Amy Wheeler - Yoga Therapy, Sleep and Anxiety
Amy Wheeler is a Yoga Therapist, holds a PhD in Educational Psychology, a sports psychologist and the developer of Optimal State system of health and healing. Amy is also President of the Board of Directors to the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Amy is a leader in the field of yoga therapy, so this is a conversation you’ll want to hear.
We speak with Amy about her journey of discovering yoga, and how she came from a background working in sports psychology to eventually become a yoga therapist. We learn about anxiety, the relationship between anxiety and sleep, and how yoga and yoga therapy may help. We get a great reminder of the scope of practice of yoga teachers and therapists, and how we can best serve students or clients who may be struggling.
Also in this episode, we are announcing the launch of our Patreon page! Patreon is a way that you can help financially support the podcast. The Flow artists Podcast will always be free and we love doing it, but creating this podcast does take time and energy - from booking, researching and interviewing guests, writing great questions to editing and processing audio, writing show notes and sharing on social media - it can take around 8-10 hours to create each episode.
For more information go to https://www.patreon.com/flowartistspodcast
Amy Wheeler's website: https://amywheeler.com
Assessing and Balancing the Human System: https://www.janetlowndes.com.au/amy-wheeler-workshop
Click on a timecode to play from that time in the recording.2:23 Amy’s background, growing up as a PK (Pastor’s kid)
3:19 Amy became a sports psychologist
4:12 How Amy discovered yoga
6:01 On sports culture
6:45 How different was Amy’s sports psychology practice from her yoga therapy?
8:04 Has Amy always had the ability to break down complex issues into digestable bites or is it a skill that developed over time?
9:14 Amy gives an example of how she would work with someone who has many complex issues as a yoga therapist
11:26 Is it Amy’s experience that people are more likely to seek help for a physical ailment than a psychological one?
13:57 What is Amy’s process like when working with clients on a yoga therapy basis?
17:33 It’s not an assessment, it’s a co-negotiation.
18:34 The connection between insomnia and anxiety
21:28 Does Amy have any advice or tips for people caught up in a cycle of insomnia?
24:38 More tips to help you get to sleep - golden milk, warm showers, no electronics in the bedroom!
25:24 Exciting news - we are launching a patreon!
26:44 Is anxiety on the increase, or is it just better diagnosed now?
28:34 What are the changes they are seeing in the brain scans of young people - what changes are beneficial, and what changes are not so good?
30:18 What practices are more beneficial for individuals with anxiety, and what are not so beneficial?
33:46 What are great practices to do in the morning?
36:50 Does Amy have advice for people who are using SSRI’s but may need help with managing the effects?
39:46 Does Amy have any advice for teachers who are working with students facing anxiety, and perhaps experiencing new sensations in their mind and body?
45:05 Does Amy have any practices for her own self-care and wellbeing?
49:22 Amy talks about her upcoming workshop in Melbourne
51:20 Amy is working on an app!
53:38 What is the core thing Amy would like to express in her teachings?
55:03 Outro and thanks to our Patreon supporters
Please email us to report any transcription errorsRane: Hello, my name is Rane, and this is the Flow Artist Podcast. Every episode we interview inspiring movers, thinkers, and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. If you practice or take yoga, movement, and meditation, then you are in exactly the right place. I hope you're having an absolutely wonderful day. I've got so much to tell you though, so I'm going to jump right into it.
Rane: Today's episode is a recorded conversation between myself, cohost Jo Stewart and guest Amy Wheeler. Amy is a yoga therapist, a sports psychologist, and the developer of Optimal State® system of health and healing. Amy is also President of the Board of Directors of The International Association of Yoga Therapists. Amy is clearly a leader in the field of yoga therapy, so this is conversation you'll want to hear. We speak with Amy about her journey of discovering yoga and how she came from a background in sports psychology to eventually become a yoga therapist. We learn about anxiety, the relationship between anxiety and sleep, and how yoga and yoga therapy may help. We get a great reminder of the scope of practice of yoga teachers and therapists and how we can best serve students or clients who may be struggling.
Rane: We were extremely excited to get the chance to speak with Amy, especially as she'll be heading over to Australia to present her workshop assessing and balancing the human system, yoga, yoga therapy, and psychology. This is happening at Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne this August the 9th to the 11th and will be an incredible workshop, I'm sure. In fact, Jo decided she wanted to book herself in as soon as we finished recording the episode, and I followed along soon after.
Rane: Gina Macauley who we had on the podcast a couple of episodes ago described her work as groundbreaking, so if you're in the Melbourne area and want to learn a simple and effective way to assess yourself, your students, and clients, you should definitely make it along. We'll see you there. I'll leave a link in the show note at podcast.flowartists.com.
Rane: Okay, I've definitely talked more than enough for now. I've got some exciting news I want to tell you about, but we'll get to that a little later. For now, let's get to our conversation with Amy Wheeler.
Amy: I grew up in the United States in the Midwest, and I was what they call a PK, a pastor's kid. My father was very involved in the church, the Christian church. I grew up in a small town with lots of corn fields, and we had this saying that bad news will beat you home, because the town was so small that by the time you did something on one side of town, bad news would get to your parents before you could ride your bike across town. I grew up in a very quaint, quiet, lovely neighborhood and I felt by the time I graduated from high school, and especially from college it was just too small for me. I really needed to see the world. I needed to explore different world religions and see different cultures, and that's when I really started to travel the world more.
