The Foundations of the Self, by Dr. Monya Cohen, Psy. D, MSW, RYT-200, Certified PRYT Yoga Therapist
Happy New Year! As we move forward into 2022, we face continued uncertainty regarding the pandemic. Changes in social distancing, masking and vaccines, as well as gradual delays in supply chains and startling climate changes. It is more important than ever to have a strong sense of self and life’s purpose. It’s important to be a stable base for yourself and for your loved ones. Resiliency is an important quality to continue to develop - the ability to bounce back during times of adversity - no matter what comes our way.
If you are a reader and psychologically minded, I recommend a classic text that integrates the best of psychology and yoga - Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope. As a psychologist and yoga teacher, I discovered this book to be extremely useful in understanding the building blocks of creating, containing, and maintaining a calm and abiding self. In other words, developing and maintaining resilience and equanimity.
At conception, we are born through relationship and require “good enough” relationships to thrive and grow. It is essential for infants to experience the feeling of safety and security in the arms of primary caregivers. It is from our caregivers that we learn how to be in relationships and how to soothe the self. The ability to self soothe is the basis of equanimity. - the qualities of responding rather than reacting and staying calm and emotionally grounded in the face of adversity.
The capacity to feel safe and secure develops when we have been securely held and soothed by our caregivers. Unfortunately, many of us did not have the opportunity to experience being held and soothed by caregivers who found their calm and abiding center. Often, our caregivers are needy, scared, and insecure. It becomes necessary for their children to meet their needs rather than the other way around.
In his book, Stephen Cope explains the importance of being seen, accepted, and acknowledged by important others. The ideas that we have in our minds about who we are and who we should be were formed early in our lives by our important contacts. This is often referred to as mirroring. To see ourselves clearly, we rely on reflection. The eyes from which we are seen, become the eyes through which we see ourselves. These mental representations of ourselves and others are formed early and continue to guide our relationships with others well into adulthood.
As adolescents and adults, how do we develop and maintain a calm and abiding self? In my experience, equanimity and resilience develop in relationship. In the safety of a calm and grounded spiritual teacher, yoga teacher and/or psychotherapist, students/clients can begin to risk feeling vulnerable and release their uncomfortable emotions and often frightening memories. In psychotherapy training, it is well known that progress in therapy occurs in the container of a strong therapeutic alliance. In the therapy relationship, the therapist becomes the emotional home base for the client through talk therapy. In addition, yoga, breathing, mindfulness, and meditation, as well as acupuncture, are ways to cultivate equanimity or the qualities of staying calm and grounded during difficult situations.
Throughout my training as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, I have learned that everything we want to change begins with the body. Yoga takes us deeper into the layers of our being or selves, and we learn to become aware of and gradually tolerate sensations and feelings in the physical body. As we become aware of sensations and feelings in the body, we begin to accept whatever is arising with kindness and non-judgment. Awareness and acceptance are the first steps toward change.
From Stephen Cope’s perspective, spiritual practice, yoga, and psychotherapy are about building the foundations of the self. These foundations include the capacity to self sooth, warmly love the self, to value and esteem the self and to experience a satisfyingly cohesive sense of self.
I invite you to begin your journey in 2022 by cultivating your calm and abiding self. Know where you are going and feel confident in your plan of how you’ll get there. Learn to respond rather than react. Live life with intention and purpose. Make decisions for you and your family that are based on your values and priorities. Whether through talk therapy or body work, now is the time to rediscover your true self or best self.
I hope you all are having a wonderful winter and staying as healthy as possible. This time of year is often too stressful and pressure driven, but when we explore what our natural world and inclinations are, winter is truly the season of rest and reflection. Even though our modern lifestyles consistently remove us from the rhythms of the natural world, our physical form and function are part of and influenced by the energetic movements in nature. By observing and contemplating the seasons, we can learn how seasonal energy is manifested within the body and how our habits and focus can shift to support greater balance in the current season.
