THE YOGA YEARS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I taught Yoga for eight years, from 1995-2003. Those were eight very happy years. After that, I developed severe sciatica and had to stop teaching. I still miss it.

I got into Yoga in a backhanded way. In 1994, my then 14-year-old son was struggling at school with, among other things, ADHD. I was trying anything and everything, including medication, to help him get through school in one piece. I had heard that Yoga could help with focus, so I decided we should give it a try.

The class was torture for David. He couldn’t even focus enough to follow the class and fell hopelessly behind. I, on the other hand, left the class feeling that my life had changed in some significant way.

By 1995, I was serious enough to enroll in a Kripalu Center Training Program that trained and certified Yoga instructors. Most training programs involved a one month, live in commitment. I don’t know who can ever disappear from their lives for a whole month. I certainly couldn’t.

Fortunately Kripalu offered a weekend program that covered, I think six weekends, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Hours away but doable. Perfect for me.

Me with a fellow student at the Kripalu Teacher Certification Program

I loved that program and I came to love the people. There was lots of reading and home practice so my family had to do with much less of me for those six weeks. The classes and the material were very much oriented to teaching us how to teach. I’m very grateful for that because I honed my teaching skills in those classes. I found it fascinating. I also found that I was good at it.

I’ve never been a spiritual person. I’m an atheist who believes in science and hard evidence above all else. Thankfully, this class also focused on explaining the science of Yoga. There are physiological reasons why every Yoga practice actually effects your body and mind on a cellular level. I learned that the breath is how we communicate between our mind and our body. I learned how muscles stretch and change  — gradually and in conjunction with the breath.

I learned how relaxation and breathing techniques can help promote focus, centeredness, self-confidence, inner calm and a positive perspective. It’s amazing to me that monks from thousands of years ago understood this sophisticated level of biology, physiology, physics and chemistry.

Me, on the left, my mentor in the center and another Yoga teacher

I loved teaching. My students liked me too, which was very gratifying. I really felt that I changed people’s lives. I helped people deal with chronic pain and chronic stress as well as injuries and family crises. It was much more than an exercise class.

I just found out that someone who got interested in Yoga through my class, has just opened her own studio in my area. I’m going to take her class to show her my support and to see how much I influenced her Yoga and teaching style. That should be a wonderful experience for me.

I taught in a variety of venues. I taught classes in wellness Centers, Yoga Centers and Fitness Centers. I taught private classes in people’s homes for anywhere from two to four people.

My official “instructor photo” at the Fitness Edge

I liked to teach my students how to use the Yoga they learned in their daily lives. So I collected and handed out articles on the practical application of Yoga principles in everyday life. Things like how to sit at a computer so as to reduce physical and mental stress. Stretching exercises to do in the shower, on line at the supermarket or at your desk to reduce muscle tension and other forms of physical and emotional stress. How to use your breath to diffuse your automatic and damaging physiological stress reaction to a stressful situation.

I ended up creating a whole booklet for my students called “On The Go Stress Control”. In 2016 I published a four-part blog of the same title, for Serendipity.

See ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 1;  ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 2ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL –  PART 3; and ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 4.

The cover of my student manual

I understood that most people don’t have twenty minutes every day to meditate or 40 minutes every day to do Yoga. I felt that people needed to be able to incorporate simple Yoga techniques into their everyday routines. My goal was to give my students one to two-minute mini breathing or relaxation exercises to use throughout their day. This would help them deal with the 24/7 stress of modern life, which can be physically as well as mentally toxic.

I tried to get my manual published but was initially told that the subject matter was too obscure. A few years later, Yoga began to become more mainstream and I tried again to get published. This time I was told that the quick and easy Yoga and stress relief market was already glutted. I couldn’t win.

I was teaching a Yoga class on the morning of September 11, 2001. The first plane had hit before class started but it wasn’t until class was over that we learned about the second plane and about the terrorist attack. We did some extra breathing and relaxation exercises. I hope that helped my students deal with the horrific reality that was unfolding as we left class and turned on our radios and TV’s.

Front page of a marketing flyer for my Stress Control Program

Although I can’t do the physical practice of Yoga regularly anymore because of my sciatica, I still use breathing and relaxation techniques all the time. I use one to help me sleep, one to make walks more productive and less tiring and many others to help stay centered and positive. I use stretching combined with breathing to keep my muscles tension and pain-free most of the time.

Both my body and my mind are different now then they were before Yoga. I am in a much happier and healthier place in my life, in part because of my immersion in Yoga. I highly recommend it for people at any stage of life. It’s never too late to grow and change for the better. And have fun along the way.

