things I could do that are "non-tech" (e.g. read a book). I realize (again) how much I fill my life with "to do" items I can cross off. I have a hard time just being.
  • Does [insert thing here] "count"? No TV? Really? (I haven't honestly watched TV in months, so what do I care?) What if so-and-so needs to contact me? Will they worry? Several times I really want to check my phone, all in the name of sparing someone else.
  • How will I know where to go? If I want to go for a walk, I can't look up a pretty place! What about the weather?? Oh no! Why can't I just look outside and go walk, wherever?
  • OMG, the emotions -- several times when I am just still, all I want to do is cry. Then my mind starts worrying at things I am concerned about, and it's clear this is a distraction from feeling the need to cry. I talk back at myself in my journal.
  • And the judgments -- "How would I ever do a 10-day silent vipassana meditation retreat? I can't sit still for longer than 3 minutes!" (I notice as I'm trying to sit down while eating my kitchari.) "Why is this little kitchen table so important to me? I should be able to let it go." Sigh.
Then 3:30 pm hits, and something clicks. I feel happy that I decided to do this. (The fact that I had a chair massage with Kristen and a polarity therapy session with Allison at the open house after teaching probably didn't hurt. During the polarity therapy session in particular, I felt my right hip and my heart ache, feel held, and open up, and Allison told me I had "beautiful energy".)

My afternoon was totally different than the morning. So much less of a struggle, and much  more intrinsic listening to my body and my inner wisdom:
  • On my long drive home I make many somewhat random stops, doing little chores (but not feeling obligated to do anything). I even stop at a little bookshop, Bearly Read Books, and putter around for awhile. When I get home I slowly and mindfully make another batch of kitchari, and astound myself by my lack of restraint over a yummy papaya. 
  • I feel tired, so I lay on my massage table, music playing, water fountain going, scented candle lit, bolstered and covered with blanket and eye pillow. No alarm. I stay awake but in a beautifully relaxed state. (Hours later I wonder whether the CD player "counted", but I hadn't thought of it at the time and it was such a positive experience I decide to let that slide. :-) ) More thoughts of "what counts".
  • Later I do a facial mask for the heck of it. As I wipe off the white gunk with a damp washcloth, slowly, I look at myself in the mirror and finally think I'm a beautiful woman. I notice how much I've been hunching over again lately--a self-protection mechanism. I stand up straighter.
  • While chopping carrots for more kitchari I realize why I can't stay focused and quiet. Childhood stuff: can't let my guard down. Something terrible could be happening when it's quiet. Ah...and then in my relationships too. Of course. I struggle a bit, wanting to eat some unapproved foods.
  • I make a list of things to do tomorrow (today) after my "techdox" is over. I look at the list and don't want to come out of it. I start to think more carefully about how to do it. I also think more carefully about how to reintroduce foods and exercise, something I didn't do that first time of the YJ Detox two years ago.
  • I have a fantastic restorative yoga session. I read a lot before bed, getting fully immersed in my book. 
This morning, as the time got near for me to "power up", I felt anxiousness in my body. My breathing got shallow, my chest felt tight. So folks, this is it for now. I need to ease back in.

22 August 2013

Totally made up swordfish dish

Over the years, my relationship with cooking has progressed from:
  • "I hate cooking, I'll only bake things if I can make them from mix in a box" to 
  • "OK, I can follow the recipe EXACTLY and have things mostly come out" to
  • "What the heck, I'll try making up some healthy stuff with whatever I happen to have on hand."
What a metamorphosis, let me tell you!
Those of you who've liked A Journey Into Health on Facebook have no doubt seen this, but for those of you who stay light on Facebook or just haven't found your way to my page there yet, I thought I'd share this one. Definitely my most creative one so far.
  • Get some quality swordfish. (I put it in a 9x11 baking pan, but any baking pan would probably do.)
  • Dress the fish in extra virgin olive oil (I don't measure anymore, just swish it back and forth a few times--and yes I know how uncomfortable not having a precise measure can be, so maybe 2-3 Tbsp.)
  • Sprinkle some ras el hanout (or some of its component spices) over the fish and rub it in until it's coated. (I got mine at Sofra Bakery, where they sell lots of such spices.)
  • Based on what I had left from my CSA share, I chopped up some tomatoes and a tomatillo, and some garlic, which I placed around the fish. (It was at this point that I felt like a real "cook", although I had honestly no clue whether it would come out good or not!)
  • Then I sprinkled the whole thing with sesame seeds, salt and pepper, some parsley, and a little more olive oil (on the veggies).
  • Baked at 350 degrees, until the fish split nicely with a knife. (Sorry I don't recall how long that was!)
Meanwhile, I cooked up some brown rice in veggie broth, and then plated the fish on top!

This recipe needs a name besides "totally made up swordfish dish", but it was too good not to share. I'll accept any ideas!


