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“Mindfulness decreases worry!” With Beau Henderson & Lissa Michalak

In general, mindfulness decreases worry! When we’re in the moment, we aren’t thinking about what has happened (and how embarrassing it was, or how we could have done it better!) or about what might happen (and how awful it might be, or how dull now is compared to what will be). We are thinking only […]

In general, mindfulness decreases worry! When we’re in the moment, we aren’t thinking about what has happened (and how embarrassing it was, or how we could have done it better!) or about what might happen (and how awful it might be, or how dull now is compared to what will be). We are thinking only about what is now and what we need to do right at the moment, and just enough of the future to know what the immediate next thing is.


As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lissa Michalak.

Lissa is a movement hacker who can show you how to access your body’s natural healing protocols using only movement. She is a leader in the field of somatics, having presented at national and international conferences. As a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist and Educator, studying and teaching human movement efficiency since 1990, she specializes in the mind-body connection and pain relief. She has taught countless fitness professionals how to work safely with clients and how to use movement to help clients feel good long after they leave the studio — and worked with countless clients on how to overcome their pain and move the way they want to. She also consults with companies on ergonomics, work-related pain relief, and using movement to help employees focus and increase their time in flow states.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thanks for having me here! I started getting interested in movement efficiency in the early 1990s when I was teaching whitewater kayaking in high school. In kayaking, an efficient forward stroke means you can stay out all day and have more fun, instead of getting tired and having to get off the river. Fun has always been an important motivator for me!

I moved to NYC in the early 2000s to become a writer, and got a job as a personal trainer on the side — which quickly became my full-time gig! As soon as I got my NASM-CPT certification, I headed for the geekiest continuing education class I could find — because it was the most interesting to me.

I kept chasing my interest deeper and deeper into physiology, kinesiology, and anatomy, picking up certifications in 3 different Pilates schools along the way, and found the synthesis of mind and body made explicit in the world of somatics.

Somatics is a way of looking at the mind-body connection that acknowledges both the way the mind and body can affect each other, and the paramount importance of a person’s experience in their own body. Most people think of a specific discipline when they think of somatics, such as Alexander Technique, or the Feldenkrais Method. But a person with a deep knowledge of somatics can bring a somatic approach to anything — Pilates, fitness, dance — which is what I do!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was teaching a class on women’s wellness and the anatomy of the pelvic floor, and a woman asked me, “Do men even HAVE pelvises?”

It made me laugh at the time, but every time I see a student light up with an understanding of their own body, I feel like I’m striking another blow against ignorance, shame, and self-loathing. Too many people think of their bodies as sources of pain and shame, or as something that’s valuable only in its sexual attractiveness to others. And I love proving that mindset wrong, and replacing it with wonder instead.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Remember the body! It’s very easy to focus on the mind in an office environment — how to focus, how to concentrate, and how to work with your mind. Maybe some offices offer a yoga class or 2, or encourage people to quit smoking or lose weight. But when you really understand the why of the human body, you find yourself wanting to take care of your body better — because you can feel how awful NOT taking care of yourself actually feels.

For example, I’ve done presentations to corporations and their employees on office ergonomics, and really, a trained monkey could tell people what height to put their monitor at, or where to put their keyboard. But because I’m a big nerd, my favorite part is telling people why they need to have their monitors at a certain height, or put their keyboard in a certain place, and how it will help their bodies not hurt. That helps people make their own decisions about which aspect is most important to them — and shows them why ergonomics is more than just an HR buzzword. They also get a sense of agency over their own bodies, which is the most important aspect of all.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have really enjoyed Cal Newport’s Deep Work — it’s changed my work habits and helped me preserve chunks of working time, which is harder and harder as everyone gets used to being at home all the time — which means Mommy is technically always available….

And, of course, Frank Netter’s Human Anatomy. From the very beginning of my anatomy studies until now, many years later, it’s still the resource I go to most often to see where everything is in relation to everything else. It’s not quite as good as being in an actual human dissection, but in the absence of a cadaver lab, it’s a great way to make connections and promote understanding of the human body.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Being mindful, for me, is a state of being intensely present in the moment. When you hit the “mindfulness groove”, you aren’t thinking of the past or future, just what you’re doing right now at the moment.