Amy: When I was getting my PhD in psychology, I became a sports psychologist and I traveled all over the world with United States sports teams, so if there was a World Cup somewhere or a national team game somewhere preparing for the Olympics. There was a good 10 years where I traveled the world, and that's the last time I went to Australia was as a sports psychologist with the USA Women's Field Hockey Team, and we were competing for the World Cup. That was, I don't know, maybe 20 years ago that I did that.
Amy: I'm looking forward to coming back to Australia this August and experiencing it as a grown woman. Before I felt like I was a kid bopping around over there, so I'm not sure how much more of my story you want me to tell, but-
Jo: Oh, no, that's great so far, and I'd love to know when you discovered yoga and how that became part of the picture.
Amy: I guess in my late 20s I went through a pretty hard breakup, and that's right around the time that that book was coming out, Eat, Love, Pray, and the woman goes to India and finds herself. I think maybe my breakup was before her book, but it was that feeling that, well, I'm just going to get involved in yoga, and I'm going to go to India and see what's over there. When I got there, although I had been practicing more of a Iyengar style yoga, and an Ashtanga style here in the US.
Amy: When I got over there, I discovered Yoga Mandiram. That was more like a medical clinic, called the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and I realized, wow. Yoga can be used as medicine, as therapy. And so right there on the spot, I got so interested in yoga therapy that I kind of left behind my Ashtanga and Iyengar roots. Not that they don't have therapeutic systems also, they do, but at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, that's all they did was kind of this therapy yoga.
Amy: So that was in 2001, and I've never looked back since. I've been to Chennai seven different times for three to six weeks at a time, and then studied in this tradition in Europe and then the Unites States and falling in love with yoga therapy, or yoga as therapy.
Jo: When you discovered that, were you already a sports psychologist at that time?
Amy: I was. I had already been doing world travels as a sports psychologist for 10 years at that point. It may sound strange, and I hope this doesn't offend anyone, but I had gotten kind of tired of the sport culture where-
Jo: Oh, where it was all about winning?
Amy: Well, not just all about winning, but also everyone getting so drunk every single night including the coaches, and kind of an old boys club and a lot of misogyny and patriarchy. I felt at some point, I'm a grown woman, I don't need to put up with this stuff anymore. What I always said was I never quit sports psychology, I just started doing it on normal people and calling it yoga therapy.
Jo: Actually, one of the reasons I asked that question was I was wondering if how much of what you already were practicing as a sports psychologist ... Was there a mindfulness component to it, or already any breath techniques? I was wondering how different it was from the yoga therapy that you ended up moving into.
Amy: It's actually completely like 95% overlap. I mean, even back then, I would take a Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and translate it into sports language, and give them this really amazing philosophical quorum to think about for their golf game.
Amy: I was always teaching long exhale breathing to the athletes to soothe their anxiety. So it's 100%, 95% overlap really. Just a different language you have to, whoever you're working with, translate it into a language that they can understand.
Jo: That seems to be a real feature of your practice now. Your ability to take the yoga therapy principles and really adapt them to the person that you're working with. I've just got this lovely little quote from your website which sounds beautiful, "Any strength lies in taking very complex systems of thought and breaking down problems into language and exercises that are simple to understand. This allows her to guide her clients into solutions almost immediately." I'd love to explore into that a bit more, and is this just naturally something that your brain does, the way that you figure out the world? Or is this something that you've really cultivated over time?
Amy: That's a great question. In yoga we talk about your blueprint coming into this life, your mahat. What ancestrally do you bring? What's your DNA? What's your Ayurvedic dosha? These types of things. I truly feel I was brought into the world to be a teacher and to take very complex systems and break them down into simple, digestible bites that people can chew up and understand and use almost immediately. It's just how my brain has always worked. I've always been able to take a complex system and break it down and deliver it pretty easily and quickly, and so maybe that's one of the gifts I was born with. But it seems to work really, really well as a teacher, to be able to do that. And probably getting my PhD in psychology, specifically educational psychology probably helped even refine that more.
Jo: Would you like to give us an example maybe in your practice where someone has come in with a whole lot of complex issues and the way that you would work with that as a yoga therapist?
Amy: I would just say most people come in with one issue that has nothing to do with what they really want to work on so they come in and say, "Oh, my back hurts, and I have some sciatica,". So on the first lesson looks like you're working on a low back pain and sciatica. But then two to three sessions in, you realize they have major financial problems, they think their spouse is cheating on them, they start to open up and you see, wow, that is a human being who's suffering on multiple layers. And no wonder they have back issues and sciatica.
Amy: Then what we do is we try to figure out, are they in so much pain that they need pacification to even be able to make it through the day? And if it's pacification then I'll choose one set of goals and the tools that will meet those goals. But if the person seems strong enough to handle going after the cause without being pacified first, then we'll set different goals and choose very appropriate tools to meet those goals.
Amy: Most of the time when people are suffering like that, they need pacification for a month or two before they're strong enough to move into the really deep work of shifting their lives. That's a very generic view, but it gives you an overview of theory that actually comes from ancient Ayurvedic texts which is the words for what I'm describing are [Shamanam Shodenum 00:10:46], and then taking them through this step-by-step process to set goals and choose appropriate lifestyle changes and yoga techniques that are going to really help them achieve their goals hopefully quickly and efficiently.
Jo: I guess Yoga therapy, you're quite uniquely positioned because if you were practicing as a psychologist, you wouldn't get the person who just came in with a sore back who actually has a whole lot of deeper things to work on, because yoga therapy has a physical component as well. I can imagine that sometimes people would be a lot more open to seeking help for a physical issue than a mental health issue. Is this your experience as well?