MY MOTHER COULD’VE BEEN MARILYN MONROE’S THERAPIST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In 1962, Marilyn Monroe was working on her last movie, “Something’s Got to Give”, by 20th Century Fox. One of the producers on that film was a man named Henry Weinstein. He was brought into the production because it was thought that he could relate to and handle the very difficult Marilyn.

Henry was a long time friend of my parents. He was also married to one of my mother’s best friends. Because both my parents were psychologists and practicing therapists, Henry talked to them about Marilyn’s problems and often asked for advice about her.

Marilyn Monroe and Henry Weinstein

At the time, Marilyn was in particularly bad shape psychologically. Henry knew she was mentally very ill and thought she was becoming paranoid as well. She also had extreme stage fright. She cried on Henry’s shoulder often. Henry had already come to her aid after a barbiturate overdose.

Marilyn was creating high drama on Henry’s set. And Henry was tearing his hair out. She showed up late, sometimes very late. Other times, not at all. She couldn’t remember her lines. She was needy, emotional, and had meltdowns on a regular basis. She would walk off the sets in tears. Lonely and alone, Marilyn was allegedly having an affair with the script girl.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of her last movie

None of this was good for Henry’s bottom line. He had to try to get the movie made on time. So he called my mother a lot, asking for help in dealing with Marilyn and her issues. He eventually asked Mom to fly out to L.A. to be Marilyn’s on set therapist. Mom refused.

My Mother believed Marilyn was too emotionally unbalanced to be helped by ordinary therapy. Mom had a delicate ego herself. She didn’t want to be known as the therapist who was called in to rescue Marilyn Monroe — and failed. Mom was also afraid Marilyn was suicidal and terrified she might kill herself on my Mom’s watch.

Henry begged Mom to come to L.A. to help him. She still refused. Henry ended up firing Marilyn in June of 1962 for excessive absenteeism. Two months later, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn died of another barbiturate overdose. Some people think her death was a suicide. Others think it was accidental. Regardless, the film was scrapped.

Who knows whether or not my mother would have made a difference with Marilyn short-term. She might have been able to help her through this specific crisis, but a fatal overdose inevitable — intentional or accidental. I doubt anyone could have saved her from herself.

Marilyn on the set of Henry’s film, shortly before her death

Here is an interesting, unrelated theory about Marilyn Monroe’s death. It has to do with the Kennedys. I read an article that talked about a book dealing with Marilyn and the Kennedy family. Marilyn had affairs with both John and Robert Kennedy. She began to get clingy and demanding. Started discussing going public about the affairs, which had been kept completely under the radar and out of the news. The Kennedy ‘people’ felt Marilyn was becoming a dangerous liability. So they banned her from seeing or communicating with either brother. She was expelled, cold turkey, from the inner circle.

Marilyn Monroe and Bobby Kennedy

This happened just a few months before her death. There are those who believe this expulsion along with the movie firing, significantly contributed to her final downward spiral. As evidence, Marilyn made several phone calls after she took her fatal overdose. One call was to Bobby Kennedy. Why? Maybe she was trying to get back into the Kennedy boys’ good graces.

We’ll never know for sure. It’s part of the mystery that was Marilyn’s life and death.

REUNION ANGST – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Every ten years I face a major High School Reunion. 20 years, 30, 40, and now I’m up to 50 years in June of 2017. Whenever reunion time approaches, I go through a period of self-doubt and indecision. Do I really want to go? What can I say about my life? To be honest, I don’t feel I’ve “accomplished” much which leaves me feeling insecure talking to my High School classmates about our respective life trajectories.

I was one of the top students in my Fieldston High School Class of ’67. If we had done the “most likely to” labels in our senior yearbook, I’d probably have been one of the most likely to “succeed”.

Senior High School Yearbook Photo / 1967

However, I chose a path that was unusual for my generation of Baby Boomers. I practiced law for a mere three years before I gave up my legal career and opted to be a full-time, stay-at-home Mother and homemaker. After the kids left home, I taught Yoga and tried to start a small business from home. I never had another full-time job. I don’t regret the choices I made – except when High School reunions roll around.

Everyone else has probably had one or even two long-term careers to talk about, in addition to having families. Many may also have had individual achievements to brag about along the way. I don’t have much to talk about at all, at least concerning career and work.

Me and my two kids in 1985

I decided, for my own sanity, the best way to measure my life is in terms of experiences I’ve had – and survived. When you count negative, challenging, out of the norm experiences, the picture changes and suddenly, I’ve had a full life.

