APU Business Careers & Learning Leading Forward Podcast

Techniques to Improve Your Physical and Emotional Health

Podcast featuring Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean, Wallace E. Boston School of Business and
Christine ShawYES, Yoga for Emotional Support

Many people are struggling with emotional and mental health challenges. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to yoga instructor and yoga therapist Christine Shaw about how simple techniques, like breathing and heart-opening stretches, can improve our mental and emotional state. Learn more about the connections between physical and emotional health and ways we can bring greater joy and peace to our lives even during stressful times.

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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about a technique that will assist you with improving your relationship with others. We have a returning guest, Ms. Christine Shaw. This is our third episode in a series.

[Listen to Episode 1: What You Focus on, You Find: How a Positive Mindset Guides You to Success]

[Listen to Episode 2: From Resistance to Acceptance: Reducing Stress]

Christine is a very enthusiastic innovator and entrepreneur, always looking to guide people to trust their intuition and heal from stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and life situations, so that they can thrive in life. She has over 40 years of experience in the wellness and fitness industry and thousands of hours teaching yoga. She is the owner of Liberty Yoga Studio in Newark, Delaware since 2012. Christine created, YES, which stands for Yoga for Emotional Support, after experiencing painful and challenging emotional situations when her daughter struggled with substance abuse disorder from the age of 12 to 19. And when she married a man who lived with the effects of unsolved childhood trauma, she turned to yoga to help NA navigate and relieve her own pain and stress. And it has helped her to move forward and thrive in the face of difficult life situations.

Christine, welcome back to our podcast and thank you for joining me. Christine, let’s jump straight to the topic we want to discuss today. Heart opening, a yoga, brain and heart connection for self-love.

Christine Shaw: Yeah. Hi Marie, how are you today?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Fine and you? I’m excited about this episode. We’re actually going to jump right into a technique. However, when we were preparing, you were about to share a story. Can you share that now with our audience?

Christine Shaw: Sure. Well, first I want to say you sparked me to think of something when you were introducing me, and saying that I have struggled with a lot of difficult, challenging situations in my life and both of those things with my daughter and her substance use disorder and marrying a man with trauma who left me suddenly, both of those were so heartbreaking. And yet, here I am on the other side, feeling fantastic, and I’ve come through them in lots of wonderful ways in my life. And so, we’re going to be speaking about heart opening, and loving yourself, despite the things that are going on in our lives.

And so the story I was about to say is right before we came on, I was like, “Oh, I remember this story of just the other day,” when I was teaching a yoga class, a new student was in there and I started doing some heart opening postures where we’re opening our arms, we’re stretching out the chest area. And he said, “Wow, that really feels great. It feels like I’m more open. And many times I’m sitting in this slouch position and immediately it changes my mood to slouch like that. But when I open my heart and reach my arms and lift my chest, that changes my mood right there.” And just that simple thing can elevate our emotional state. And so we can know how to get ourselves out of maybe a depressed state just from our physical posture.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I like that. I’m excited to see what you have for us today in terms of practical techniques that we can utilize at any time during the day or evening, but something to get us back to thinking about out the positive versus what’s going on around us, are you ready?

Christine Shaw: I sure am.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. I’m turning it back over to you.

Christine Shaw: So, in the YES class, or Yoga for Emotional Support, we do lots of things that have to do with helping ourselves to get to this parasympathetic nervous system, which is where we can rest and digest. The reason it says “rest and digest” is our gut health is really important. And when we’re in a heightened state of anxiety or worry, we’re not able to do that as well. And our body doesn’t function as well.

And so, I was introduced to this thing called the heart math. And if you look online, it’s heartmath.org, and there they talk about the relationship that we can have with our heart.

Our heart and our brain work together in producing the emotional states that we’re in. Your heart contains these neurons that are actually similar to the ones in your brain. And they’re very closely connected, and it creates this symbiotic relationship when we can think of the heart and the brain as working together.

So, the exercise we’re going to do today is a good one to help you to connect to not only the heart brain, but to your sense of self-love and self-worth. So those of you all listening, let’s sit nice and tall, or you could even lie back in a comfortable position, and we’ll do this little exercise, one that I might teach in my class.

So, this is called heart-brain-coherence technique. And so we’re going to start by just allowing yourself to settle in this moment, and just bring your full attention, and awareness to your breath as it comes in and goes out. Feel the natural sensation of the breath moving through your body. And let’s bring that sensation to moving through your heart. So, as you inhale, the breath moves in through your heart, and the center of your chest, and it flows back out again. Imagine the breath just flowing in and out of the heart. You can breathe a little slower than usual, bringing your attention around the heart area helps you to center and become more coherent.