20 August 2013

Sharing Spaces (Chapter 6)

Here's chapter 6 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Let there be space in your togetherness.”
- Kahlil Gibran -

Sharing spaces with other people—even those in your life who you love very much—can be challenging. Whether you’re in the process of moving and consolidating spaces with a new partner, re-designing your living spaces for happy co-existence, or taking a stand for the spaces you feel you have some real right to, maintaining a level of awareness about what’s really going on in yourself and others can help change the tone and ultimate result of some potentially difficult interactions.

Moving and Consolidating Spaces

Before my husband and I moved in together, we had two condos filled with things that represented two different, well-established lives. So naturally, when we started unpacking at the new house, we had duplicates of many things. Rather than arguing about how much of a thing we needed, automatically suggesting all his things go (as some women have a reputation for doing), or getting into any of our familiar argument patterns, I decided to lay out all our wares for display. Here, in this corner, are all the tall glasses we now jointly own. Here, in the other, are all the short ones, then the plastic ones, then the cups, the dishes, the forks, and so on. Doing this exercise allowed us to see which sets were missing pieces, which styles looked nicer or were the right sizes for how we wanted to use them, and what we could realistically fit into the new cabinets and drawers. We were easily able to negotiate and decide together which things to keep, and which ones to get rid of.
Since I’m a purger and my husband is a hoarder, I used this method to avoid some of the drama involved in consolidating our lives. And the truth is, you can’t really avoid it all. Purging things feels good to some people, for others it’s always difficult, and sometimes it just depends on the items. I personally love getting rid of things I’m not using, or things I’ve outgrown. It’s liberating! Also, since many of these items are still usable and don’t have much personal significance, I feel good when I donate them to charitable organizations. But tasks like packing have a great way of forcing you revisit all kinds of memories, because often you do have some emotional ties to the objects you’re looking through. I can’t tell you how many times when moving that I’ve randomly looked though some old photo albums, journals, or memorabilia of whatever kind, and completely lost track of time because I was reminiscing!  These aren’t always happy memories, but they represent a snapshot in the timeline of my life—a measure by which I can see how much I’ve grown, how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. So, the question becomes: do you take these objects along with you when you move, or do you get rid of them because you never really look at them any other time, they represent the past, and it’s more important to live in the now? To be honest, I still struggle with this question, and I can see where some people (like my husband) might have more things they’ve accumulated over the years that they’re attached to. What’s even trickier is when objects do not appear to you to have any personal significance, but to the other person sharing the space, they do. For example, I only recently learned why my husband buys so much and so many varieties of canned diet soda that drive me crazy by cluttering our pantry—growing up, his parents didn’t let their kids drink soda. Having a lot of soda in the house today means that he has a choice about what he can and cannot drink—a choice that was not given to him as a kid. This is information about him that I needed to be able to understand why having so many beverages is important, and hopefully it allows me to lighten up on the issue a bit.
In addition to different “donation philosophies” and prior experiences, consolidating spaces is also difficult because the amount of things you have always changes to fill up your current physical space. I can see how this happened to me—after college I lived in various apartments around Hartford, Connecticut. Each had a decent amount of space in them, and so the number of things (clothes, kitchen gadgets, etc.) grew to fit. My first apartment in Boston was quite small in comparison, with minimal closet and cabinet space. I had to make myself fit, so I found ways to do it, including a temporary storage unit back in Connecticut until I was really ready to let some things go. My second year in the Boston area, I moved into a larger apartment in the suburbs, so again my amount of “stuff” increased. But when I finally bought my 1000 square feet condo in 2004, I had tiny closets and had to wean down my load (especially of clothes and shoes)!  It was from this condo that I moved into the house with my husband. My husband’s condo, in comparison, had been huge. He had a two car garage, and 2000+ square feet of space all to himself. Maddeningly for me, he also had a ridiculous amount of closet space for a guy, with (seemingly) just a little bit of stuff in each one. Because of where we were each coming from, our new house was bigger (in my view) and smaller (in his view).
Such backstories and the feelings associated  with them aren’t always obvious—even to ourselves—and when two people are going through the process of moving and consolidating spaces, it makes perfect sense that challenges arise. I think the best two people can do is to pay attention and recognize where they’re coming from, and then explicitly communicate that to the other. Doing so requires some heightened self-awareness and effort, but it can make for a smoother transition overall.

Thought Experiments
  • Try taking one thing that has sentimental value and experiment with letting it go. First, review it thoroughly and think carefully about what it means to you. Is there anything you have in your life now that brings about similar feelings? Do you still need the item to feel this way? Now put the item in a donation pile for a little while. If you don’t feel compelled to retrieve it after a month, donate it to a worthy cause.
  • If you’re currently in the process of moving in with someone else, think about and talk with your partner about your perspectives on “stuff”. Are there particular things you and they are willing to let go, or not? Can you have a meaningful conversation about why you both want to keep certain things? Once you understand both perspectives, does it change how each of you reacts to the other?
  • Think about the various places you’ve lived and some of the objects you’ve acquired in each space. What life milestones (however small) do you associate with them? Do these milestones make you more or less attached to the objects? (For example, I still have a Pottery Barn armoire that I saved up to purchase for my first apartment in Boston—it cost me the same as one month’s rent at the time, and it makes me feel proud of my independence. It is not an object I would feel happy about getting rid of!)