Amy: 100%. People want physical pain, physical problems to be gone, and they don't feel embarrassed about a sore knee or low back problem. They always enter, not always, but oftentimes, they enter through that door, and then because they perceive us not to be a psychologist, that's when they start opening up and telling us everything. This is a point we have to really be careful about. If it's a clinical issue, and they truly need a psychologist from marriage counseling with their spouse or financial help or what it is, we have to refer them back.
Amy: We say, "You can keep doing the yoga therapy, but I need you to see a clinical counselor also because this clinical issue is out of the scope of practice for Yoga therapy." And then you might think, "Well, why do you need to keep seeing both?" The answer to that is that, the suffering is not only mental emotional, it's in your tissues. It's physical. I can help you work through physical and mental, emotional pain in a different way than, say the psychologist, but when you do the two together, it really, really is efficient and helps you transform more quickly, I think, as opposed to just talk therapy.
Amy: It seems to me that there's maybe as sematic component that is missing, and you stay in your head, you stay intellectualizing the problem instead of embodying a new way of being in the world and feeling different in this world. I hope that makes sense.
Jo: Oh, yeah, and it sounds like such a amazing and powerful process as well. It must be a very rewarding process for you just to watch people go from existing in pain and struggle to blossoming in the world as you move and breathe with them, and often, of course, as well, as they attend to these other areas in their life.
Jo: I'd love to hear a little bit about your process as a yoga therapist, because I know that you have had a very traditional training at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, but you're quite renowned as well for thinking outside of the box with some of the things that you do with your clients. Could you describe to us what might happen in someone's first visit, and then the kind of homework that you might set with people or what your process is like?
Amy: I like to take from western psychology and neuroscience from the latest in health behavior change research from Ayurveda, from Yoga, from philosophy. I guess I like to tie it all together and even though my main modality is Krishnamacharya Yoga, I'm probably more open than most to bringing in some of these other areas of study and research. When a person comes in, I will put them through a full hour assessment. That's going to be from the ancient texts, I will assess. We call it a [Krisha 00:14:34] there's five Krishas.
Amy: Do any of the five causes of suffering or the five Krishas seem to be prevalent in this person? Then again, through the ancient texts, we have mapped out nine obstacles that are keeping people from moving forward and through interviewing them, determine, "Do they have any of these obstacles that seem to be very prevalent?" There's another part of the ancient texts that says, "Here are the four main symptoms of suffering." Then I'll look at, huh, do they have any of those four symptoms of suffering showing up?
Amy: Then I'll do an analysis of, I don't know how to explain it, but we call it the gunas. It's how their mind works, and we'll look at, is their mind over excited? Is their mind agitated? Is it anxious, is it overwhelmed? Is it super focused? Is it perfectionistic? Is it controlling? Is it lethargic and lazy and depressed? We have from the ancient texts, these different ways to look at the mind, and we also have from the ancient texts, different ways to look at the body.
Amy: This is where it differs from a traditional psychotherapy practice. Whereas, in psychotherapy, they might be using all the tools and assessment and diagnostic things laid out for a psychology. We actually don't use any of those, and I think it would be out of our scope of practice to do that. Instead, we use assessments from the ancient yoga text and Ayurvedic texts. After they go through this hour-long assessment, then at the end of the session, I ask them, "What's most important to you? What is causing you the most suffering?"
Amy: Let's say they say, "I've got five problems going on, but the most important one is insomnia. "I can't do anything if I can't sleep." Then we'll set a goal together and we'll try to ... I'll write a practice that helps them address their insomnia, and it might seem a week later and refine that practice. Then hopefully within 30 days, we have the insomnia taken care of, and then maybe we move on to the second goal that they have. "Now I want to work on more flexibility in my hips, and low back." "Okay, let's do that."
Amy: Really, I allow the client to tell me what their life goals are, and then through my assessment and through my knowledge of all the different tools we could use to get them there, we write a daily practice, and what I call lifestyle medicine routine. "Okay, you'll get up in the morning at this time, and you'll scrape your tongue, and then you'll have some hot water with lemon, and then you'll get on your treadmill. And then ..." Basically, we'll help them map out an appropriate lifestyle medicine routine based on the ancient yoga and Ayurvedic texts.
Jo: Sounds great. I really like as well, the way that it's very much based around what the goals are rather than not just what your perception of what they need is. Like, it's a something that you come to together as a team.
Amy: Exactly. This is not ... when I say assessment, I've chosen that word carefully because it's a co-negotiation. It's not me diagnosing, it's not me having a hierarchical position where, "Ooh, I see this is wrong with you, I want to fix it." It's more of a relationship where the person says, "Hey, I'm suffering in this area. Do you have any ideas?" I call it the guide on the side. They're in charge of their own healing, they're self-empowered to do the work, but I'm going to help assess them and help them see a path forward for themselves.
Jo: I'd love to dive back into the ... you touched a little bit on insomnia, and I'd love to ask you more about that, because you actually have quite a few regulars here at our studio and I know quite a few friends as well who struggle with insomnia, and I heard you mention on another podcast, the powerful connection between insomnia and anxiety, and how sleep really affects everything in our lives. Would you like to talk a little bit more about that?
Amy: Yes. I have to say that anyone who comes to me with areas in their life that they want to improve, if insomnia is on the list, I ask them how they would feel if we address that first, because when you're exhausted the next day, you're going to eat really junky food. You're probably not going to want to exercise. You're not going to be sharp for work. I just feel like sleep is the foundation of human flourishing, that if you're not getting sleep, there's not a very good chance you can flourish in this life.