And as you continue heart-focused breathing, now begin to make a sincere attempt to bring appreciation and care for yourself. See how that feels in your body to bring care and attention to yourself.

Our heart is this place that resonates love, and kindness, and care, and gratitude. And now you can begin to focus on bringing care and appreciation for someone in your life. Sometimes that is easier than bringing care to our own self. So, once we can connect to ourself and our love for ourself, we can more easily be able to care for others instead of the other way around.

The next thing we’re going to do is focus on a time in your life when you felt love, or gratitude. It could be for a person for a pet, some situation you were in, and bring all of that awareness right to your heart center. Your heart has this little brain of its own, where you’re going to bring that attention to it. And as you do this, relax your breathing, and your nervous system will start to relax as well, will come to that rest and digest. So, signals from your heart to your brain are moving through your emotional state. And this opens the door for you to experience more uplifting emotions that you can access during your day.

So, this was a simple exercise that can do anytime. So remember the steps are to bring your awareness to your heart and focus on the breath going in and out of the heart. And second, activate a positive feeling of self-love, and maybe positive feelings of love for others. And then you could also think of a positive time in your life and when you do that, really bring all of your awareness like who is there? What are you celebrating? How are you feeling? All those feelings of joy and elation, right to that heart center.

So, as you’re feeling stressed, or overloaded with emotions, or anger, or upset, or anxiety throughout your day, you can pause, this didn’t take that long to do. You can pause and just focus on you, the center of your heart and all the gratitude, and kindness that you have seated right there. It’s within you all the time.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I love that. As I was going through the motion, I thought of something. There have been a number of people, or I should say employees, that I have coached in the past. And one of the things that tends to be a theme is, how do I control my feelings when I’m at work, especially at a place that’s open space. They feel as though there’s no privacy when they may be experiencing stress, or having conflict with a fellow employee.

And this particular technique is a good one, especially since so many of those workers, they keep out the noise, they’ll have their headphones on. So to listen to something that we just did that could bring the person back to a centered position, and get them to not focus on the problem that’s going on right in front of them, but one of the things that you said, was we have to start with ourselves, to get ourselves in equilibrium before we try to help other people or deal with other situations.

Christine Shaw: Yes. I think a lot of us are always on like high speed. And when someone is a person’s energy, right, when a person is slowing down and they’re going to just take this time to do this, someone else might be like, “What’s up?” And you’re like, “Hold on, I’m taking a time for me now.”

And it could be a really good role model for other people to say, “Oh” and then you’ll be able to respond in a much more kind way or going towards a solution. Or maybe your response would be, “I really have to think about this a little more, and I’m going to come back it, so I’m going to give you the best answer I possibly can.”

But you probably wouldn’t be able to do that in a heightened worry, anxiety state, you wouldn’t be able to have the correct response. So, just taking a pause for yourself, taking a few breaths, people don’t have to know what you’re doing in your head. You could just be breathing and hold your hand on your heart, and you’re like, “Hold on one moment.”

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I found a way to where it doesn’t look like my chest is going up and down, but to have that breathing technique. I think I first started practicing it laying down because I found it to also be helpful when you first get up in the morning, but I appreciate you sharing it for sitting up because, well, as we started, you could tell, I’m not, as I said, I’m not a morning person, so it was taking me a little bit to get myself together and I started to perk up. But as we did that technique, it was like an awakening, feel refreshed.

So, it’s interesting how I think it’s the breathing part, how that can energize you, whether it’s in the morning for people like me, or whether it’s in the middle of a work day. And you just feel as though, I’ve done all that I can do, but to get energized again, I know a lot of people search for techniques to do that as well. How do they get through that second part of the day?

Christine Shaw: Well, when you mention energizing in yoga practices, there’s so many different breaths, right? Breaths to calm and relax you, but there are also plenty of breaths to energize you. So there’s this breath called Kapal Bhati breathing, which just simply means like “breath of fire.” And it’s an energy exercise we could do, which is quicker breathing.

There’s this other energy exercise that’s called “breath of joy,” and it involves movement with your breath. So I can describe it to you right now. And you can picture how to do it. It’s pretty easy. You could stand, or you could even do it seated, but it’s better if you’re standing. And you just reach your arms out to the side of your body, then cross them in front of your body, then reach your arms straight up in the air and then throw them down by your side. So, again, it goes out to the side, across your body, straight up in the air and throw them down.

So, with those arm movements is breathing. And so the breathing is three inhale breaths through your nose. So you might go, three inhale breaths and one “ha” exhale breath. Now, when you open your mouth and you do “ha” that’s relieving tension, and worry, and strain, and I’m telling you it really works. So, it’s called breath of joy or it’s three little inhale breaths, one exhale breath.