Balancing Common and Individual Spaces

When you are moving or consolidating spaces with someone else, a strong need to establish your territory in the new space typically arises. At the time I’m writing this, my husband and I have been in our new home for a little over a year. We’re still working on creating a shared space, as well as on ensuring that we (both pretty independent people) have individual spaces we can leverage whenever a need arises. There are many common areas: the kitchen, which opens to the living room, for example. We spend a lot of time in there together, and often share this space with friends when we entertain. But since we have a large house, we’ve also taken opportunities to support our relationship by keeping some of our spaces separate.
When we first moved in, there were two rooms on our third floor—one was finished, and the other only partially so. My husband kindly allowed me to take the finished room and use it as my meditation / yoga / reading / workout space. I can decorate exactly as I please, and I can retreat to my room whenever I feel a need to re-center myself. My husband took the room across the hall from mine as his “man cave”. He picked out and laid down the floor, and I helped him paint the walls whatever colors he wanted. In there, he has a cushy double recliner, a TV about as wide as I am tall, most of the video game systems, all his extra computers, wires, and other various spare parts.

Meditation Room (Hers)
Man Cave (His)

Now, I’m one not of those wives who have banished all of my husband’s things to one place—in many cases we’ve redecorated to make the common spaces ours, rather than hers and his. But on some level, keeping some separateness and independence is important.  It brings us closer because being together is always a choice we make, rather than something we have to do. My belief is that having a choice means you reduce the likelihood of feeling any resentment toward the other person when they are in your space, because you will have (implicitly or explicitly) invited them in.
There are also ways to make shared spaces feel shared, but still retain some individuality. I took an interior design class a few months ago, and since we needed a topic to discuss with the class, I decided to use our home office as my project. When we moved into our new house, my husband and I both had desks for our computers, and I had a bookcase. We threw down an old red rug in the center, put his desk on one wall and mine across from it, stuck the bookcase in the corner near my desk, and called it a day. We didn’t put any effort into this room because we knew we had plans to come back to it later.

Office - Before (Hers)
Office - Before (His)

Initially, my idea was to have two desks facing each other, with an L-shaped extension on each one, and then to use the vertical space behind each of the desks for shelves. This would allow the furniture to be symmetrical, and give us light from one of the windows. Since all the furniture would be on one side of the space, I thought we could add a “media center” on the other side, to store all the joint office supplies and common items like the printer. But about it just didn’t feel right. Putting two desks facing each other would mean, essentially, that when we’re both in the office working on our computers (which we often are), we’d be looking at each other. I suppose that’s OK if you don’t want to get anything done, or you’re not easily distracted. Although I share my life with this man and love him very much, it felt a little uncomfortable to think that we’d end up staring at each other. What if I was trying to work and he wasn’t in the mood? Or worse yet, what if he was!
In class, the instructor and several of the students helped me sketch out a revised plan on the whiteboard. We settled on corner desks, but what was more intriguing was the suggestion the instructor gave me about the area rugs. What if, instead an area rug that took up the full space of the room, we did quarter-rounds under each desk? This would tie the “his and hers” spaces together separately, yet visually relate them. I thought this was pretty fabulous, and is what we ended up doing.

Office - After (Hers)
Office - After (His)

What’s also interesting about the new design is that even though there is technically more furniture in the room than before, it feels larger. My husband just jokes about these areas being “our own little islands”, but what he also pointed out was how the large red carpet dominated the space. Before, wherever you could kind of see the hardwood floor around the rug, there was furniture. With our new design, the desks and the rugs take up the same—rather than different—spaces, showing off more of the floor. This also goes to show you that what’s in the space can completely affect your impression of it!  Designing a common space to meet the requirements of the people sharing it, as well as addressing the constraints and leveraging the opportunities of the room’s size and shape can make a big difference in the design.

Thought Experiments
  • If you share a living space, is there a balance between the common and individual areas for each person? In which direction is the balance tipped? Is everything a common space? Are the spaces slanted toward the preferences of one person? Can you identify ways this might be impacting your relationship?
  • If you can’t designate individual spaces, are there simple changes you can make to the design to ensure everyone’s needs are met? For example, can you create any his/hers arrangements within the same room, as I did in the office?
  • If this idea of common vs. individual spaces feels foreign to you—in other words, you wonder why you wouldn’t just share everything—that may be fine too. It all depends on your relationship, and how much mental and emotional space each of you needs to have reflected in your physical spaces. Talk with your partner or roommate to make sure you’re on the same page, and if you are, great!