Amy: Oftentimes, when I suggest that, they say, "Oh, my God. That'd be wonderful. Please help me with my sleep." They know that, but they've given up. They thought, "Well, this has been going on 20 years. There's no fixing it." They've accepted it as the new normal. And I have to tell them like, "No, that's not normal." We need to work with you.
Amy: What I see a lot of these people who are only getting three or four or five hours of sleep, or maybe not consistent sleep, meaning they wake up too many times in the night, or they wake up at 3:00 o'clock and can't go back to sleep. They do feel anxious the next day. They haven't had enough kapha in their system. And that's a word from Ayurveda, but it's like stabilizing, holding energy that your body needs. That's why we need sleep, is to stabilize us.
Amy: If you only get 50% of your stabilization energy for the day, because you can't sleep, you're going to be destabilized the next day. That creates things like anxiety. Depending on the cause of why you're not sleeping, is it because your pets are attacking you all night? Is it because you have young children that don't sleep through the night? Is it because you work 16 hours a day and you can't turn your mind off? Is it because you're having eight cups of coffee a day? Is it because you aren't getting a workout in and until you start working out every day you're not going to sleep well?
Amy: We don't treat the insomnia. We look at the lifestyle choices that the person and the situation that they're in in their lives, and then we figure out, "Okay, what tools do we have at our yoga therapy toolbox to address your specific version of insomnia?"
Jo: It really seems to be as well the things that you do to short term get you through the day. If you've had a really bad night's sleep, like have extra cups of coffee, just contribute to the next night's bad sleep. I've definitely had the experience of, well, having a really busy day the next day. My brain just starts thinking about that busy day, and I start getting a little bit stressed, because it's like, "Oh my gosh, I really need a good night's sleep tonight." But my brain is already worrying about not getting enough sleep and everything that I need to do the following day. Do you have any helpful, "I'm lying in bed awake at night" tips to ...
Amy: You just described my life the last two weeks. I never have insomnia and I've been waking up at 3:00 in the morning with a to-do-list going, "This is long." So I'll just tell you what I do on myself and what I do for a lot of my clients in that situation. We start the night before with a routine, and the routine is, that you lay out your clothes the next morning, you get your coffee or oatmeal or whatever you're going to have, and you get that semi prepared or a timer set, whatever you can manage. You go through your to-do-list and organize it the night before.
Amy: The next morning when you wake up, your to-do-list is already there prioritized beautifully, and you just start work. You don't have to think, "Oh, my gosh. I'm so overwhelmed. What do I start on today?" You've already done that the night before. Then it sounds very strange, but I might have you or me keep a little pad of paper next to the bed that anything that wasn't on your to-do-list that's just popping up like, "Oh, I forgot to answer that email."
Amy: Then you just, you have a little flashlight, you can write it down, and I've had nights where six or seven things pop into my head that I had forgotten about it. As soon as I write them down, I know they're there for me in the morning, so I don't have to like have this whole tracking system in my head. Am I going to remember this or no? Write it down, and then we would have a practice for you, a breathing and meditation practice that you do lying down in bed that helps put you back to sleep. Kind of like a mother rocking the baby back to sleep when they wake up two or three times a night. Well, you're going to be your own mother, and you're going to have a practice in bed that will dial down your nervous system, and put you into parasympathetic nervous system again.
Amy: That's a sample of what we might do, and as far as the breathing techniques and meditation techniques, I could go into detail about which ones work, but it's also specific to the person, that one technique for dialing down the nervous system might work for Jo but not for Ron. That's a sample. I hope that was useful.
Jo: Oh, definitely, yeah. I think I want to know beside my vapes, what we've also found is all that makes a huge difference for us, is just not looking at our phones before we go to sleep, reading a book instead, giving ourselves a bit of that transition time between the workday, which when you run your own business feels a lot more of the day than the time that you're actually with a client. And then, the easing into sleep time. I'm sure you really love the idea as well of laying out the clothes and getting the breakfast things ready, because that first time when you wake up in the morning, it really does take my brain a while to move into action. It's so nice that all of that work is done. Your day can just kind of begin in a gentle way.
Rane: I'm just noticing here, we actually have a little posted note with things we needed to remember for this morning.
Amy: The other thing I should say is, I agree with you 100% about electronics. They cannot be in the bedroom, it doesn't work. But we might also give you some golden milk, which is [inaudible 00:24:44] Ayurvedic drink that is good for sleep. I might have you take a warm shower before you get into bed, and that's like, "Okay, I've had the shower, I can't look at the phone anymore. After I taken that shower to kind of wash off the day." The warm water calms your nervous system. You could also do a little bath. If your insomnia is super bad, we might even have you do an abhyanga oil massage and then get in the bath for a few minutes, because putting oil all of your body according to Ayurveda is very, very calming. There's some practices we might do before bed also to help you in that transitional period.
Rane: Hello, Rane here, about that exciting news I wanted to tell you about, Jo and I have launched a Patreon. Now, if you're not sure what Patreon is, it's just the way that you can help financially support the podcast. Now, The Flow Artists Podcast will always be free, and we love doing it, but creating this podcast does take time and energy from booking, researching and interviewing guests, riding great questions to editing and processing, audio writing, show notes, and sharing on social media. It can take around eight to 10 hours to create each episode.
Rane: In addition, we would love to add transcriptions for the hearing impaired, but reliable services can cost up to a dollar a minute and that adds up pretty quickly. Now for just $1 a month, you can help us continue to make this podcast in higher tiers, will get access to exclusive content from Jo, myself and some of our guests. For more information, go to our website, podcast.flowartists.com and I'll leave a link in our show notes. All right, let's get back to our conversation with Amy Wheeler.