I spent much of my life dealing with some form of mental illness. My own anxiety and depression. My first husband’s bi-polar disorder, complete with long-lasting and severe manic episodes. My son’s depression, bi-polar disorder, and learning disabilities — all of which made getting him through school an ordeal for the whole family.

Then there are medical issues. My grandfather was hit by a truck and spent six-weeks, brain-dead in the hospital before he died. I nursed my grandmother, father, and mother through cancer. My son’s kidneys failed at the age of 24. Five years ago, I donated a kidney to keep him alive. He still struggles with kidney symptoms and medication side effects every day and will for the rest of his life.

I survived a lot of shit and I’ve come out in a good place. I’m in a wonderful second marriage, I have great friends and close relationships with my children. I have interesting hobbies. If you were to give out points for surviving with humor, decency and an upbeat attitude, then I deserve an award. That in itself is a major accomplishment.

I think it will be enough to get me through my High School reunion with my head held high.

LIVING WITH BI-POLAR PEOPLE by ELLIN CURLEY

Carrie Fisher was bi-polar. To her credit, she talked about her condition openly and honestly. She brought attention to the disorder and tried to reduce the stigma associated with this, as well as other, mental illnesses. It’s sad that we need celebrities with diseases to increase public awareness about their given malady. But mental illnesses are inherently hard to diagnose, treat and talk about. So as long as people get educated about them, I guess it doesn’t matter how or why.

I have an unwanted and involuntary expertise in Bi-Polar Disorder. Both my ex husband and my son had/have the disease (my ex is deceased). Each of them manifested the condition differently – my ex was mostly manic and my son was mostly depressed. One of the most difficult aspects of this disorder is the fact that it can look so different in different people. It makes it much harder to diagnose because there is no “one-size fits all” set of symptoms by which to identify the condition.

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It also makes it harder on the families, who don’t always get the support they need from the medical community. It also makes it easier for the bi-polar person to deny that they have an identifiable syndrome that requires treatment. This denial is very common in Bi-Polar Disease. Also common is the refusal to stay on medication. These factors just add to the difficulties and pain of the family members.

The families of bi-polar sufferers feel different from other families. We know that other families’ lives are not fraught with the unpredictability, volatility and often violence (emotional if not physical) that ours are. We seem to be the only ones living on a roller coaster. We feel inferior, ashamed and isolated. Family members, me included, try to ‘cover up’ the problem and cover for the often inappropriate behavior of the bi-polar loved one. I made countless excuses for the actions and absences of my ex. My daughter tried to avoid the issue altogether by going to friends’ houses and never having friends come to ours when Daddy was ‘off’ or ‘acting up’.

When you live with a bi-polar person, you wonder what’s wrong with you that you live like this. You wonder why you aren’t like other people. Your ego and self-esteem suffer. This is particularly devastating for kids. My kids are in their 30’s and are still dealing with these issues. They are moving on from some questionable relationship choices they made in the past because of their lingering psychological demons.

On the other hand, denial and defending are also big parts of life with a bi-polar person. While married to my ex, after one of his particularly bad manic episodes, I was advised by psychiatrists to go to a program for abused spouses. I thought that was ridiculous. I was in therapy already and I was clearly not in that pathetic category! That label did not apply to me! Of course I didn’t go. I often wonder what would have been different in my life if I had received the support and empowerment I needed at that point in time. I now realize that the whole family needs support and treatment specifically designed to deal with the mentally ill family member. My individual therapy was not enough.

The faces of comedy, tragedy and more in an ancient relief

The faces of comedy, tragedy and more in an ancient relief

Today, there are claims that too many people are being labeled ADHD or Bi-Polar, that it’s become a psychiatric fad to assign mental illness labels to people and ply them with drugs. To me, it’s better to spread a wide net to catch all the people with serious issues and get them the treatment they need. You’re not going to be misdiagnosed if your behavior is perfectly within the range of normal. Something is going on if a doctor thinks you might be bi-polar! If it’s not manic depression, then it certainly is something else that needs attention and possibly medication. Sometimes the only way to come up with an effective treatment is by experimenting.

I became very pro-active psychiatrically. My daughter started to have panic attacks at the age of eleven and I got her on medication immediately. She is grateful to me that she never had to go through the torture of years of horrible anxiety symptoms. She would not have been able to function effectively through school and in jobs without her anxiety meds. I couldn’t get my ex to stay on meds and get a stable life. But at least I got my daughter on medication early so she had fewer issues getting through life than she would have without my early intervention. At least I have one psychiatric success story to brag about!

