Tag Archives: health

Book Review – Nonviolent Communication

From my Goodreads Review

During a recent conversation with our younger son and his girlfriend, I mentioned a workshop about nonviolent communication, and immediately Katryna responded that it reminded her of the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, which she had on a bookshelf, having read portions of the book but not a cover-to-cover read. I then blurted “that is who trained the leader of the workshop!” As a result, I borrowed the book from the library. (I hadn’t taken the workshop, just expressed interest in it.)

I wrote four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about the process of NVC, and in the first mentioned my tendency to avoid self-help books, of which this appeared to be one.

However, I ultimately found it a thoughtful process and one that will lurk in the back of my mind as the approach jells. My reason for reading the book was an interest in figuring out how to have potentially unpleasant conversations with people around the myriad topics that have been pervading our lives for the past four years. In other words, how to engage with people when we do not see eye-to-eye.

I don’t have any expectation of changing mindsets, but I would like to be able to discuss rather than listen without comment when someone expresses a belief with which I do not agree. It has often felt to me like my silence was seen as complicit agreement, when actually my silence was either trying to better comprehend why someone would feel the way they expressed, or else my wanting to avoid conflict. Either way, engaging the person in dialog using the principles of NVC would have met my need to find out why they felt the way they did in a way that would likely engender positive discussion rather than conflict.

One other aspect of NVC that particularly resonated comes from the final chapter, Expressing Appreciation in Nonviolent Communication. It has always been difficult for me to accept compliments; I often want to reflect them back on the speaker. To quote Rosenberg:

NVC encourages us to receive appreciation with the same quality of empathy we express when listening to other messages. We hear what we have done that has contributed to others’ well-being; we hear their feelings and the needs that were fulfilled. We take into our hearts the joyous reality that we can each enhance the quality of others’ lives.

Nonviolent Communication: Requesting That Which Would Enrich Life

That is a lengthy title for the fourth precept of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as described by Marshall Rosenberg in the book of the same name. The first four precepts of NVC deal with self-expression, of which this is the final precept. The remaining four components (about which I am still reading) deal with how to receive other people’s self-expression.

Precept three deals with taking responsibility for our feelings, and that is what I focused on in my previous post. However, part of taking responsibility includes identifying what is needed. “By focusing attention on our own feelings and needs, we become conscious that our current feeling of hurt derives from a need…” (p. 50)

Precept four is all about how to make a request so that someone else will be able to assist with fulfilling a need. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part to the NVC process because inadvertently using inappropriate language could cause the request to backfire. For instance, a request should be asked for in a positive tone, using “clear, positive, concrete action language,” with care taken to avoid sounding like a demand is being made rather than a request. To accomplish this successfully, it is helpful for the person making the request to include not only their need but also the feelings they have that accompany the need.

One of the more useful tools of NVC was introduced in this chapter, that of the listener reflecting back to the speaker what the listener believes they heard. This is a way to make sure that the words and tone of the speaker are being correctly heard and understood. I have seen this approach used myriad times in school settings when a teacher asks a student to reflect back what has just been stated by the teacher. If the teacher is using this tool properly, it is a way to check both for understanding on the part of the student, and clarity of expression on the part of the teacher.

Rosenberg sums up NVC in nifty charts on pages 6-7 of the book. The four components inform the process, of which there are two parts. The first part is applying the components to oneself by “expressing honestly through the four components”; the second part is applying the components to others by “receiving empathically through the four components”. Ideally, this is a give-and-take conversation between two people, where each person is able to express themselves clearly and also take in what the other person has to share.

Four components of NVC:
1. observations
2. feelings
3. needs
4. requests

NVC Process
The concrete actions we observe that affect our well-being
How we feel in relation to what we observe
The needs, values, desires, etc. that create our feelings
The concrete actions we request in order to enrich our lives

Nonviolent Communication: Taking Responsibility for Our Feelings

My first yoga teacher once shared these words at the beginning of a practice.