Rane: Just to change the topic slightly, do you think anxiety is on the increase or is just better diagnosed now?
Amy: I think both. I think we're seeing it on the increase, because we are so connected to all these electronics. They're actually showing that the brain scans of the younger generation that's being raised so many electronic devices that their brains are structurally different than some of us who are 40 or 50 or 60 or 70. I think there are some gifts that come with the brain structure changing that will prepare this millennial generation for what is coming for us as a human race on this earth. They're going to need the gifts that come with this different brain. But I think one of the things that is happening to their brains is they are a little more highly anxious, we call it a Vata imbalance in yoga and Ayurveda.
Amy: They're getting some good things from this, but also probably more anxiety and insomnia. Most of the people I'm working with from college students all the way up to 70 are telling me, "I have anxiety. I have insomnia." Are they becoming more aware of it because it's in the news?" Yes, I think they are, but I also think there's some epidemic of insomnia and anxiety on the rise.
Jo: I agree. I see so many more people that I know and people that come to the studio. I feel like people are more comfortable talking about it now, but I don't think it was even mentioned a few years ago. We also have a mental health question on our new client form, which I'm really happy that we have because it does give people that little bit of space to let us know these other things that are going on with them. Just want to ask you though, so when you're talking about the brain scans, what changes have they noticed? And what is the things that could be beneficial to us as well as the not so helpful effects?
Amy: The Best Ted Talk I can tell you that really just woke me up on this was a man called Daniel Amen, and it's spelt Daniel, D-A-N-I-E-L, and his last name is spelled like Amen, A-M-E-N, and he has like a 20 minute Ted Talk I would recommend that everyone go check out, maybe you can put it in the show notes, but he's done 80,000 brain scans. He's located in southern California and he goes through in that Ted talks and shows, here's what an ADHD brain looks like. Here's what an ADD brain looks like. Here's what the chronic insomniac looks like. And you can actually see the structural changes from the brain scans, and basically, he's been able to show that when you have X,Y,Z happening, your brain is probably going to look more like this.
Amy: What's interesting about that is, they are going to be able to start diagnosing things like schizoaffective and bipolar, and all these different mental health conditions by looking at the structural picture of your brain, which is fascinating, because so far, we've only diagnosed those through talk therapy, and here's my experience, and here's what's happening to me. "Oh, you must have schizoaffective disorder." Now we're starting to have empirical proof of what this looks like, and, oh wow, your brain is moving in that direction.
Jo: This is just like you'd have an MRI for a shoulder issue or [inaudible 00:30:07] combine.
Jo: Just returning back to knowing that you have people working with anxiety in your yoga class, like in a group class, what are some of the practices that are probably not going to be helpful for those people? And what are some of the practices that tend to have more of a positive effect?
Amy: This is such a great question, because high intensity exercises like jogging or Vinyasa flow yoga class where you're really working your tail off for 90 minutes, they have a temporary discharge of the anxiety. After you're done for several hours, you just feel, "I don't have that chronic anxiety, yet I feel so good. But it's like a bandaid. And if you continue to do it year, after year, after year, you never really take care of the underlying anxiety. You're just pacifying it three hours at a time with this run or this Vinyasa flow class.
Amy: Many people are out there doing that. They're over exercising as a way to manage their mental health, which is a good first step. And not against that. Anybody who works with me, that will be our first step is, "Let's get you exercising to pacify this condition." But the long term trajectory as a yoga therapist is, I actually want to help them heal the anxiety through a series of steps that slowly they don't have to overexercise in order to manage their anxiety.
Amy: They're going to look at their sleep. They're going to look up their coffee intake. They're going to look at their relationship to themselves and possibly to their loved ones or even to their higher power, if they have that. Through a series of lifestyle medicine changes, we're going to slowly try to help them not even experience the anxiety so that on the day that they can't do their exercise addiction, it's okay. They still feel all right. What we see over time is that, people don't want to spend that much time exercising. They actually would like a little more time for themselves, but they don't know how to get out of the cycle.
Amy: They just do what they've always done, and until they get injured or can't do it anymore and then that's really tough because they don't have a lot of other options. They don't have other coping mechanisms like I might teach them as a yoga therapist
Jo: People might have this pattern where they can only relax when they've really exhausted themselves?
Amy: Right? Or when they've smoked pot or drink alcohol, it's like, we say exercise addiction, line, pot cigarettes, they're all coping mechanisms. They're the symptom of a deeper problem. The coping mechanism of smoking too much weed, it's not a problem. It's a symptom. In Yoga therapy, we want to go say, "Do you choose to do that? Do you want to do that? Is there any other coping mechanisms we can help you introduced yourself?"
Amy: I had a college student come to me the other week and say, "I really like pot and I want to smoke it, but I want to choose when I need it." Right now he said, "I have to have it every morning to get through the day." And he said, "When I become a teacher in a few years, I don't think I can go to school stoned every day." So he said, "I'd like to have you help me so that I have a choice about it and I can do it when I want to, but I don't have to do it to manage my mental health." I was like, 'Fantastic. Let's do this."
Jo: What practice did he find helpful to do in the morning instead to help him be in that state of mind where he was ready to face his day?
Amy: Well, first of all, everyone's cortisol levels are highest in the morning when they wake up, and Cortisol is like a pretty strong stress hormone, and so, most people feel a little anxious in the morning. The worst thing we can do, is to get on our electronics first thing with a big cup of coffee, and somehow think the anxiety is going to go away. The coffee and the news are going to only increase your cortisol levels.