Communicating Your Spatial Needs to Those You Love

Last year my friend Paige started dating a man who lived in her building. She and Martin got along fabulously, and quickly started planning a new life together. However, Martin had three grown daughters, and there were a few instances where Martin’s physical and emotional spaces was the subject of contention among the women in his life.
First, Martin and Paige had different philosophies about children being in their parent’s bedroom. When Paige was raising her son, he wasn’t allowed to go into her room without explicit (and one would expect rare) permission. She believed this taught him respect, and is one of the reasons he grew up to be a real gentleman. Martin, however, had minimal boundaries—his girls could be in that room as much as any other in his apartment. This complicated things for Paige, who was told she could stay at Martin's to take advantage of various amenities, such as air conditioning and better Internet access. Naturally Paige had many questions about how to navigate this potential minefield in her new relationship. How should she react when she found Martin’s daughters laying around on, or sleeping in his bed? Should she honor Martin’s philosophy and adapt, or make her discomfort known to him? When she moved in with Martin, would he accept the bedroom as a joint space, even though they'd be keeping his furniture? And would she get more of a say in whether his daughters used the room? Paige had to make her feelings about their shared spaces explicit to Martin (or risk discomfort and resentment), and Martin needed to be open to the idea of a mutually-made decision (or risk disrespecting and devaluing Paige's equal needs as his life partner).
There were also internal space issues that fostered some discussion between the couple: Martin frequently traveled on business, which meant he had limited time at home. While Paige understood that a loving father would spend time with his daughters, she often found her expectations of when she would see Martin were not completely in line with his thinking. There were also a few occasions where Martin didn't appear to effectively communicate his plans to everyone who was expecting an exclusive piece of his limited attention. How well or poorly Martin managed the situation had a direct impact on how much Paige and his daughters felt like they were in competition for his time and his love (i.e., his mental and emotional spaces). Paige recognized that the outcome would also depend on how aware each person is about how these situations triggered them into displaying less-than-ideal responses (including those in herself).  She knew that insecurities and losses experienced in childhood could have an influence on situations like this, and sometimes make her react oddly or more strongly than she preferred. Sometimes, even when intellectually we know we’re being silly, our hearts take over and we have trouble reigning in our emotions. Discovering and clearly stating each person’s needs, actively listening to each other, and compromising in a way that feels comfortable to everyone is what will not just save, but also strengthen relationships.

Thought Experiments
  • Are you spending enough quality time with the important people in your life? Are you giving each special person a good amount of your time and attention? Do you notice anyone around you “getting into it” over you? If so, what might you be doing to contribute to the situation? What might you do differently to help improve it?
  • What is your philosophy about how relationships between parents and children, or partners, are supposed to be when sharing spaces? Do other people in your life understand where you’re coming from? Try explaining your rationale to them, but more importantly, really listen to their position instead of defending yours.
  • If you are receiving less attention from someone than you would like, try and put your finger on why you want more. Be honest with yourself, and try to determine whether this lack is triggering feelings from from your past (before you say anything). If it’s a legitimate request, having done this exercise will make talking to the other person feel less confrontational to you both.

Claiming the Space You Deserve (and Knowing When Not to)

In college I liked Dave Matthews, so when I found out he was performing in concert close by, I called some friends of mine from Pennsylvania who were also fans, and we planned a visit which included four tickets to his Friday night show. As we made our way to what is now the Comcast Theatre, I smiled to myself, thinking Dave's was the kind of music that lended itself perfectly to sitting on the grass on a warm summer night. My friends and I arrived early and designated our space on the lawn with a blanket, then nibbled on some snacks we'd brought while catching up.
Unfortunately as soon as the music started, our lovely time started to disintegrate. More and more people filed in, and like a big city's Independence Day fireworks, blankets covered every blade of grass.  After a few songs, no one was able to sit and listen—you had to be on your feet or you’d be trampled. The young woman next to us smelled of pot, and was pretty drunk too. Her lit cigarette flailed about in her hand as she danced, in many cases getting dangerously close to our faces. Annoyed and sober, I tried to ask politely if she could please be careful with it. She mocked my request by overtly trodding all over our delineated space, dirtying our blanket and bunching it up everywhere. After that, all five feet, 100 some pounds of me nearly got into a knock out, drag down fight with this woman! I don’t know what it was about the venue or Dave Matthews’ music that prompted such behavior in people, but this was not at all what we expected, and rather than trying to reason with people, my group decided we were better off leaving prematurely. This turned out to be a wise decision—anyone living around Hartford, Connecticut might also recall that Dave's Friday night concert was actually the most tame of the three, with Saturday and Sunday nights including overturned and burned cars, a rape or two, and several other crimes.
While this concert story is an example of when you may not be able to claim your rightful space in a crowd, there are some circumstances where I think not backing down is the right thing to do. For example, sometimes when I go out West Coast Swing dancing, it’s a busy night and the floor can be crowded. From dancing with various leaders, however, I’ve observed that the way they handle the crowded dance floor has a direct affect on my experience as their follower. Regardless of their size, some men purposefully react to a crowd by taking up less space. They lead smaller moves, dance smaller themselves, get overprotective, and try to yank me out of harms way when someone is about to run into me. (As one might imagine, this often does more harm than good.) However, other leaders purposefully start to take up more space. They do this by extending their arms, traveling in every direction, and generally taking up more room in their part of the dance. They still watch out for people around them, but they lead big moves, as though they had all the space in the world. Sometimes this backfires, it’s true—but most times other people notice, and respond by giving us more space on the floor! In this situation, being assertive helps them (and their partner) claim the space they deserve. Having good instincts in one's internal spaces about what to do in crowded physical spaces can be a very important skill to develop.