Life is not the way it’s supposed to be – It’s the way it is –
The way you cope with it is what makes the difference

Deb Gorman

This third component of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), taking responsibility for your feelings, seems to me directly related to Deb’s comment.

As we go through life, each of us will hear words directed to us or about us. The words may not be what we think they should be, but nonetheless they are the words that are uttered.

How we react and respond to the words is what will make the difference. We will have control over how the words make us feel, and that, in turn, will impact how we cope and deal with the situation. This opportunity for taking responsibility for our feelings and actions is what makes all the difference.

On the face of it, this may seem logical and even manageable. However, I think that learning how to manage our emotions, how we feel, is a learned art. So how does NVC approach taking responsibility for one’s emotions.

NVC heightens our awareness that what others say and do may be the stimulus, but never the cause, of our feelings. We see that our feelings result from how we choose to receive what others say and do, as well as from our particular needs and expectations in that moment.

Nonviolent Communication, page 49

NVC suggests there are four approaches we could take in dealing with a negative message or action: blame ourselves, blame others, sense our own feelings and needs, sense others’ feelings and needs. At various times I have certainly laid claim to each of those, sometimes – especially when I was younger – employing more than one to deal with a negative situation.

Over time (which I often say is a benefit of aging) I have learned to parse my reactions and feelings before ascribing any blame. Indeed, except in extreme circumstances, I have worked successfully at trying to understand where the other person is coming from to better grasp the meaning behind the words or actions. Ultimately, this leads to reflecting on my needs and on their needs.

I have just finished reading chapter 7, and so far each chapter concludes with one of the more interesting and useful methods I have encountered for checking on understanding. Ten brief one- or two-sentence statements are presented.

To determine if the reader and author are in agreement about the precept that was discussed, the reader is asked to choose which statements reflect the precept. The author, Marshall Rosenberg, then discusses his choices and why. He never says “right” or “wrong;” rather, he simply explains why, if the two of you chose the same you are in agreement, and if you chose a different response, why you two are not in agreement. I found this a positive approach to garner understanding and promote additional thought.

Pranayama Intensive: Sama Vritti

For the past five weeks (concluding last weekend) I was engaged in the Pranayama Intensive online class with Judith Hanson Lasater and Lizzie Lasater. Last summer I was a student in their Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith, Lizzie, and Mary Richards. When the opportunity arose to participate in another class with them, I immediately jumped in. The class was intentionally offered at this time, when so many of us are sequestered in our homes as a result of the pandemic, making it for me an auspicious time to study the breath. When breathing is slowed and exhalations become longer, the slower, deeper breath calms the nervous system. 

Judith noted that Pranayama and Breathing are NOT the same thing. Pranayama is intentional control of one’s breath. Prana refers to energy, and yama is restraint. Taken together, pranayama is “working with the physics and energetics of breathing.” Within the yogic umbrella there are several types of controlled breathing patterns; the first one we explored was Sama Vritti.

But before we could practice, we had to set up the yoga mat with props to enhance the sensation of the practice. The photo just below is the suggested setup. I have tried this and did not find it sufficiently conducive to my practice so have made subtle changes. Pranayama ProppingIn place of the stair-stepped stacked blankets I used a soft bolster with a sweatshirt rolled at the front to fill in the space between my low back and the bolster. In place of a rounded bolster under the back of my knees I used a squishy bed pillow. And I prefer a small, soft pillow under my neck and head. Delightedly, the first time I practiced was on a lovely warm, sunny Saturday afternoon when our back deck beckoned. Propped next to my head was my iPad for playing the guided pranayama audio file. my setupSama means same, which appropriately is what the spell checker usually tries to change “sama” to each time the word is typed. Vritti refers to busyness and activity. Sama Vritti Pranayama is a balanced breath pattern, each inhale and each exhale being of equal duration, like a balanced seesaw. In this manner, the breath balances the busy mind. 

I have seen this breath referred to as Box or Square Breathing, though I prefer the Sanskrit flow of the words on my tongue, like the flow of my breath. I enjoyed 22 luscious minutes listening to Judith guide me in to the setup and practice, listening to the quiet as I breathed, listening to the silence in my mind, returning at the sound of the chimes and listening to Judith guide me out of the practice. 