We are currently in the season of winter, which is associated with the water element. (The 5 elements in Chinese medicine are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). In nature and the body, the water element is associated with peak yin movement. Yin is the universal energy of contraction, in contrast with the energy of yang and the movement of expansion, which peaks at the summer solstice. The winter solstice, on December 21st, marked the peak of yin energy for the year, with the longest hours of darkness and the shortest day of the year. The colder temperatures also reflect the yin energy of contraction of winter. This is the optimal time for us humans to conserve our energy, prioritize deep, restful sleep, eat nourishing and warming foods, and contemplate plans and priorities for the upcoming year, without any major action. In the plant world, the winter marks the time of stillness and conservation of the life force deep within their roots to survive winter’s freeze. Yang water is symbolized by the ocean in nature, deep, dark, and full of potential energy. The daily expansion and contraction of our oceans is primarily ruled by the gravitational pull of the moon, which is another symbol of the yin energy of the earth (the sun being the symbol of yang). Yin water is symbolized by all the lesser waterways, such as streams and rivers, strong and pervading all the landscapes of the earth. Water is the essential medium for all of life, on earth and in our bodies, and is the primary source of life. Water is involved in all major chemical processes in our body, and is crucial for the circulation of blood, the processing and elimination of waste and for the flow of every fluid in the body. This is a good time to assess what is the actual quality of the water you are drinking and is your intake adequate for optimal physiological functioning.
In the body, the organ systems that reflect the winter energy are the kidney (yin organ) and bladder (yang organ). When functioning normally, both organ systems play an important role in the regulation of all fluids for the entire body. The primary function of the kidney is to govern the storage of our jing, which is roughly translated as our essence or primordial life force. We are born with jing from our parents, and the lifestyle choices we make every day will help preserve, or prematurely use up, the essence we were born with. Jing relates to our genetics, and governs the process of fertility and reproduction, growth and how our bodies age through life. When the kidney energy is not functioning well and being overly taxed, one may suffer from severe exhaustion, autoimmune and chronic illness flare-ups, low motivation and willpower, excessive fear and anxiety, and skeletal disorders, especially related to the lower back and knees. Another sign of kidney weakness is when you get an acute illness, you immediately have symptoms of extreme cold and exhaustion, and you are unable to mount a fever or adequate immune response with the encountered pathogen. The function of the bladder is to store and excrete the waste products from the blood filtered by the kidneys. The bladder meridian is also the longest meridian of the body starting at the eye and going all the way down the back. Physical and emotional congestion along the bladder channel can lead to pain and stiffness. This also relates to our immune system and one of the first signs of illness is a stiff neck and body aches, which is related to the bladder channel and a good immune response to an invading pathogen. Other signs of bladder imbalance include vertigo and headaches, poor vision, and urinary retention or incontinence.
There are many other symbols associated with the water element we can contemplate when thinking about the human experience. The water element is associated with the emotion of fear, the willpower of the spirit, the color black or dark blue, the salty flavor, the sense of hearing, and the bones of the body. There are so many ways we can think about these symbols and how they connect with the energy of water and winter. Most of the water in nature is salty, containing dissolved minerals which are necessary for the biochemistry of life to happen. Our kidneys are primarily responsible for maintaining the delicate balance of minerals in our blood, which is what allows for the very narrow pH range for homeostasis. When we consume the wrong foods and water, the minerals required to neutralize the acid in our blood is taken from our bones, which are also connected to the kidney and water element. Fear being the emotion associated with the kidney and water element is also very fitting to this picture. As humans, we are born with subconscious instincts and natural fears that keep us safe and alive, part of our prenatal jing we come into the world with. There is a healthy balance, and if fear becomes too consuming and predominant, we become frozen and paralyzed, and are unable to move forward through life with courage.
Chinese medicine practitioners utilize acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other modalities to help balance and strengthen energy within the body. During the winter, we often select more kidney and bladder meridian points and herbal formulas to benefit these organ systems. Winter is a good time to reflect and restore. Do not expend more mental or physical energy than you need to, and if you don't have a meditation practice, now is a great time to start. Having the intention of internal work this season, and making time for meditation, yoga, journaling, and inner reelection are all ideal practices during the winter. Are there any fears holding you back from reaching the fullest potential in your life? Why not reflect, explore, and release those limiting emotions and beliefs. Eating more salty, warm, and cooked foods, are ideal for winter months. Spending time observing nature, without getting too cold, specifically near the ocean or smaller rivers and streams, or even in the snow, are all excellent settings for contemplation in the winter. It is a natural time to seek the joy and light from friends and family. It’s best to do so in a balanced, easy way. Lower the pressure and expectations that often come with such gatherings and focus on those deep connections that bring true joy and meaning to your life. Maintain a healthy balance between rest and activity is critical for the health of the water element in the body, this is the time to primarily reduce stress, reflect, and rest. Take advantage!
This is a mere glimpse of the depth to the symbolism associated with Chinese medical theory, specifically related to winter. I would love to hear what connections you make when thinking about these symbols and energetic movements in your own life. Becoming more aware of the natural world and its patterns is a great way to improve your health and lifestyle to feel a greater sense of well-being. When we are in a constant state of opposition to the natural flow of the universe, disease will undoubtedly arise. Enjoy the winter and be well.
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