Thought Experiments
  • The next time you’re out in a public space, take a few moments and observe people’s behavior. Can you spot examples of unkindness when it comes to each individuals’ personal space? What about examples of when others are respectful?
  • How respectful are you of other peoples’ spaces? See if you can find even more ways to show it. (For example, notice how close you stand to someone in the supermarket checkout line, and determine whether you should make any adjustments.)
  • Do what you can to claim your personal space when in crowds, but also recognize that it may not always be possible or desirable to do so. Pay attention and hone your skills—depending on the situation, it may keep you out of serious trouble!

13 August 2013

Designing Spaces with Purpose (Chapter 5)

Here's chapter 5 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Our intention creates our reality.”
- Wayne Dyer –

The intention you have when designing a physical space can have a significant effect on how “successfully” you will be able to live or work within it. You may have to dig deep into your internal (emotional and mental) spaces to understand what your true intentions are, to figure out why certain aspects of a physical space don’t really support your purpose, or to discover which characteristics of it contribute to positive beneficial feelings you could use more of.

Making Multi-Purpose Spaces Work for You

I believe there should be a clear intention, or purpose, for every space in and around my home. In some rooms, this kind of focus is pretty obvious: I designed my bedroom, for example, to help ensure that I’d get a good night’s sleep. In other rooms though, the intention can be less apparent. Should my living room be a place for watching TV, playing video games, entertaining, watching a burning fire, and / or chatting with friends and family? Is the purpose of my deck to sit back and relax quietly in nature, to have large, boisterous outdoor parties, or grow and harvest various vegetables? Because we typically have a limited number of physical spaces, we may need to design them to support multiple purposes. And I think this is fine—as long as those purposes are compatible with one another.
I’m fortunate to have a space in my home that I designed just for me, and this room supports multiple purposes. First, I wanted to have a space where I could relax and decompress from life’s hectic pace by meditating, reading, and doing yoga postures. But I also needed a place where I could keep my body in tip-top shape by doing strength training and cardio workouts. To start, I used the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Massachusetts as my inspiration. I take a trip there every so often, always returning to my busy life feeling renewed, refreshed, and centered. One of the rooms I particularly enjoy there is called the Sun Room, which is ridiculously simple in its decor: some sparsely populated bookcases along the back wall, a few (usually empty) desks, over-sized and well broken-in love seats or small couches strewn throughout, and a row of lounging chairs facing the wall of windows that overlook the mountains. There are no distractions (it's a "quiet space"), and there is no question about its intention—to help you slow down and relax. So, I covered a daybed my husband had with blankets and tons of pillows to make it the perfect place to sit and read (or curl up and nap), and added a big fluffy rug at its feet. A few trips to Target later and I had bookcases on which to store my various meditation and self-improvement books. All this satisfied my requirement for a reading area.
Next, I used a Shoji screen I bought from an oriental store to partition off a little corner of the room as my meditation space. Behind it, I put my cushion and a timer, and mounted a little shelf that would hold a few inspirational items. Above the shelf, I hung an abstract picture of a woman meditating. Later, I added a piece of art to the wall that I thought perfectly tied the meditation area to the reading area. It says: “With our thoughts, we make our world.”

Reading SpaceWorkout Space

For yoga and working out, I needed the hardwood floor to be bare, and to access to equipment—for example, a yoga mat, strap and block; weights and gloves; and most importantly, a little TV with a DVD player and VCR so I could use my videos. My friend Paige donated a TV stand, which I put into the corner and filled with DVDs and old-school video tapes. I re-purposed an old coat rack (which had a shelf and four large hooks) to hold the lighter equipment, pleasantly surprised when the hooks perfectly cradled my rolled up yoga mat.
While perfectly functional, I wasn’t completely happy with this room and couldn’t initially figure out why. One day I was reading in our den, and I when I looked up, I found myself thinking that it cultivated the Sun Room feeling much more than my multi-purpose room upstairs! Then it occurred to me that while it might be possible to combine the reading, meditation, and yoga intentions in a single space, my workouts didn’t really fit. The workouts I do are intense—many of the DVDs I use and the exercises I do are not at all compatible with relaxation! The cardio leaves me speechless and drenched, while the strength training circuits make me grunt and groan like a thick-necked muscle man in a gym. When I do these workouts, the music is loud, my body is pushed to its physical limits, and my mind works hard to retain focus. Plus, because the different workouts require different equipment, I can’t permanently keep anything inside the space, so it tends to look barren.
Now that I have a better understanding of why that part of the space isn’t working, I can investigate solutions, such as using a decorative fabric panel (or another screen) to hide the workout area when it’s not in use, but keep the things behind it easily accessible.