I would like to write that my practice has been in earnest, taking the time every day to practice, be it five minutes or twenty. Alas, that has not been the case. Twice. That’s the total number of times I have practiced. Partially this is because I lead yoga practices online three times a week, and partially because I still have a day job. However, the day job concludes next week and it marks not only the end of a school year but my retirement from the world of school teaching and transitioning more fully to the world of yoga teaching, something for which I have been preparing for the past four years!

The Gene – An Intimate History (2/2)

This post follows on the heels of an earlier post this morning. As noted at the end of that post, about half of the sticky tabs I stuck throughout the book deal with a particular interest of mine and that’s what this post covers. What we consider as normal and not normal in terms of our physical, biological, and cognitive lives is determined in large part by how we choose to frame the definitions. 

As the 1800s was turning into the 1900s, the English doctor Archibald Garrod “had conceptually visualized a human gene and explained human variation as ‘chemical diversities’ encoded by units of inheritance. Genes make us human, Garrod had reasoned. And mutations make us different.” [bold face my addition] Garrod’s work set off “a systematic effort to create a catalog of genetic diseases in humans” and, oh my, there is an astonishing array of such diseases. Penetrance refers to the fact that “even if a mutation was present in the genome” of a person, “its capacity to penetrate into a physical or morphological feature was not always complete.” 

I am intrigued by Mukherjee’s further elaboration on these ideas as he takes us through a growing definition of disease.

The definition of disease rests, rather, on the specific disabilities caused by an incongruity between an individual’s genetic endowment and his or her current environment–between a mutation, the circumstances of a person’s existence, and his or her goals for survival or success. It is not mutation that ultimately causes disease, but mismatch. (p 264)

Even the nature of the “mismatch” is mutable: since the environment is constantly subject to change, the definition of disease has to change with it.”

…the lack of fitness–illness, in colloquial terms–was defined by the relative mismatch between an organism and environment. (p 265)

Over and over I was struck by the normalcy of differentiation among humans. It turns out that “facial features and heights are shared because genetic variations are shared among individuals,” meaning within families. Stop for a moment to consider what humanity would be like if we all looked the same with the same physical traits. How would we know who was who? And what traits would be the ones that we all had? Surely there is already a sci fi book with such a pretense. (If you know of one, please list it in a comment so I can borrow a copy from the library. Thanks!)

The natural segue is to move from pondering physical differences to intellectual differences and the influence of environment. More vocabulary words emerge from this discussion: heritable, which is a trait influenced by genes, and inheritable, which is a trait that is handed down intact from one generation to the next. (p 346) 

Using the example of growing a tall and short plant in various conditions (insufficient nourishment and appropriate nourishment), both plants grow short without the necessary nutrients, while both plants grow to their natural height with adequate nourishment, meaning the short plant grows to a short height and the tall plant grows to its tall height. Mukherjee states that

Whether genes or environment–nature or nurture– dominates in influence depends on context. When environments are constraining, they exert a disproportionate influence. When the constraints are removed, genes become ascendant. (p 347)

This is an important idea to him, and he asterisks it to a footnote on the page: There can hardly be a more cogent genetic argument for equality. It is impossible to ascertain any human’s genetic potential without first equalizing environments. [italics my addition]

There is much food for thought in this book. It is filled with a history of the discovery and science of genes, diving deep into DNA and spiraling back out to try to discern what it means to be human. I am very much in synch with Mukherjee’s thoughts about equalizing environments and think about this in the context of 38 years of teaching, 36 years of parenting, and over 60 years of living in a world consisting of beautifully diverse humans!

I leave with this image of the circular flow (p 410) of biological information, the final flow that began as a few statements many pages earlier in the text (and was noted in my previous post).circular flow

 

The Gene – An Intimate History (1/2)

In January I finished reading and wrote about The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was bemused that the history of cancer could be so captivating, all due to Mukherjee’s story telling prowess and facility with language. I immediately wanted to read more by him, and last night completed The Gene – An Intimate History.