People often associate mindfulness with seated meditation, or with yoga, but mindfulness can happen anywhere, doing anything.

I train Shaolin kung fu, and we often talk about “action meditation” as we train — each form is a sutra, a prayer, and every action can be a meditation. Mopping the floor is a “mopping meditation,” folding laundry is a “folding meditation”. Even a mental action, such as programming or writing a class can be a meditation if you are focusing on solving the problem in front of you instead of worrying about the future or going over the past.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

In general, mindfulness decreases worry! When we’re in the moment, we aren’t thinking about what has happened (and how embarrassing it was, or how we could have done it better!) or about what might happen (and how awful it might be, or how dull now is compared to what will be). We are thinking only about what is now and what we need to do right at the moment, and just enough of the future to know what the immediate next thing is.

Physiologically, this means people who meditate show an increase in restful, restorative brainwaves, and the ability to take in oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide from our systems more efficiently.

Psychologically, individuals who practice mindfulness report higher levels of life satisfaction, vitality, self-esteem, and competence, as well as less anxiety, depression, dissociation, and absent-mindedness. The amygdala, a brain area highly reactive in post-traumatic stress disorder, becomes less reactive in more mindful people, and mindfulness is also linked to better attention functioning and improved cognitive flexibility — exactly the traits that help us in high-pressure, high-stakes situations!

(Here’s a great review study on the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of mindfulness: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3679190/)

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Persist!

Pick a practice and stick with it for a couple of weeks. If it doesn’t work for you, pick a new one, and stick with that for a couple of weeks. Mindfulness can be frustrating until you get in a groove and start to calm your mind. You get used to whatever is “normal” for you, even a stressed-out, unhealthy, unhappy way of life. Don’t fall for your brain’s fear of change, and you’ll be able to change for the better.

Listen.

Use your mindfulness practice to listen to your body, and let it be in the driver’s seat sometimes. We sometimes think of our bodies as ways to transport our brains; in fact, our bodies are like antennae, constantly receiving and processing input subconsciously. If you’ve ever followed your intuition or had a gut feeling, you’ve been listening to your body!

Track.

Keep tabs on your mental state as you play with your mindfulness practice, and watch for patterns or trends. It’s hard to see small changes in day-to-day life, but over a week or two, you might see the real difference. And sometimes you just need to remind yourself how far you’ve come.

Disengage.

Check the news once a day at the very most. More than that will stress you out even more. Consider checking the news every couple of days. Meanwhile, stay at home and call your friends — and talk about something other than the virus! By talking about something else, you break the cycle of worry and stress.

Support.

Find a mindfulness community that you can support and that can support you. Having other people to talk to who are also practicing mindfulness makes you feel like this is a normal thing that people you like do, which is really important in sticking to it! Whether you prefer yogic seated meditation, martial arts, and moving meditation, trance dance, group singing, or chanting, there is a group of people out there doing it and talking about their challenges.

The important part of the community aspect is not only to support others in the community but to allow it to support you. If you already have a community that is supportive of your mindfulness practice, great! If not, keep looking — your people are out there.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Support yourself.

The hardest thing for some of us to do is to support ourselves. But if you don’t take care of yourself, your stressed-out self isn’t going to be able to provide the support you think you’re providing!

A simple exercise you can do to support yourself is to press gently on your lower back. Put your hands vertically on your back between the top pf the pelvis and the bottom of the rib cage and press as much or as little as you need. Try both light and strong pressure and see what your body says yes to! If you can’t put your hands on your back comfortably, you can roll up a couple of small towels and lie on them. See what feels good, whether it’s a big or small towel roll, or lying with your knees up, bent, or down. If you have someone around, you can support each other by putting your hands on each other and take turns feeling the support and asking for the level of pressure that you want right now.

Sync your breath.

This is where your self- support starts to pay off! And the best part of this exercise is that you can do it with someone who is present either physically or virtually.