HELP PARENTS HELP THEIR KIDS TO THRIVE by ELLIN CURLEY

There was an article in the Sunday New York times Opinion Section a few weeks ago that caught my attention. It was titled “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents.” It was written by Paul Tough and was an excerpt from a book he had written called “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”The article cited a long-term study that started in 1986 and has followed the subjects continually to the present.

The study proved that children who lived in poverty did substantially better than their peers, into adulthood, if one simple thing was changed in their homes during their first three years of life: Their parents received coaching from trained researchers who encouraged them to play with and stimulate their infants, for example, by reading to them, singing to them and playing peekaboo. The parents were taught the importance of these face to face exchanges in creating attachment, warmth and trust between parents and children. This, in turn, helped create a more stable, nurturing environment in the impoverished homes, which are usually plagued by stress, neglect and instability.

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It’s hard to believe that some people don’t know that they should talk to and play with their infants and young children. But if no one ever did that with you when you were a child and no one later taught you how important it is, how would you know?

The impact of this easy and low-cost intervention was off the charts. The study showed that the children who had the play counseling had higher IQ’s, less aggressive behavior and better self-control than the control groups. They also had better ability to focus, follow directions, interact calmly with others and cope with disappointment and frustration. In other words, they improved intellectually, socially and emotionally. All this just by receiving the kind of attention that most of us take for granted every child automatically gets.

dad & baby

It turns out that adults can be taught to create an environment that fosters success for their children. Why isn’t this being done in every poor neighborhood in the world? Or at least in this country?

This is particularly frustrating for me because my father proposed the same type of in-home interventions in the 1960’s and no one listened to him. My father was a well-known psychoanalyst, anthropologist and sociologist who stressed the importance of the first 3 years of life. He also did a study that showed how little stimulation and affection a large number of black children living in poverty in Harlem, New York, in the 1950’s were receiving from their parents. He suggested doing exactly what the 1986 study did – send in trained professionals to teach the parents how to give their children the kind of nurturing they needed to thrive.

mom reading

Guess who shot my father’s idea down? The “liberals” of the day and the radical Black Panther movement. They said it was racist to assume that black people didn’t know how to be good parents. It was also considered paternalistic and condescending to send (often white) people into black homes to “tell them” how to deal with their own children. My father backed away from the conflict that surrounded his proposal.

smiles for Mom

Now, 50 years later, the idea is being proposed again. Think of all the kids who could have benefited in all these years! With so much poverty, even just in this country, you’d think this article would have been front page news. You’d think that politicians, as well as educators and mental health professionals would be jumping on the bandwagon and yelling from the rooftops. You’d hope that large numbers of “family counselors” would be amassing to go in and make a huge difference in the lives of millions of children.

I haven’t heard anything yet. But I’m still waiting and hoping.

mom & toddler

ON THE GO STRESS CONTROL – PART 3 – ELLIN CURLEY

I ‘ve talked about breathing and visualization as relaxation techniques. This week, I’d like to add a third element – movement.

Human-Body-Muscles

Coordinating breath and movement can calm you down, center you, clear your head, and focus your mind, and help the relaxation spread to the muscles throughout your body.

Another benefit is that the physical movement gives your mind a focal point that can not only deepen relaxation but can also allow you to relax when you’re too restless, fidgety, listless or unmotivated for the purely mental techniques.

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When you are concentrating on moving your body in a certain way, it is easier to keep your mind off stressful thoughts that creep into your mind. However, thoughts will invariably intervene at some point when they do, just acknowledge them and immediately click the remote and switch back to the breathing channel. Then refocus on your movements.

One classic exercise that combines breathing and movement is Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR. This can be done standing, sitting or when you are having trouble sleeping, in bed. Body focus techniques not only help insomnia but also improve headaches and stomach problems if done for a period of time when you’re having symptoms.

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In PMR, you first tighten and then release major muscles, starting with feet and moving up your body. Doing this helps you learn what your muscles feel like when they are tense versus relaxed. It may sound strange, but most people don’t realize their muscles are tense until the tension gets bad enough to hurt.

You may need to learn how and when to relax your muscles. PMR not only helps you relax, it increases your awareness of muscle tension. Soon you’ll be able to prevent muscle tension from building by stopping it before it gets serious.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Start by squeezing your toes together as if you were making fists with your feet. Hold the squeeze and feel the tension in every foot muscle. Then let everything go, all at once, as you exhale.

Try to feel the muscles in your feet relaxing and loosening up. Next squeeze your calves and thighs, hold the squeeze feel the tension and then release it quickly, always on an exhale. Feel all the tension evaporating from your legs.

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Focus on the contrasting sensations of tension and relaxation, tightness and openness. Continue up through your body tightening and releasing, sequentially, your buttocks then your chest and shoulders, scrunching your shoulders up to your ears. Then move onto your arms and hands, making fists and squeezing them tightly.