Amy: The first thing might be, "Look, I want you to go to the gym 6:00 AM, get on the treadmill, burn off your cortisol without looking at a bunch of social media or news. Let's find a really nourishing podcast, or some self help thing that you're going to listen to while you're doing your workout. Then come home, have a nice solid breakfast of these types of foods that you enjoy and that are also healthy.
Amy: Then with breakfast, you can have a cup of coffee, so that you're having the coffee with a meal, because if you have coffee at 5:30 AM with your news, you're just going to Jack your cortisol levels off the chart. Really timing, when we do certain things according to Ayurvedic at times of day, they say you need to get up and move in the morning to burn off that cortisol. Okay. 5,000 years if Ayurveda tells me to do it, I think that's a good idea. I'm basically just taking people through what's called DinaCharya, which is Ayurvedic guidelines for contentment and satisfaction and teaching a new lifestyle routine, and then tweaking it to their individual needs.
Jo: So interesting that it's thousands of years old, but still works for us today. We still need it.
Amy: And people just need to know it. Like, once they see, oh my gosh, people have been using this for 5,000 years and it works within a week. They're motivated because they think, "Well, if it works for 5,000 years of people, probably going to work for me, it gives them some confidence."
Jo: Yeah, and it's reassuring as well to know, "Oh, everyone suffers this spike of cortisol. It's not because there's anything wrong with me or because there's something out of whack with how my brain works. This is just like a cycle of hormones that we all go through through the day."
Amy: Right. And just that, it's so empowering to know, "Look, just like everyone else on the planet, we all have problems, and there's solutions for these problems. I just think that's really cool. There's a shared humanity in it.
Jo: Yes. A little bit more on the anxiety, and I have a couple of friends in particular who take SSRI medication to help manage their anxiety symptoms, and especially starting these medications, they've spoken to me about some really full on symptoms that they've had including like digestive issues and insomnia, and also some really scary and intense dreams. Do you have any advice to help to manage these symptoms of people who are getting enough benefit from the medication that it's the right move for them, but it's like managing the medications. Symptoms is a whole nother set of challenges?
Amy: Yeah. That's a great question. We as yoga therapists don't want to be accused of practicing medicine, so our take on it is your medication is between you and your doctor, and Yoga therapy is complimentary medicine. We're going to get your lifestyle routine in balance. We're going to get you eating well and doing the correct exercises and correct breathing techniques, and the correct meditation and really set you up with your lifestyle.
Amy: And what we often find is that, the person on the medication and their doctors start being able to lessen, not because I'm telling them to lessen, but they just feel like the dose is too high once they've got their lifestyle in order. Then had many people get off really serious medication slowly, because their new lifestyle routine is making it that they don't feel they need as much medication. Again, I don't tell them that, but it just tends to happen.
Amy: To answer your question, the way to manage those symptoms is hopefully with this new lifestyle medicine routine, you would need less of the medication and there wouldn't be as many symptoms. I mean, I've even had people get off thyroid medication, which people say once you get on thyroid, you're on it forever. I've had several students who successfully weighing themselves down with their doctor because their lifestyle was helping them to produce more thyroid.
Jo: [crosstalk 00:38:19] I have a question from another yoga teacher, actually. She just emailed me and I was like, "Oh, this is perfect timing because we're talking to Amy about anxiety and yoga therapy." Her question was, I had a student open up to me today asking for some practices to support anxiety. Upon some further discussion, I found she'd start to shift some emotions during her yoga practice and was seeking advice on how to deal with the feelings and sensations that she had released. Currently, she's feeling like they all lumped up on her body and she's feeling exhausted every day.
Amy: So your question is, what would I do if someone came up to me and said that?
Jo: Well, I think because she as the student's yoga teacher, she was a little bit like, "Okay, I think this is a little bit beyond my scope and maybe more something that you talk to one-on-one with a counselor." But I guess it's just that feeling of often in our yoga practice, as we move physically deeper layers of stuff do start to surface, and come up afterwards. If we get to the end of the practice, and we still feel like all of this stuff has come up, like what do I do now? Are there some helpful tools or approaches or strategies to kind of, what do I do now?
Amy: I love that question, because I think it really helps us see the difference between a group Yoga class and individualized yoga therapy. I see people all the time in my group classes get teary, or be sniffling, or they walk out clearly in distress because some of these, what we call a Boston hour, an emotional experience has percolated up to the surface during that quiet relaxation time. As they're walking out the door, I as a group, Yoga teacher, I can't do much with them. I can't go home with them and counsel them. I don't have the time with a group of 30 people to pull them off to the side and counsel them in a way that's helpful and ethical. But as a yoga therapist, that's one of our goals is to develop practices where this stuff does percolate up and then through the relationship, we do have time to sort through some of it.
Amy: And if it's serious, then refer and say, "I think you need a psychologist to work on this too." But the safety of the relationship and knowing that they're going to have an hour to an hour and a half of my undivided attention to help them process and hold space for this experience that's coming up inside of them, and that I've been trained over a thousand hours as a yoga therapist to know how to do that. That's really a much more appropriate place than trying to suit someone as they walk out the door of a yoga class and you're standing in the studio-
Jo: Because now the class waiting to come in.
Amy: Right. It's just not possible to do what we really need to do.
Jo: I guess it's a different level of expectation for that teacher as well just to know that some things are not your scope as a group Yoga teacher. Some people really do need a one-on-one session or a session with a yoga therapist. There's not a magical thing we can say at the end of that group class that's going to help everyone feel okay.
