Your Big, Long, Much-Needed Exhale
By Anne Bruno
Photographs by Hayden Spears
Our gift to you this holiday season, as you run around making things perfect for others? Permission to take care of yourself. And steps to get there. We visit with three professionals who help people find their centers and feel better once they do.
Statistics keep coming at us about the negative effects of multitasking, screen time, stress and not getting enough sleep. They can induce stress on their own. Have you found yourself crafting a plan to give a parting “everything is peachy” Namaste, then seek refuge in the yoga studio overnight? You are not the only one.
In fact, Austinites—we of the uber-fit, fastest-growing, everyone-wants-to-be-here city (more on that in a minute)—are right there with the rest of the country when it comes to feeling out of sorts. Local bookstores report increasing sales in Self Help and related genres. Shelf space for categories like Cooking and Entertaining has actually been shrinking. But titles extolling the path to personal peace via a tidy home, along with coloring books for adults—to reduce stress—are taking over more in-store real estate.
The American Psychological Association says less than 20 percent of adults in the U.S. are considered “flourishing,” which apparently means only a few of us feel we’re fulfilling our potential for happiness, success and productivity. “Flourishing” is one thing. Then there’s simply holding it together throughout the day till you can collapse safely at home without having chucked your phone (that black mirror) at the Whole Foods checkout guy who cheerfully asked what you’re making with all those greens, the ones you don’t especially enjoy but force yourself to eat twice a week in an effort to consume foods that improve memory and ward off future dementia, advice you read on Facebook while eating lunch at your desk…alone. Forget FOMO (fear of missing out, fostered in large part by social media). You want MOMO (more of me only).
We’re constantly connected electronically, yet we feel more isolated than ever. We experience something called distraction addiction and we walk around in chronic fight-or-flight mode. Not good for the body, not good for the mind. And who has enough bandwidth to even think about the soul? To borrow a phrase from ’90s TV: “Stop the Insanity!” Sounds like a great idea. But, how? Many of us deem December the most hectic month of the entire year. So let’s take a few mindful breaths and consider a more pointed question: How bad do we want to feel good?
According to Renée Trudeau, Austin-based author, speaker and life-balance coach, answering that question with honesty is a pretty good place to start. Over the past 20 years, Trudeau has gained a loyal following based on her writings and the retreats she leads in Austin and centers of progressive learning like the Esalen Institute in California and Kripalu in Massachusetts. First, she says, recognize that “you are not a self-improvement project.” And feeling like your best self, or even a semi-functioning self, is not another thing to add to your endless to-do list. “At the heart of it, what I’m talking about is cultivating a new way of being with yourself, one that allows for effective self-care so you have enough time, energy and resources for the things most important to you, at whatever stage of your life.”
If it sounds a little soft, you might be surprised how often (and easily) Trudeau peppers a conversation with data that backs up the practices she’s developed and teaches. “There’s a lot of hard science around how we can all benefit by ‘staying in our own boat.'” By that, she means differentiating stress or anxiety that’s truly your own from what she calls the collective anxiety. “We’re all interconnected, whether we like it or not. And as much fun as it is to live in the hottest city in the country with so much growth, opportunity and buzzing energy, it can have downsides. Even if our own world is going okay, we still pick up on others’ anxiety around things like politics, the economy, traffic and other situations we know we can’t control.” Stay in your own boat, ride the wave and don’t forget to breathe.
Breathing is something we count on to happen automatically. Turns out, a lot of us unconsciously hold our breath for long periods of time—we’re not breathing optimally because we’re hardly breathing at all. Then, there are even more of us doing the opposite; we are over-breathing and chronically hyperventilating. A simple action such as focusing on how we breathe can have a profound impact on our health. “I tell patients that if you change your breathing, you can change your medical history,” says Liz Hoffmaster. Hoffmaster, based in Austin, coaches people on how to breathe and provides manual physical therapy services. She calls herself a “body mechanic” and helps people get their own hands dirty to master their health. While she uses different types of bodywork to address a panoply of problems, teaching low and slow breathing is often part of a client’s treatment.
“We live on screens all the time, at desks and in our hands. So many people tell me, ‘I carry my stress in my neck and shoulders.’ They also might grind or clench their teeth, be prone to headaches and upper body tension. It’s all very much connected to the way they’re breathing and it’s a recipe for shortness of breath, anxiety and muscles that never feel relaxed or pain free. Breathing is life. It’s absolutely fundamental to our daily functioning. Learning how to do it with ease can quite literally have benefits from head to toe.” (See box for Hoffmaster’s breathing tips.)
Expanding on a top-to-bottom approach, alternatives to traditional ways of healing are on the rise and in-demand. With the rise of Dr. Internet and increasing knowledge, there’s a definite trend to take charge of our own health. The more we know, identifying the root causes of aches and pains often means plumbing the mind-body connection and pulling back the covers on our inner workings.