Put one hand on your belly at the base of the rib cage in front, and give it some comfortably firm pressure — anywhere from resting the weight of your hand on your belly to actually pressing in — and put the other hand on your belly below your belly button. Breathe slowly and deeply, feeling the breath move your hands in and out. Sync your breath with your friend, either by talking and saying “in…out…” or just watching each other’s hands. If you’re in the same room and feel comfortable, you can put hands on each other’s belies. As you sync your breath, your mirror neurons will fire and you will feel closer and more attuned to each other, whether you are physically near or not. And slow, deep breaths will fire receptors in your lung area that calm your nervous system — wins all around!

Find your center

Deliberately firing specific muscles deep in our bodies helps us physically feel a sense of centering and support from the inside out. This is what I call a “body koan”: a thought that you only truly understand once you feel it in your body. (BTW, if your affirmations don’t feel satisfying, this is why!)

Sit on the edge of a chair and straighten one leg out in front of you with the heel resting on the floor. Let the toes fall to the outside. Keeping your thigh muscles relaxed (this is the hard part!), imagine lifting your leg slowly off the ground — but don’t actually lift it. You’ll be able to feel your lower back coming forward to meet your leg as the psoas major muscle, which lies deep in your abdomen on either side of your spine, activates. Now do it on the other side.

Define your space.

In movement analysis, your kinesphere is the area you can reach with your body. You are always at the center of your kinesphere, and its outer limit is defined by the farthest you can reach your arms and legs away from you.

Spend some time moving your arms and legs and defining your own personal kinesphere. Then move around with it. Let it sink in that this is literally your personal space. Enjoy it!

Breathe into your back.

Slow breathing exercises literally relax your nervous system by sending nerve signals that trigger your body to drop out of fight-or-flight mode and into a rest-and-digest mode (if your digestion has gone to hell lately, consider this one!).

Put your hands on your back at the base of your rib cage (palms on your back if you can; backs of the hands if you can’t. Pressing your back against a wall or a rolled towel can also work if you can’t reach your back.). Breathe in, slowly and deeply. Feel the base of the rib cage move under your hands. Whether it moves barely at all or a lot doesn’t matter; what matters is that you’re sensing into the connection of the base of your ribs and air entering your body. As you do this over time, you may notice a change in the range of motion in your back — that’s cool!

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

Your own body. As you develop your mindfulness practice and your body gets used to a new normal, it will tell you what you need and when you need it. It will also tell you what tools work best for you now. The hard part is getting used to listening to yourself. The more time people spend online, the more disconnected from our bodies we become. We then start to believe that our cravings and desire not to move comes from our bodies, rather than our brains.

The more time we spend in movement meditation designed to make the mind-body connection explicit and conscious, the better we’ll be able to separate the body’s needs from the mind’s. For example, I’ve been doing weekday dance breaks combining somatics and free dancing to turn a fun 15 minutes into a movement meditation that resonates throughout your day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“In somatics, it’s not a metaphor.” I have been using imagery in my teaching for years and years, and the more I learn about somatics and the mind-body connection, the more I realize that these images are not just pretty mind pictures — they really can change your mindset and the way you use your body, which leads to a whole new world of personal growth for your mind and a lack of pain for your body. Wins all around.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want somatics to be the next yoga. In the fifties, yoga and meditation were unheard of in the mainstream. By the seventies, they were kind of weird and edgy, but getting more acceptance. By the nineties, yoga was all the rage and now it’s normal. I want somatics to be as widely accepted and normal as yoga is. We’re already moving towards it with mindfulness work, mind-body work, and many different kinds of exercises, but I’d like to see people really making the mind-body connection explicit and conscious. And, of course, talking about somatics!

Right now, I’m working towards that by doing a Daily Dance Break that incorporates a couple of very specific somatic movements to make that mid-body connection conscious. Then we dance, incorporating those movements. I’m aiming to build a following there, and then take it into some longer, more involved classes, online for now, and in person when we can.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can join my Dance Break mailing list at https://bit.ly/dailydancebreak

You can follow me on Instagram using @somaticanatomy, or my Facebook business page, also Somatic Anatomy. And of course, I’m Lissa Michalak on LinkedIn.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thanks for having me here!

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