So, let’s just try it. We could try it right now. You could do the movements or you could just do the breath, and then see how you feel. We’ll just do four times, okay? So here we go. We’re going to breath in, in, in and exhale. Let’s try the arm movements go in, and ha, ha, ha. All right. I feel good. I feel energized just doing that. Did that wake you up a little more, Marie?

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I always think with the breaths, somehow I get more oxygen up to my brain, but it feels different, though. And it does make me more alert when I do the breathing exercises.

Christine Shaw: And bringing joy into our body. I mean, you’ve got to move your body. So, I want to just share something where we were just actually talking about this a little bit ago, where people do spend time at a therapist, and I think that’s fantastic. You need to have that time to work out the stuff, the stuff of life, whatever it is from trauma to just life stresses to relationships.

But a lot of that is talk therapy. And so many people now are combining talk therapy with movement. And so I do yoga therapy. I’m a yoga therapist, and I will use yoga practices for therapy. And so what that means is that we are doing yoga asana movement. And like we’re talking about now breathing mindful visualizations, meditations, all these things that can help us to get more into our body. And without a lot of talking, we can just feel, feel what’s going on, get in touch with it.

Because I think a lot of us have these kind of feel detached from our body and we’re not able even to recognize when an emotion is coming up, we just run away from it, maybe. So we might feel a gut sensation, or pain in the heart, or closed-off throat, something like that or headache. And then we’re just like, “Oh, no, let me take an aspirin for my headache,” but don’t really tune into what’s actually happening in our physical body. So, that’s a really important thing to remember is that we can tune into the body for self-care.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I’ve always said if there’s anything that you know better than anyone else, I value doctors, but you know your own body. And you pretty much know, you may not know in the beginning, what is wrong with you, but a lot of people self-diagnose themselves and can kind of figure out what’s the root cause. And it’s nice to have these techniques in place. And as you were talking, I was thinking back to, and I’m going to date myself around 1995. I remember working for a business that had a dialogue room.

And when you were sharing an exercise, especially when you said you can stand up, some people may feel uncomfortable to stand up in the middle of, especially if they have open space. But these type of organizations also have these rooms, and it would be nice, at least in my experience, that they have allowed employees to use these rooms to do different things, to get them back centered.

So, if you work in a place such as that, this is an opportunity where you could just go off for a break or a few minutes, and then do some of these techniques that Christine has shared to get yourself back to a good emotional state, to complete the rest of the day.

Christine Shaw: What a great idea. We sit at the desk so much, our brain is always working on task and chores and things. And if we can simply give ourselves just five minute break I know a lot of people, they work through lunch, right? I’m like, “What is that? Why are you working through lunch?” They just work constantly. Eating at their desk, and staying at the desk in this posture. I have a hard time sitting for any length of time where I’ll keep working at the computer, but I stand. Those standing desks, things are good. So, what you’re saying is great, going off and taking care of yourself, whether it’s physically, mentally, or emotionally is a great idea. Taking a walk.

I had a story that I wanted to share. That’s actually a little bit of a vulnerable story, because we’re talking about the body and knowing, and listening to your body. So, I remember that when my past husband left me, he just pretty much took off. And so I was left to figure out everything, figure out selling the house, and all the stuff that I had to do. And it was really emotional for me at the time.

Well, I was still teaching yoga classes, and I started being like, “Ugh” my pelvic area just started really hurting. My back was hurting. My hips were hurting all around that area. It was hard to stand, walk anything. And I knew, though, that it was not a physical thing. I knew it was emotional and all in that pelvic area, that’s where we hold onto safety, security, all those things that were taken away.

So, I would be in the middle of teaching class, and my whole pelvic area was just shaking and vibrating, and it was so, like, weird. So, I knew though that it was emotional. So a friend suggested that I go to a chiropractor and I thought, “Okay, let me try that.”

So, I went to the chiropractor and I said, “I really have all this stuff happening in my pelvic area.” And I said, “But I know it’s not physical. I know it’s emotional.” And she was like, “Yep, I hear you.” So we get down the table, she’s doing some adjustments. And then she came to the pelvic area. She like leaned over, moved my hip in a certain way, and did this huge “crack.” And as soon as she did that, all these tears came flooding out of my eyes. It didn’t hurt. It was the emotion and she released it.

And from that moment, it felt fine. The next day I was totally fine. I go walk. I do everything, no more shaking in the pelvis. I had to actually physically get it out of there. So, we can really hold these emotional states in our bodies, and it’s so important that we keep our bodies healthy and moving and recognize when we need some support.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Thank you for sharing that story, because one thing you said I’m guilty of it as well. Two of my best friends in life are my yoga instructor and my chiropractor. And I’ve had both for a number of years, but it’s so true that, for example, you talked about your pelvic area. I know my area too. It’s my lower shoulder blades that any type of stress or anxiety, if it heightens, it will go straight to that area. And I either have to do a yoga session, or I have to go to the chiropractor to experience what you just shared. But one of the things that I thought about was I’ve heard a number of practitioners talk about since the pandemic people have gotten worse.