Reading this book was no small feat! Night reading was difficult as my mind tended to wander or my eyes would droop into tiredness. I had no choice but to make this purely a the genedaytime read, meaning it took awhile to make my way through the 495 pages of text. Mukherjee’s writing sparked many questions and points of interest, as the sticky tabs attest. At one point I grabbed the nearest piece of paper, a page from the Sunday Times with sufficient white space for me to jot down my thoughts after reading pages 274-275, which is one of several times that eugenics and newgenics are discussed.

My response whilst reading those pages: If we are all alike we lose the beauty of our unique human differences because often a disease in one area yields a strength in another. That variety of strengths is what creates the range of thoughts, actions, and ideas without which we become more mono-thinking, mono-acting; we give up potential creative approaches and solutions to obstacles that life presents. “Uber-normalcy” yields inability to sustain life when, as will happen, an abnormality occurs.

Turns out, Mukherjee feels similarly. As he went on to state on the next page, “What if ‘disease-causing’ gene variants were also genius enabling?” To a certain degree, this theme percolates throughout the book as scientists uncover the foundations of genes, heredity, DNA and their inner related worlds, and discover (an ongoing process) ways of meddling in that soup. To be sure, sometimes the meddling is phenomenally beneficial, such as highly targeted approaches to cancer care. But the ability to meddle with our humanity opens up numerous safety, philosophical and ethical questions to which there are no easy or quick answers. Taken as a whole, this is a book about science, philosophy, ethics, social science, history, medicine, disease, and people.

I have gotten ahead of myself! Let’s back up to page 61, where I chuckled at chicken…was merely an egg’s way of making a better egg. This was the conclusion of Hugo de Vries, a Dutch botanist turned geneticist. de Vries built upon the work of Mendel and is credited with using the word mutants (change) to describe variations in plant life. From there he postulated that “these mutants had to be the missing pieces in Darwin’s puzzle.” And from there it became apparent that “natural selection was not operating on organisms but on their units of heredity.” Hence the italicized quote at the start of this paragraph.

Parts of this book were like biology and vocabulary lessons. (I was once exposed to some of this in high school.) The interplay of natural selection and evolution as they relate to genetics results in the words genotype, “an organism’s composition…[referring] to one gene, a configuration of genes, or even an entire genome” and phenotype, “an organism’s physical or biological attributes and characteristics–the color of an eye, the shape of a wing, or resistance to hot or cold temperatures.”

Along the lines of more basic biology and chemistry, how often do any of us stop to remember that sugars provide energy, fats store the energy, and proteins enable the chemical reactions that manage the process.

With the contemplation of the interplay of nature (genes) and nurture (environment), this led to some of the early stepping stones delineated by Mukherjee (p 107).

  • a genotype determines a phenotype
  • genotype + environment = phenotype
  • genotype + environment + triggers chance = phenotype

Slight digression – as a yoga teacher who has been known to say “let your breath be your guide” and “move with your breath,” I enjoyed the visual that came from an early chapter about the “gene molecule.” Mukherjee writes “Cells depend on chemical reactions to live: during respiration, for instance, sugar combines chemically with oxygen to make carbon dioxide and energy. None of these reactions occurs spontaneously (if they did, our bodies would be constantly ablaze with the smell of flambé sugar).” 

As the story of the gene unfolds, Mukherjee paints a picture that perfectly clarified for me the process of trying to understand DNA. He explains that

Chemists generally piece together the structure of a molecule by breaking the molecule down into smaller and smaller parts, like puzzle pieces, and then assembling the structure from the constituents. But DNA, broken into pieces, degenerates into a garble of four bases–A, D, G, and T. You cannot read a book by dissolving all of its words into alphabets. With DNA, as with words, the sequence carries the meaning. Dissolve DNA into its constituent bases, and it turns into a primordial four-letter alphabet soup. (p 216)

This post covered a little less than half of the sticky tabs stuck throughout the book as I marked pages to return for further thought. As most of the remaining tabs deal with a particular interest of mine, I will save them for a second post.