Hold and release the muscles in your throat and neck and then scrunch your face together and squeeze your eyes shut, hold, and then release. Open your mouth as wide as you can and stick your tongue out as far as you can. Hold and release. Then bring your focus back to your abdominal breathing, perhaps counting out an exhale that is twice as long as your inhale. Gradually transition back to your day.

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Short Form PMR

There is also a short form PMR when you are pressed for time. Divide your body into three sections, from your feet up to your face. Then tense all the muscles in each section, hold them and release all at once with an exhale, as you did above. Then move onto the next section. For example, feet, legs, thighs and buttocks are one section, chest arms and shoulders are another section and neck, throat, face and jaw are the last section.

Once you’re comfortable with PMR, you can try a Mental Body Scan. As with PMR you can do a detailed body scan, or use a short form. Like before, begin at your feet and work up your body. This time, though, just mentally scan for tension. When you find tightness in your muscles, mentally release it. I like to visualize the tension floating away from my body, like steam, evaporating into the air.

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You can also imagine the tight muscle opening up, spreading a warm, heavy feeling as it releases all its tension. Then let this sensation spread slowly up your body. Scan every part of your body in as much detail as you have time for. For example, you can divide the face into scalp, forehead, eyes, nose, lips, cheeks, jaw and tongue or you can treat the face as a whole. Either way, make sure your jaw is loose and your teeth are apart, not clenched!

Mindful Walking

Another exercise that combines breathing and movement is Mindful Walking, which you can do it whenever and wherever you are walking. Start Abdominal Breathing with a 3 or a 5 count inhale and the same count for the exhale. Then count the number of evenly paced steps you take per inhale and per exhale, using only odd numbers for your count. This insures that you start each inhale on a different foot.

For 3-count walking, this means:

  • Inhale – left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right.

A 5-count walk would be:

  • Inhale – left, right, left, right, left
  • Exhale – right, left, right, left, right.

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If you want to increase your relaxation, elongate your exhale and increase the number of steps per exhale. So, for example, you could inhale to a count of 3 and exhale to a count of 5 or inhale to a count of 5 and exhale to a count of 9 (remember to only use odd numbers and keep your steps steady and even).

If you want to energize yourself, increase the length of your inhalation and the number of steps per inhale while shortening your exhalation and the number of steps on each exhale. You could, for example, inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of 3.

I find when I walk like this, I don’t get as tired or winded. I end my walk feeling more relaxed and centered as well as refreshed.

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Now you know some techniques that can help you circumvent your body’s stress response, reduce muscle tension and quiet your mind. This should help you get through each day feeling more positive emotionally and more relaxed and energized physically.

You shouldn’t have to get more stressed trying to find time for stress control. Do what you can when you can and you’ll find whatever you do, there will be definite benefits.

DON’T STOP LAUGHING

Everything and everybody changes, but recently a couple of people I’ve known for a long time have changed suddenly and dramatically. Overnight, they became dry and humorless.

It appears they had a humorectomy. While they slept, their sense of humor was removed. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but it’s deeply disturbing. Have they been replaced by pods, like the  “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

I could not survive if I did not see how ridiculous my life is. If the absurdity of it didn’t make me laugh, I would do nothing buy cry and bewail my state. Laughter heals me. It’s better than sex. Better than yoga, meditation, medication, or street drugs. It’s free, unrestricted by laws, available to anyone who is not yet dead and is acceptable behavior under almost all religious systems.

Many friends are going through rough times. Their problems vary, but the results are the same. Stress, anguish, fear, worry, insomnia. You worry, try to keep it together until you’re ready to explode.

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What can you do? When the light at the end of the tunnel really is the headlight of an oncoming train, I say: “Buckle up and let your hair blow in the wind. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

Laughing at the craziness, insanity, ludicrousness, the utter absurdity of my life — and the demented world in which I live it — is my first line of defense against despair. Take away laughter, strip away my sense of humor, and I’m a goner.

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I laugh any time I find a reason. At anything that strikes me as funny, which isn’t always appreciated by other people. I even laugh when I’m alone (weird, right?). It reminds me why it’s worth staying alive.

My friends make me laugh. I make them laugh. When our lives are in tatters and everything around us is collapsing, we laugh. Then, we take a deep breath, and laugh some more. The more awful the situation, the more dreadful and intractable the problems, the funnier it is. We are not laughing at tragedy … we are laughing at life.

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The difference between tragedy and comedy is how you look at it. Laughter is the antidote for everything. Try it. It’s a cure.