“The truth is, when someone comes into my office, I have no idea what we’re really dealing with or the reason for their visit for a while. Sometimes it’s 10 minutes, sometimes 30. I just have to listen to their story, and then we get started together.” So explains Fran Bell, an integrated healer, who, based on her own life experience, had to get very comfortable with not knowing, but forging ahead anyway.
Forget FOMO (fear of missing out, fostered in large part by social media). You want MOMO (more of me only).
As a child, Bell suffered a traumatic accident resulting in a serious brain injury, broken bones over much of her face and body, and a two-month stay in the hospital. She and her family lived on St. Croix with no access to rehabilitation therapy, but she did have the use of a neighbor’s pool that Bell visited often. That’s where her 11-year-old self first learned—by looking and listening inward—that she intuitively knew what to do and how to move in order to heal her body and regain the cognitive functioning she’d lost. That ability remained consistent over the years; it saw Bell through numerous injuries as a high school and college athlete. It wasn’t until suffering an inexplicable tremor well into her career as a university strength-training coach that she hit a wall. “For once, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t heal and rebuild as I’d done so many times before. I got the message loud and clear that I needed to quit my job and stop everything or I’d never get well.” Ultimately, Bell moved to Austin (without knowing anyone), went to school for medical and spiritual healing and, over time, the tremor left and other things started falling into place, too. “I guess I took a huge risk, but doing what I’d been doing—or doing nothing—was just as risky.
“Bell’s integrative healing practice initially drew on her athletic background with therapeutic exercise and functional movement being the focus. It has evolved to include mental, emotional and spiritual work. “I realized I had to go back to that thing I have, a gift or whatever you want to call it, and really trust that I should use it in my work. Once I did, I knew it was right. My clients were seeing results.”
A visit to Bell’s office goes something like this. Once she’s gathered basic information from conversation, her client lies on a padded table. She walks all the way around the table, maybe stopping several times to touch the client in a subtle way; she is sensing the specific energetics going on within the person’s body and any resulting pain. Bell might apply a small amount of essential oil to a specific spot. Or, she might hold a multi-faceted crystal in her hands and lay it upon the client. Regardless of the particular circumstances, each of her actions comes from a place of inner guidance for the purpose of releasing the energetic, physical, mental and/or spiritual blocks that exist. It’s all about guiding the client to an awareness of their own connection between mind, body, heart and soul.
Bell says she’s merely showing people the answers already within them. “It’s absolutely not about any kind of ‘powers’ I have – if that were the case, you’d only feel better while laying on the table in my office and that’s no good! I’ve always known I have this unusual understanding of the nervous system. I combine that with my knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Plus, I’ve been there as far as pain and trauma go. I show up, I trust and help you come into your own awareness. What I’ve learned is that awareness is power and every single one us has the power to heal and be well.”
Your Cheat Sheet for Rebooting the Mind & Body
• Start your day intentionally. Even five minutes of stillness, prayer, gratitude, stretching or journaling has been proven to lower stress hormones.
• Check in with yourself throughout the day. Be willing to slow down and ask yourself, “At this moment, what is it I really need?”
• Learn to ask for and receive help, large or small. Receiving help not only makes us feel better, it helps us to feel more connected.
• Get yourself to the greenbelt! Time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, enhance problem solving and creativity, and help us gain a much-needed 30,000-foot perspective.
• Manage your energy, not just your time: get comfortable saying “no.” Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
• When sitting at your computer and especially when texting, practice being a “bobblehead.” Make small, loose, fluid movements with your head and torso, letting your sit bones or feet support you. Do this consistently!
• Practice my favorite breathing exercise, pursed-lip breathing: while sit-ting, thread fingers together on your lap, being aware of your fingertips contacting the backs of your hands. As you inhale, lightly press your fingertips into the backs of your hands, breathe into your lower belly, side ribs and chest below your collarbones. As you exhale, relax your fingertips, purse your lips and let a gentle stream of air come out as long as you comfortably can. At the end of the exhale, pause and consciously relax everything that’s tense, including the abdominals. Do this exercise for 3–5 minutes at a time, once or twice a day.
• Be open to the possibility that things might not be as you assume they are, and know that, in a moment or in a year, anything is possible. Be open to receiving whatever is available for your highest good.
• Your pain is never the problem; the problem is how you got it.
• Be an active observer of how you feel during and after any kind of treatment. Did it make your heart happy? Did you get a “yes” or a “no?” Trust that, and then follow through: learn what works for you and keep going in that direction!
•Tell the person you’re working with what’s going on—speak up honestly.
•Don’t ever believe anyone who tells you you’re “broken” in any way.
Read more from the People Issue | December 2016