Did you PANDICULATE today?

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes, posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts. 


Pan-di-cu-late.

Say each syllable, then let the whole word roll off your tongue like a wave. Pandiculate was my new movement vocabulary word in 2019, having learned it while viewing Mary Bond’s Google Talk The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World. Turns out, every cat and dog pandiculates, and so do humans, but if you aren’t familiar with the word then you likely have no idea when you are pandiculating!

S – T – R – E – T – C – H – I – N – G

It’s that simple. Stand and stretch. Raise your arms as high as you are able, pressing your fingers away from your shoulders. Perhaps roll onto your tiptoes and let them hug the ground, lifting your heels as if to take off. Sit and stretch. Let your arms hang long and press your fingers towards the ground. Extend your legs and lift your feet just enough to press your heels away from your legs. Or better yet, find whatever position is available for you and stretch your limbs as comfortably and firmly as you are able. Simply stretch!

Then add a yawn, and maybe even some sound to stretch your jaw.

There you have it. Pandiculating.

Like saying each syllable separately, a stretch awakens each part of your body. Like the word rolling off your tongue, a full body stretch sends a wave of energy and alertness throughout your being. If you’re curious about this simple yet powerful action, the Somatic Movement Center’s What is pandiculation? provides a more detailed explanation of this marvelous function that we often make use of on a daily basis and often without any familiarity with its formal name. That’s me, below, stretching through my heels and the crown of my head, grounding down through my palm as I reach up stretching through my raised fingers. How else to have fun and stretch during the day at work!

side plank copy

My Mom’s Email Sign-Off: Metta

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes (or in this case, several additions), posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts.


All blessings bright and beautiful

That is how my Mom would sign her emails to me, followed by Love.

When I began leading yoga practices my Mom’s sign off became my closing words along with an added sentiment – 

May all blessings bright and beautiful be yours, may you shine them inward to nourish and reflect them outward to share with those you meet.

My additional words change with each practice, as the moment takes hold, but always they reflect inner self-nourishment, and outward kindness and consideration for others.

Over the years the Buddhist tradition of a Metta practice has found its way to my awareness, either from reading books or having my yoga teachers explain and then guide such a practice. A little over a year ago, while reading Frank Ostaseski’s thought provoking “The Five Invitations,” I was struck by his mention of the first Sanskrit chant I ever learned: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. (My review of this book is here and my reflection about the book is here.)

In English it translates to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Ostaseski describes Metta as “a practice in which we consciously evoke a boundless warm-hearted feeling” and that by reciting this chant, or similar chants, “we gradually establish benevolence, friendliness, and love in our own hearts, and then we extend the wish for well-being and happiness to all beings in every direction.”

There are two interesting aspects of chanting that resonate with me. The first is that it is much easier to remember something if it is set to a melody, particularly if there is a repeatable rhythm. The second is that chanting can help to clear the mind and prepare it for relaxation or meditation. I wrote a bit about chanting in early 2011, and find it interesting that almost ten years later very few of my yoga teachers incorporate chanting into their classes. After typing that sentence a smile spread across my face with the realization that I, too, do not include chanting in the classes I teach!

EileenAndLaurieMy Mom was practicing Metta long before I ever understood that it was something, a practice, a way of being and thinking. Her closing words always resonated with me as a powerful and beautiful expression of love – love for self and love for others. I wonder if she was consciously practicing Metta or if the words just simply resonated with her, as well. Thanks Mom. 🙂

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

I recently completed the reading of this almost 500 page book. Reading about cancer might not be your idea of a “good read” but Siddhartha Mukherjee is a natural story teller and a doctor, and he tells the story of cancer with depth, discernment and loving kindness. (My Goodreads review of the book is here.)

I was intrigued by the discoveries of what cancer is, particularly that its possibility exists within each and every one of us. I don’t want to forget the explanation of how cancer gets turned on, hence this post.