And I think they have gotten worse because they’re inclined to spend more time working. They spend more time in front of the computer in a stationary position, and it’s wreaking havoc on the body. But some of the things that you have shared in, the different episodes, I think we can get people to be very conscious of how much movement they have to get during today in order to keep their body healthy. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, I can go and work out like after I get off.” But, the thing is, if you don’t take any breaks, you’re really damaging your body. Would you agree?

Christine Shaw: Yes. And what you were saying is, it’s detrimental to our physical body, but also our mental, and emotional state, definitely. And all of this kind of lockdown stuff that we’ve been through, still, people are working two years, been working from home. And so that’s a lot of isolation. Some people have their family around, but really we’re not interacting. We’re not as social. And guess what? We are social beings. So, we need that sociability. And the best one is face to face. Second best would be on the Zoom calls and stuff. They could still see their face, but we’re not in the same room. So, we need that part too.

But yeah, like you said, we do need to get up and get our bodies moving and maybe go outside, get a different atmosphere. That’s also really wonderful for our mental state. It’s to not stay in the same room all day, however many hours. You’ve got to get up, breathe the fresh air, go for a walk, and take time for that. And that’s part of your wellbeing and healthy state of mind and body.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yeah. And another thing that I was thinking that was very innovative would be, you were just talking about the need for face to face. And I’ve been such a proponent of online learning, that’s what my dissertation was about. And the fact of even remote working. And I guess I look at it as a way to be an extension of your life versus the central part of your life.

Christine Shaw: Yeah. What I like is these things that’s called Meetup, and they’re meetup groups and that’s a great way to meet new people, that have a common interest. It gets our opportunity to get out and about to socialize, which is so important. We humans need interaction with other humans. We have to do that. And then, again, with the physical being able move the body and that’s helpful for the brain.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Anything to do something, to help people out, we don’t always have to do what we use to.

Christine Shaw: At my yoga studio, I am starting to do some community things. So the one thing that I love to do is game night. So I’m just saying to create a sense of community, and so you can laugh. Laughter is a great, healthy thing that boosts our endorphins and everything. So, you have fun playing with games with people.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I was in the Virginia area, and I stayed at a hotel that had like an underground connection. And one of the nights that I was there, a lot of people from the community came into this location and they played games. I mean, people were bringing their game boards and everything, and they basically just sat all of them up at tables, like different types of games. And it was different people from the community, and visitors such as myself just joined together, and played games that we hadn’t played for years. But it was a way of meeting new people and making new connections.

Christine Shaw: I’m loving all of the ideas that you and I are just sitting here talking about. So, I love all these ideas that we can all try. Try them out. One of the things that I do in the S class is give lots of different techniques and one might really speak to someone more than another. So, I give a variety so we can say, “Oh, I really like this one, and I’m going to try this heart-brain connection that we were just doing to start really tuning into yourself.”

This whole yoga and this whole self-worth stuff, it’s an inside job, right? It’s not an outside job. I mean, like when I say not an outside job, I say, we don’t want to look to the outside world to say, “Well, if only that was changed or you did this different thing or my environment was different,” and we keep looking outside to try to change the world so that then we’ll feel better. That doesn’t work. So, we’re the ones going around with our own self. So going in can be a difficult, sometimes, painful experience. But it’s just going in to just do the simple things of loving yourself, of breathing. You don’t have to do complicated things. Just go inward. It’s all this inside job.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I totally agree. Well, Christine, I want to thank you so much for joining me today, and sharing your expertise. Do you have any additional words of wisdom?

Christine Shaw: I think just that when we are feeling our emotions and feeling like we need a little boost, try different things that are going to do that, write your list, right? The things that help to soothe me most are, and then you write that list. The things that bring me joy are, write that list.

And then when you’re like, “What was I going to do again?” Go grab your list and be like, “Oh, yeah, going out for a walk, calling a friend I haven’t talked to in a while. Writing in my journal, listening to music.” So have this little toolbox that you can pull things from when you need them.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree. Have it ready for when it’s optimal for you start to change, and become more positive and healthier. People see that, and they start to want the same thing, and may ask you questions on how did you change your mindset? So, it’s a building block we can learn from each other. We have been speaking with Christine Shaw.

Christine Shaw: Thank you, Marie. What a great conversation we had today. I appreciate it.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Thank you. This is Marie Gould Harper thanking you for listening to our podcast today.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.

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