Dearbhla Kelly as described by the Huffington Post, was born and raised in Ireland. She is a Los-Angeles based writer and yoga teacher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practices of everyday life. She is recognized as an esteemed yogi traveling the world, most recently in Turkey, leading and teaching yoga, yogi philosophy, and neuroscience workshops. Yoga One in Cedarburg, Wisconsin had the pleasure of hosting Dearbhla for a series of workshops and I had the good fortune of attending Saturday afternoon Plastic Patanjali: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life.
This session was nearly 3 hours in length and rather than the typical physical practice Dearblha introduced practioners to Pratipaksha Bhavana, the practice of cultivating thought pathways that feel better. The actual definition: "When presented with disquieting thoughts or feelings, cultivate an opposite, elevated attitude. This is Pratipaksha Bhavana. (NJD) Dearbhla studies both the yogi sutras and neuro-science, so throughout the presentation she references original gurus like Patanjali but also current research that links our health, our behaviors, or even obsessive thoughts to the firing of neurons within our brain. Reminding us of the adage, "Neurons that fire together, wire together," she explained that the "wiring" creates the mental groove or chemical pathway that makes us continually reference that person or situation that then results in a bombardment of feelings. In the yogi world these memories or groove patterns are called Samskara, a mental impression.
If you are like me, or Dearbhla, or the majority of the human race, these mental grooves or impressions can create repeated suffering, she presented an example from her childhood to explain. Growing up in Ireland it was common for the family to go to a pub on a Sunday afternoon. The parents would meet with other parents and enjoy jovial conversation and Guinness while the kids would be provided with Red Lemonade, a soda similar to 7-up. After some time the kids would get hungry so the parents would give them chips....then they would get thirsty, more Red Lemonade...and then they would get hungry, more chips...and this pattern would continue in circular fashion until they finally left the pub; the desire between hunger and thirst was never resolved, only perpetuated. Such is similar in our thought patterns. We have a thought, for example, "Why does he never call me?" Then we have a feeling of anger. We tell ourselves stories about the situation, obsessing about the situation with our thoughts followed by our feelings and when he finally does call we express our feelings of anger and rage about why he never calls...and he calls even less frequently.
Sometimes our memories or Samskaras are dormant until a song or smell evokes the recollection and then we return to that wheel of action/reaction asking ourselves, "Am I ever going to change this pattern of suffering?" As Dearbhla finds the most authentic place to teach is often from personal experience she shared the example of being a new driver in Los Angeles. She was in a traumatic accident as a child in Ireland and always made it a point to live in places with mass transportation so she would have no need to drive. This changed when she came to the states. She took 6 brief driving lessons with a 70 year old Puerto Rican man in Chicago and that was the extent of her drivers education. Once in L.A. she had been driving about 6 weeks when she was exiting a parking garage. She looked left, then right, then pulled out only to be T-boned in the left driver's side. Fortunately she and the other driver suffered only minor injuries although her car was a total loss. This experience however created a mental groove that for years caused her anxiety and white knuckles every time she was to turn left. It was only when she developed her focus on the yogi breath, the "Ujjayi" breath, reassuring mantras, strategies to quell her anxiety and short-circuit these neurons that fired every time she was about to turn left, that she became comfortable again with driving. Today she has no problem making left turns.
In a physical yoga practice we create familiar motor patterns, for instance how to stand for Warrior 1. If we don't learn the physical stance correctly then sometimes we perpetuate the pose out of proper alignment. A teacher places us in the proper position but then we must continually practice this proper position or else we resort back to our mal-alignment. In this case we rewire our brain to create the correct motor sequencing and body position. In a physical practice a good teacher takes you to the edge, your legs feel tired, your effort is near its maximum and yet you are cued by your teacher to breathe through it. This physical practice on the mat can be translated off the mat emotionally and psychologically. When you are with a person or situation that often contributes to grief, you learn to be with that person or situation in a more spacious way, to decrease your attachment to the person and instead create an awareness of the situation separate from the flood of feelings of anger, jealousy, sadness etc. The person or situation no longer sets of this cascade of thoughts and feelings because you have practiced perhaps a mantra, affirmation, meditation, a physical act like taking a walk that weakens the associations you once had with this situation. Just like you decompress and create space/flexibility with your physical practice the same can be true applied emotionally.