As best I understand the explanation of genetics, each human cell contains two prominent genes – oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. Oncogenes help cells grow and replicate; tumor suppressor genes inhibit cell growth. Mukherjee likens these two types of genes to putting your foot on a gas pedal (cell growth) and putting your foot on the brake (tumor suppressor genes.) When both types of genes are properly doing their job, all is well.

It is when a mutation occurs to a gene that the balance is thrown out of whack. Imagine a mutated oncogene, the gene that helps cells to grow; it would be as if the gas pedal was stuck in the down position, allowing cells to replicate with abandon. Imagine a mutated tumor suppressor gene, the gene that inhibits cell growth; it would be as if the brake was unable to be depressed, thus removing the function in the gene that stops the replicating of genes. As Mukherjee further describes the history of the discovery of how cancer comes to life he discusses specific proteins.

Genes encode proteins, and proteins often work like minuscule molecular switches, activating yet other proteins and inactivating others, turning molecular switches “on” and “off” inside a cell. … Proto-Oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes, cancer biologists discovered, sit at the hub of such signaling pathways.

Cancer, in short, was not merely genetic in its origin; it was genetic in its entirety. Abnormal genes governed all aspects of cancer’s behavior. Cascades of aberrant signals, originating in mutant genes, fanned out within the cancer cell, promoting survival, accelerating growth, enabling mobility, recruiting blood vessels, enhancing nourishment, drawing oxygen–sustaining cancer’s life.

These gene cascades, notably, were perversions of signaling pathways used by the body under normal circumstances. … Down to their innate molecular core, cancer cells are hyperactive, survival-endowed, scrappy, fecund, inventive copies of ourselves. (p 387-88)

In case you are wondering why my interest in what cancer is, I do not have a morbid curiosity. Rather, in 1998 I was diagnosed (thanks to mammography) with Stage 1 breast cancer, and treated via lumpectomy, radiation and tamoxifen. Among other things, this has made me a big proponent of mammograms and a huge fan of proactive, preventive care. I had my annual gynecological visit just a week prior to getting the mammogram, and a physical breast exam did not uncover any malady, precisely because the tumor was incredibly small. While cancer can be slow growing, it can also be fast growing, and my next mammogram would not have been for another year.

I conclude with a final quote from the last page of the book.

…to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies. (p 470)

While some cancers can be prevented (remove carcinogens in the environment such as asbestos and cigarettes), and others can be mitigated via treatment (surgery, transplants, medications), there are still others that are elusive and obstinate. Coupling the therapeutics of caring for someone with cancer, with all the myriad and sometimes debilitating approaches, and the study of cancer is insured a future history. Perhaps technology will help pave the way for deeper understanding of how our very human selves function, in turn leading to more humane approaches to care and treatment.

It’s Alwayz Now!

Circling back to a post from 2010, in December of 2018 I crafted my first blog post on my newly created professional yoga site. Since then, having written several more posts, I’ve opted to include them here as they are relevant to our always firing neurons.


now_is_now_smallest-scaled500

NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… It’s ALWAYZ now!

These accurate words were categorically stated in the December 14, 1986 Boston Sunday Globe comic strip, Rose is Rose. A young ice pop munching child asks for “Nudder ize bop pleez!” and his mother replies “No, you may not have another ice pop!” You might think the discussion is over, but being a typically concrete (and ice pop loving) child, her son asks, “Not EFFER?” and his mom comes back with “I don’t mean not EVER… I mean not NOW!” Of course, as you can see in the comic, the child has a reply.

Mom’s conclusion, as she and her son sit down to more ice pops: Your philosophy better not be rusty when you’re in charge of the ice pops!

This comic has graced our refrigerator, and more recently a wall, since 1986, when my father-in-law cut it out of the paper and sent it to us to commemorate our then two year old’s absolute love of ice pops.

It is always now. That is what yoga celebrates, to focus on the moment at hand. It is the only moment there is. Take a respite from what happened the moment before, and take a break from imagining the future. Breathe in a soothing inhale, breathe out a calm, slow exhale. Now be present in this moment and breathe again.

entire_comic-scaled1000