Thought Experiments
  • Once you’ve articulated your intention for a space, take a look around. Which things in the space support your intention? Is there anything that doesn’t? What about the arrangement of objects in the space? Are there things you might add, remove, or arrange differently, now that you’re looking at it this way? (For example, if you want your bedroom to be a relaxing, quiet space, ask yourself how many electronics and gadgets you should have in it!)
  • Do you have spaces that do (or must) serve multiple purposes? How are these purposes in sync with each other? Are there commonalities you can use to tie different areas of the room together? (For example, the wall art I mentioned.) If the purposes are in opposition with each other, think about whether you really “do it all”, or if you need to prioritize.
  • Do other people who you share spaces with agree with your intentions, or do they have other ideas? Do your spaces try to serve too many different people, and not really work for anyone? Talk through any differences and discuss ways to create designated areas within the same space, and / or leverage any commonalities to pull the space together.

Fostering Creativity in Your Spaces

Some time ago, I attended a free social media seminar. During the networking hour, I got into a conversation with the owner of the space where the seminar was being held—Takako rented out different sized work areas in the space by the hour or day to college students or other young people with entrepreneurial interests, with no long-term commitments or leases required. When she excitedly told me that the space “lent itself to creativity”, I was intrigued, and asked what it was about the space made her feel that way. She told me it invited creativity because nothing was hidden, and described how she modified it to expose all the “bones”—everywhere you looked you could see pipes, wood, and brick. Takako explained that when a space is exposed like this, one can feel safe to explore. There are no hidden agendas or things one can’t see, lurking behind walls or in ceiling panels. With this sense of safety, one is free to dream up new things. I thought this was in interesting way to look at space, and one I hadn’t really considered. Given that Takako was an architect, I assume she knows her stuff!
Based on this conversation, I started thinking about which spaces made me feel most creative, and what characteristics they had. The more I thought about it and talked with others, the more I realized Takako was onto something with the safety angle. For me, I’m most creative when I’m not stressed by clutter or distracted by other people with whom I don’t feel safe. I usually need to straighten up my physical spaces before I can do creative work and get into the kind of “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described. Similarly, when I fill my “time space” with the clutter of too many tasks and the added anxiety about whether I’ll be able to get them all done, I have trouble being creative. When collaborating, I might worry what people think of my ideas, and can be afraid to take risks when others I don’t completely trust are around—the fear of being criticized can stifle my attempts at creativity. Yet when I’m alone and feel like I have all the time in the world, ideas come rushing into my head regardless of where I am: sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on our deck, looking aimlessly out at the lawn; enjoying a bubble bath; driving with plenty of time to get to my destination; or waking up before the sun (and everyone else). I think some of my most interesting ideas, clever solutions to problems, and best writing emerge (and make me reach for Post-its and a pen pretty quickly!) when I am able to enjoy a high level of safety in my physical, mental and emotional spaces.
Catering to the senses in the physical space of one’s body also seems to be an important requirement for creativity: friends have voluntarily mentioned hearing (for example, playing music or inspiring videos); sight (looking at art, seeing the dried colors on a painter’s palette, taking in the expanse of nature); smell (for example, of wood in a workshop); and touch (having the right materials available). The idea of stimulating one’s senses to support creativity struck me as interesting, and at least two other situations got me thinking more about how to bring more sense stimulation into spaces where I’d like to be more creative. For example, one evening I was leaving a local high school after taking a continuing education class, and one of my fellow students (who happened to be an artist) randomly commented on the décor, noting how everything—lockers, walls, stairs, carpet, seating, paint, and so on—was covered in tan and dark blue. Sure I thought it was dull, but she lamented the lost opportunities to inspire young minds because of the lack of stimulation in the physical space in which they were sent to expand their thinking!  I also had recently attended a virtual seminar at work about “Gamestorming”, by Dave Gray.  In it, he cited a study done by Elizabeth Gould, which apparently contradicted earlier studies that brain cells do not regenerate. Turns out, when mice were kept in small cages (with little stimulation), her results were consistent with the original research. But when the mice were given more freedom and stimulation in their environment (in the form of colors, activities they could do to acquire food, and so on), their brain cells actually did regenerate. Dave then made a wonderful analogy to the cubes in our typical office environments, and how we “could not have done a better job” stifling creativity in most workplaces!
Noticing when you are most creative and thinking about how the physical and mental spaces you are in at the time support or hinder your creativity can be a useful exercise for anyone wanting to bring more fresh ideas into their lives.

Thought Experiments
  • What physical spaces make you feel creative? What characteristics of that space do you think bring about this feeling? (A friend of mine mentioned the outdoors, because “the peace and love found in nature quiet my ego”.) Consider how to bring more of these characteristics into other spaces that you have to live or work in.
  • Can you identify any barriers in your physical or mental spaces that might be distracting you from being as creative as you’d like to be? Consider whether any of those barriers can be traced to your sense of safety.
  • Are there ways you can think of to open up more “time space” in your day-to-day life to allow more creative ideas to emerge?
  • How much “sense stimulation” is available to you in the spaces where you’d like to be creative? Pick your favorite sense and try introducing more things to stimulate that sense in spaces you’ve designated for creative work or play. Notice what happens.