As Dearbhla shared, what good is a physical yoga practice where you can do a 1-handed push-up or place your leg behind your head but you verbally explode to your spouse or child the minute you walk through your front door. The physical practice should prepare us to live and be in our life in a more graceful, skillful way. The physical practice is great but off the mat is where it really counts. So often we want to change others but the reality is we can't, so we have to be accountable to our own practice, to our own behaviors. Just because someone treats you poorly does not mean we should then treat others poorly. Ideally we become committed to creating a life with less suffering and more joy for ourselves and others. Part of this learning process too is cultivating discernment, the ability to make good decisions that lead to less suffering. Cultivating discernment is much more important than getting your foot behind your head....because after you get your foot behind your head you still have to deal with everything else in your life. Discernment occurs in the cerebral cortex, the most developed, evolved part of the brain in humans (at least it should be!) With discernment we learn to form interventions and affirmations that strengthen our emotional fortitude. With practice, discernment, making prudent, wise, mature decisions gets stronger. Looking at pictures of yoga poses will never make you better in the pose, one must practice the pose to get better. We can read about the value of breath, or positive affirmations, or intentions but until we actually practice our intention, employ our back-up plan to cope with difficult situations, we won't change our thought patterns and behaviors. The elixir in yoga, the magic potion of what makes yoga different from just exercise, is the breath. It is the breath that connects our mind to our body, that keeps us focused on the present moment, that helps us resolve our feelings of isolation, or loneliness, or pain...whatever it might be. The elixir, the medication of breath, must be practiced.
Psychoneuroimmunology or PNI is one area of Dearbhla's studies. PNI involves the connection of the mind to the experience of health. According to Dearbhla there is an uncontroversial link between what we are thinking, the stress we are feeling, and the condition of our health. The teachings of yoga have recognized this for thousands of years, as did Patanjali, but they did not have the scientific ability to prove it in the year 800, yogi's were their own guinea pigs. Now we know the neurotransmitter dopamine, the "feel-good" substance our body creates, the reward chemical, is released by our brain and contributes to feelings of joy. Certainly addiction is related to the release of dopamine, this has been studied in gamblers and cocaine users but dopamine is also naturally released in the feel-good centers of our brain when we are in love, when we accomplish a goal, when we make good on our intentions; in all these situations we get a hit of dopamine. Even "Likes" on facebook make us feel good, release dopamine, but can have an addictive quality. This is all part of the hard-wiring of our brain. Creating that "feel-good" feeling is fine, chances are we all want it, but creating it from living a joyful, peaceful life is incredibly rewarding. The release of natural dopamine from making good on our intentions, from practicing positive affirmations, from utilizing our yogi breath is our bodies way of creating healthier neural pathways and disconnecting the pathways that once led to suffering or negative emotions. Obviously this does not mean you will never feel angry again, or hurt, or isolated but it may be a strategy that helps you stop re-living the same situation that is in the past permitting you freedom to live in the present. We all deal with stuff that contributes to challenging thoughts and feelings so it is important to have great compassion for yourself as you practice strategies to improve your emotional alignment.
Dearbhla closed the practice with Yoga Nidra, a guided mediation practice to connect mind to body, being aware of our physical body and its sensation but not attaching to its sensation. For instance, becoming aware of being tired but not saying, "I am tired." Becoming aware of hunger but not repeating, "I am hungry." She quietly guided us to allow the "I" to be absorbed by the heart and instead be aware of the sensation of hunger but recognize it as separate and distinct from you. She referred us to on-line podcasts and apps that can lead us through our own 10-20 minute Nidra practice so that we strengthen this philosophy of being aware of our feelings, our thoughts, our physical state but not obligated to attach to those feelings. I have to confess I started to leave prior to the Nidra exercise as we had a special function to attend Saturday evening but everybody made it clear that the Nidra was really the heart of the changing your mind, changing your life practice. So I too reclined on my mat and bolster, covered myself in a blanket, closed my eyes and listened to her quiet directions..I practiced and as a result I got stronger.
My blog does not do justice to Dearbhla's amazing teachings, her humorous examples, her graceful kind manner in connecting with every individual in the room. If you have the chance to attend any of her workshops, please do. Subscribe to her emails, research the medical articles she references that demonstrate the links between our thoughts, feelings, and our health. Take advantage of local workshops and instructors to develop strength, intention, and resolve to live a more discerning, intentional life. Thank you for reading!