Amy: My take might even be, it's unethical to open that can of worms even if you bring them to a coffee shop and say, "I'll take an hour of my time for free to listen to what's going on with you." I'm not even sure that's ethical. If you don't have the skills to actually help them. You haven't been trained in that area, and they're having these expectations that you've had 200 hours of yoga teacher training, and you're somehow qualified to go deep with them like that.
Amy: I just think the whole thing sounds like an ethical nightmare to me. I just refer a group classes, if I see someone suffering, I'd say, especially to my college kids that I teach, 'Did you know we have free counseling on campus?" And I have a stack of the counselor's cards and I say, "I really think you'd be well served to go see a counselor.' I right there have my referral cards sitting there ready to hand out if I see that in a group class.
Jo: Absolutely. Like, this is the next step. This is a possible next step if this is some things that you're obviously struggling with. That's a great strategy.
Amy: If they say they ... Well, I'd like to do yoga therapy with you." then I'm open to that too depending on the issue.
Jo: Sometimes as well, it's not even something like, often, that student will just grab you at the end of class, and it's not even a lot let's go to the coffee shop. They'll just start going into all of those deeper layers of things then and there. It can be a challenge because it's a sign that people really trust you, and they feel comfortable with you, and they've got a lot out of your class that they want to share these things with you, but it's a lot as a yoga teacher, and sometimes you are not equipped to deal with it, and sometimes there literally is another class walking in the door as they're sharing this stuff with you.
Jo: I think it's really good to be mentally prepared to be able to refer on as you do with your cards, or I guess just to have some strategies in place ahead of time so that you can be there for that person in a way that's appropriate and scope of practice, and you're not just feeling overwhelmed and flustered by this person's wave of emotions.
Amy: I think there's a way to get empathy and comfort for a few minutes and say, "I see you, I hear you. It's clear that you're suffering, and I want to get you the help that's appropriate, not help that's inappropriate." Acknowledging not just like pushing them out the door, "Get out of here." acknowledging their suffering and saying, "This is serious enough that it deserves someone's undivided attention with you." It's not a we're standing in the gift shop area type of conversation that doesn't do it justice or hold sacred space for that person to actually process and digest whatever's coming up for them.
Amy: You can frame it in a really nice way that, "Look, I want to help do your work in this area, but this setting at this moment probably isn't going to be great for you to do your work."
Rane: You work with a lot of people, and probably you do get a lot of the emotions humming in. I was wondering if you have any practices that you personally find helpful for your own self care and wellbeing?
Amy: Yeah. I just taught what's called a community day yesterday where we have people just come in and we do lectures and practices and eat together, and they said, "Amy, what do you do for your self care, for your emotional well-being? I pulled up my calendar. I have an eye calendar on my Mac, and I have it color coded for orange is the color that I'm using for all my self care, and blue is for this and purpose for that, right?
Amy: So I pulled up my calendar and showed them how many blocks of my day actually have self care. And they were shocked. They were like, "Wait a minute. All the orange on your calendar is self care?" I said, "Yes." And it was literally three hours a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one in the evening. I take self care so, so seriously because I work really, really hard.
Amy: And if I don't take care of myself then, I can't do this work. My morning routine, just to get a little more specific, is to wake up to brush my teeth and scrape my tongue according to the Ayurvedic principles, have my hot water, I take abhyanga oil massage, and then get in the bathtub for about a half an hour, and then my body is really nice and supple from the oil and the water and that's when I come out and I do my asana practice, which takes about 30 to 40 minutes.
Amy: Then I go take a shower to get ready for the day and have a nice hearty breakfast. I'm one of those people that need some protein in the morning, so I have a nice hearty breakfast, so that's my morning routine. Then sometimes in the afternoon, I try to lie down or sit quietly for about 20 minutes, and do a yoga nidra or some type of yogic meditation practice with some breathing.
Amy: Oftentimes, if I'm home, I lay down in my bed and do that for 20 to 40 minutes depending on how much time I have in any given day. And then 6:00 PM, I don't do any work after 6:00 PM. I try not to. And I have the whole evening routine that sets me up for a good night's sleep, which might involve a second bath, a second practice around, I love the foam roller, so, a lot of times I'll-
Jo: Me too.
Amy: ... do an evening 20 minutes on my foam roller, so I feel like I've had a nice massage before I get into bed. Like you said, I try to stay off technology at night. I try to spend time with my animals and my husband in the evenings, like, really good quality, fun time, walking the dog under the stars for half an hour or that kind of thing. Almost every day that's really my self care routine, what you just heard.
Jo: Oh, that sounds great. And I think some of the challenges that people have around self care is they feel like it's something they have to spend money on, like getting a massage. All of those are just things that you can do for yourself even the massage.
Amy: Exactly. I don't spend a lot of money on any of this. I try to keep it very minimal, and I tried it when I counsel people, I want things that aren't going to cost them an arm and a leg. I don't try to sell them supplements. I don't try to get them to come more often, because it needs to be self empowered. It really needs to be things that they can do on their own to transform their lifestyle.
Amy: There's a lot of healing modalities out there that you have to come to someone to receive it, but Yoga therapy is one of those things that once you learn your daily routine, you should be able to do it without me having to pay me once a week, or once a month, hopefully until a new problem comes up, you might not see me for two or three or four months.
Jo: Yeah, that's great. You're making yourself obsolete in a nice way.
Amy: Exactly. And to me, that's important, because who does have money to spend seeing someone every single week?
Jo: It's a big cause of stress in people's lives as well, financial stress. The last thing you want to do is add to that.
Amy: Right, right.
Rane: As you mentioned at the start of the conversation, you'll be in Australia later on this year. Would you like to talk to us about the workshop that you'll be doing?