Escaping Your Typical Spaces

Even the smallest changes to the spaces in my life can sometimes free me up and help me get unstuck. Whether it’s a problem I’m trying to solve, or I’m just feeling overwhelmed with everything I have to do and can’t seem to move in any direction, creating a simple, short escape from either my current mental or physical space always seems to do the trick. For example, after visiting some friends one holiday weekend, I planned to work on this book. I didn’t sleep well the night before, and I woke up feeling cranky and sore (likely from all the driving). As the hours of the day ticked by, my anxiousness about not having written anything started to build. I had no energy and grew tired of hearing my own complaints, so I decided to go for a walk with my husband. As we did our typical loop through the neighborhood, I continued to complain about how overwhelmed I felt, how I’d never be able to get this book written in my spare time, and so on. He kindly alternated between listening, and asking questions that annoyed me at first, but then got me thinking. By the time we finished the walk, I was ready to just sit down and write already! The Thursday night before this same holiday weekend, I was nearing the end of a stressful week at work. I had a meeting marathon that Monday, then two full days of training, followed by a day packed with sessions I had to facilitate. We were leaving Friday after work, and I was trying to pack while practicing a presentation I had to deliver at a meeting the next morning. (I had to temporarily leave another meeting to give it, that’s how crazy my schedule was!) When my husband came home from softball that evening, I was in total panic. I didn’t feel comfortable with the presentation, I’d been going non-stop since I walked in the door, and I wasn’t anywhere near packed. I distinctly recall standing with my hands on the kitchen island, bending over with my head down between my arms, and feeling like something had to give. I eventually told him I was going to go upstairs and practice the presentation, because packing could technically wait until tomorrow after work if it had to. But then I got a better idea. I decided that before practicing the presentation, I needed to just stop. I sat in meditation for twenty minutes before practicing, finishing my packing, and having some time to spare! The bottom line is, taking just a few minutes to escape your current physical or mental spaces (even when you feel you have no time) can make you so much more resilient and productive.
Of course, everyone recognizes that as larger, more drastic changes to one’s physical and mental scenery, vacations are the ultimate escape. Whether they’re short “staycations” or week-long trips away, there’s something about removing yourself from the routine aspects of life that can really rejuvenate you. At the beginning of May I went with my friend Vianne to West Palm Beach, Florida for a long weekend. The weather in Boston was cold and rainy, and when we arrived, our moods were instantly improved by the sun and the warm, humid air. Over the weekend we shopped, ate and drank, soaked in the sun, and let go of all the things we typically worried about. Personally, the beach is one of my favorite places to escape to, and why I decided my bedroom décor should be inspired by it.
To create my escape inside this room, I first found a very nice patchwork quilt with matching pillow shams at an outlet store in Kittery, Maine. The patches are squares of different colors and textures—some shiny and silver, some silky and lilac-colored, others velvety and blue. I am a fan of decorating rooms based on a central element, and this bedding ensemble was it!  I already had a neutral tan carpet and some black Pottery Barn furniture, so the walls needed some color. This room also had a cathedral ceiling with two of the walls extending high up into a loft, whose walls I had already daringly painted a dark burgundy. I thought a light purple would look nice joining up with the burgundy, so I painted two of the walls a lilac, pulling one of the colors from the quilt. I also wanted to pull one of the blues into the walls, but not have the same colors on opposite walls. For some reason, I was obsessed with not having the different colored walls look too symmetrical. I laid on my bed for hours upon hours until I figured out how to organize the colors on the various walls so they’d be just a tad off

Beach-themed Bedroom

Looking back, I understand why I couldn’t have the colors on the walls be completely symmetrical: the beach (in other words nature) is not in any way, shape, or form symmetrical—it’s random, whimsical, and free, with the kind of total abandon that allows you to relax and encourages you to just..let..go. Anyway, I completed the look by finding the perfect artwork for the wall above the bed— a photo of a dock that led to the beach, at dusk, just as the sky broke into a soft shade of purple. I had it framed in black with gold trim (to match the furniture).

Thought Experiments
  • When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck, try doing something to change your physical or mental scenery, even for just five minutes. Take a short walk, try meditating, or even just sit in an area of a room where you don’t normally to get a new perspective.
  • Think back to when you felt centered and relaxed while in a “vacation space”. What is it about that space that makes it feel like a vacation to you? Are there ways you can bring aspects of the vacation space into your more daily spaces?
  • Imagine you were on vacation right now and could do anything you wanted with your time—what would that look like? Can you re-prioritize any activities to create more space in your life to do those things now?
  • Try taking a weekend to yourself, even if you don’t physically go anywhere. Do whatever you want to do whenever you want, and savor every moment!

Reframing Your Space Perceptions

It’s easy in today’s fast-paced world to get “burnt out” on the physical spaces one lives or works in. At these times, it’s also tempting to think about making a physical move like changing your job or moving. Some people I know have made these kinds of changes to their living or working spaces and have reaped tremendous benefits in their mental and emotional spaces as a result. And, I’ve seen even more people hop from place to place, on an endless search for something they never seem to find. After thinking about this a great deal, I’m of the mind that reframing one’s perception of a physical space with a clear, internal purpose can be an effective alternative.
For example, I currently work at a software company, and since taking on more management responsibilities my “time space” no longer feels like my own. There are days (some consecutive!) where I am in collaborative meetings with colleagues straight through from nine to five, and am still expected to get individual work done. We have three buildings on campus, so getting to meetings often involves traveling, and there are really no designated breaks for things like grabbing a coffee, eating lunch, or even stopping to use the rest room. Not long ago, I started getting into a state about this, feeling anxious about keeping colleagues waiting and watching as my resentment about the lack of space in my schedule grew more intense. My out-of-work life wasn’t much better—my mornings were packed with exercise, meditation, and writing, plus I had a busy post-work social calendar, meeting up with friends for dinner, dancing, taking classes in other things that interested me, and so on. I basically never slowed down!
I started to daydream about my ideal day, which allowed me the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. What if I could take a half hour nap whenever I felt tired? Or, if I was suddenly motivated to write a poem, I could go scribble it down? Or if I could use the mornings (when I’m typically more creative) as meeting-free, sketching time? What if I could meet a friend for lunch on occasion, and have my after-work time free? What if I was able to work on whatever task I was most motivated to do at a particular time (work or home-related), instead of being forced into a specific time box in which to do a subset of the tasks I needed to accomplish? Unless you work for yourself, you probably can relate to what I’m describing. But the reality is, society has a way of forcing us into schedules that don’t always sync up with what our bodies or our minds truly want to do.
So what could I do to improve my situation? Should I really stop exercising and doing my meditation? That didn’t seem right! Should I change jobs, or become a consultant and work for myself?  It seemed like after the initial distraction of something new, I’d end up in a similar place. Should I stop doing all the fun things I picked up after work, given that they typically fulfilled me more than my job and kept my social circles alive?  At first I felt trapped, but slowly came to realize I still had choices.
I thought back to an exercise my friend Paige and I had done a while back, intent on discovering our personal values. These values permeated both our work and home lives, and were a good representation of what made each of us feel happy and content. Perhaps obviously, one of mine happens to be “quality me time”.  If I don’t have enough space for myself, I feel unsettled. Taking that personal value into account, I decided to make small changes to things that were under my control—and most of that had less to do my actual physical spaces than with shifts in my mental ones.
I started with my morning routine. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that my exercising and meditating activities were my choice, and really part of taking care of myself!  And if I wanted to do something else with the hour and a half (like writing, reading, or sleeping), no one was stopping me. As soon as I mentally reframed the situation in this way, I appreciated doing these activities again, knowing that if I wanted to, I could always reclaim the time for different things (or nothing). Next, I started thinking about small changes I could make at work that would make me feel more comfortable. For example, because I felt I sat too much during the day, I now have a standing workstation, and I suggest “walking meetings” whenever I have one-on-ones with people (and the weather is good). Interestingly enough, others are appreciative of the idea and often take me up on my offer. I’ve actually started taking stretch breaks every hour or so. And, if I’m late to a meeting because I had to prepare a nutritious lunch or take a rest room break, I have gotten better about making my colleagues wait (though in truth, several of them are late too)! They’d have to say for sure, but I think I’m more pleasant to deal with and more engaged in the meetings because I feel less stressed overall. So what about my busy social life? While it took about a month to shift things, I now have certain designated days of the week where I do something out, and other ones that are non-negotiable “open” days. That’s not to say I always do nothing on those days, but having the open space (as opposed to being scheduled every night) gives me more freedom to decide what to do. Whenever a possible activity comes up, I ask myself how closely it aligns with my other four personal values, and make a decision about whether to attend by prioritizing it against other things I could be doing with the time. And if I borrow from an open day because scheduling requires it, I’m sure to give myself one back! 
I’ve learned that when you have a clear understanding of what really makes you feel good, you can look around and make small changes to your physical and mental spaces to improve your situation. Although sometimes they’re worth the risk, big, sweeping changes aren’t always necessary, and won’t always improve things. A collection of little changes over time can be even more effective not only because they help you deal with spaces you can’t change, but because they have a side effect of making you feel more confident and empowered.

Thought Experiments
  • Are there any physical spaces you feel like you absolutely have to get out of? What characteristics of these spaces make you want a change? Have you been in a similar situation before? Consider making some changes in how you think about or react to being in these spaces, and notice whether it helps alleviate some of your discomfort.
  • Take some time to discover your top five personal values. (There are many resources online to help you to this.) Which aspects of your home and/or work spaces support these values? Which do not support, or even conflict with these values? Are there any adjustments you can make to better align them?
  • Take an inventory of where you spend your time, and see if you can’t allocate more “time space” to being in physical and mental spaces that are highest priority for you.