Amy: Yes, I'm so excited. I've been invited to Melbourne and a [lead Lashky 00:49:29] and Janet Lowndes have invited me. They'll be my co teachers and we're basically going to target it towards yoga teachers, Yoga therapists, psychotherapists, people in the field of mental health, and we're going to show them a basic system for how do you assess someone according to the ancient yogic texts, and then what are the basic tools and techniques that you would use when you see someone that's out of balance in any particular area.
Amy: The reason it's applicable to those people at mental health is, I think a lot of this stuff could be done by a counselor. It could be done by a psychologist. You don't even have to be a yoga teacher or yoga therapist to do it. We've tried to make it broad enough that it would. The workshop would be very valuable to a number of different professions, and basically, helping them see how to you assess someone, and then what are the main tools you would use to help them balance their mind and their body and their lifestyle.
Jo: So maybe the description that you gave about your own assessment process when you meet someone new, is that taking people through the details of that so that that's something that they can apply as well?
Amy: 100%. That's when Janet and I planned this workshop we said something very tangible that people can come out of this workshop with and a useful tool that they can add to whatever it is they already do. We're keeping it very tight and teaching really specific assessment techniques so that you can master it in two and a half days and actually go out and use it.
Jo: That sounds great. You've got an app in the works for us. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Amy: We do. We've been working on it for maybe a year, and it's a huge, huge project, but basically, it would allow you to assess yourself using the assessment of the ancient yogic and Ayurvedic philosophies put in a very modern context so anyone could use it and they would have no idea that this stuff is 5,000 years old. It's color coded, it's really hot and hip so that basically you can basically identify where you're at with your mental health, and then it will tell you what foods should you eat [inaudible 00:51:59], what exercises would be good for you right now? What breath practices? What meditations? What lifestyle changes should you make?
Amy: So it's almost like having a little mini yoga therapist in your pocket, and it's pretty cool because you realize, "Wow, if I'm getting out of balance in a particular direction on a regular basis, I have a whole toolbox that will help pull me back to what we call a state of balance." I call it the gold zone.
Amy: So it's a really cool tool. And then, you can track your assessments that you take for yourself. Do I feel better in the morning? Let's look at the last month and what are my mornings look like? Oh my gosh, I'm always anxious in the morning. Or, which nights have I been so wide awake at 10 o'clock? I can't go to sleep, kind of thing. Then also look at the summary of different seasons. Do you have more trouble in springtime versus summer time? That's also from the ancient Ayurvedic texts. So basically it's taking all these ancient theories and philosophies and putting it in a very hip, modern app on your iPhone and Android.
Jo: And make it very accessible for people.
Amy: The other thing is, we're going to make a feature where you can share your results with your psychologist, or with your yoga therapist or even your mom. Maybe your mom wants to know how your mental health is. We'll have a feature where you can allow people to come in and see how you're doing.
Rane: Yeah, sounds great. Out of everything you've learned through your life and career, and what's your teaching and sharing with other people, if you could distill it down to one core essence, what do you think that would be?
Amy: There's probably a lot, but the one that just came to my mind that I personally had to journey through and I see most of my clients journing through is that, you are worth taking time to do self care. I know I've been through periods of my life where I'm a workaholic, and I think I don't have time to do all this self care stuff that my yoga therapist is recommending. But when I actually found is that when I made myself a priority, and I realized that I will be a better version of myself, I will show up differently in the world, more effective, if I take the time for self care, that's what I wanted.
Amy: And so, helping people to understand that taking that hour for yourself in the morning is not a luxury. It actually will put you three steps ahead of where you would have been if you didn't take that hour of self care, because now you're showing up as a completely different person and people are more attracted to your emotional stability, and they see the light shining out of you and want to work with you. People who before would've walked right by you thinking you were kind of flaky or something.
Amy: So, it's like you're worth making this investment in yourself so that you perceive the world differently, you show up differently, and frankly, you'd become a more productive, effective version of yourself.
Jo: I think that's such an important message for all of us to hear.
Rane: Beautiful, thank you. Well, thank you so much for speaking with us today. It's been a really great conversation. I think I'm going to have to bring some of these things into my world as well.
Jo: Yeah, we need that, yeah, definitely.
Rane: Thank you very much. It's been really good talking to you.
Jo: And obviously, great to meet you when you come to Melbourne.
Amy: I am so excited. I am so grateful to [inaudible 00:55:29] Janet and I'm so grateful for the two of you for having me on your podcast, and-
Jo: Oh, it's an absolute pleasure.
Amy: I look forward to meeting you in person.
Rane: I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Amy. Again, I can't wait to go to our workshop in August, and hopefully we'll see you there. One thing I forgot to mention about our Patreon, supporters at higher tiers get a one time shout out on our podcast, and add it to the supporters page on our website, and it just turns out that we already have a few. I would like to thank our supporters Anita DiCarlo, Gina Macauley of YogaHara in Bendigo, Guy and Kirra Stewart, Guy Milner and finally Nicole Blyth of Go Slow Yoga here in Melbourne. Thank you guys so, so much. We really appreciate it.
Rane: For our next episode, we are interviewing Melbourne based Yoga teacher and all around great guy William Wong. We learn about how he discovered the healing power of yoga, his love for sound and vibrational therapy, about his unique, honest and often hilarious approach to social media and much, much more. Look out for that one in a fortnight.
Rane: Our theme song is Baby Robots by Ghostsoul and is used with permission. Get his music from ghostsoul.bandcamp.com. We love that guy. We love you, Rob. Thanks so much for listening from the bottom of our hearts. We both really appreciate it. [inaudible 00:56:55] big, big love.