My Brain on Retreat
A 7-day Transformational Journey
It was believed, in the not too distant past, that we could not change our brains once they were fully developed. That in our mid-twenties, when our brains are more or less fully formed, we're stuck with it. What you've got is what you've got, essentially, and that your particular twenty-something brain, with its existing neuro-pathways, configurations and functioning, is what you're stuck with for the remainder or your long life. The scientific community told us so and we accepted this static view of our neuro-make-up.
Science was wrong.
I met Sarah and James Roy as they were traveling through Costa Rica searching for a new home for their Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Transformational Retreats. I spent an intriguing evening with these two compassionately knowledgeable visionaries, geeking out on the brain and our ability to, literally, change our minds.
I was aware of "neuro-plasticity," the malleability of our brains and their ability to actually re-configure our wiring, if you will, and teach ourselves new ways of thinking and being. I had also learned about "neuron-genesis," the process of "birthing" new neurons throughout our lifetime by engaging in things like exercise, proper sleep health and nutrition, novelty and learning new things. Our brain's plasticity, ability to change, has long been recognized now and exulted in celebratory fashion.
We really can change our minds, thus changing our lives.
What tripped my trigger the most was the therapy that Brainworks, Sarah & James' London-based organization, is offering. They are helping people change and improve the quality of their lives significantly and with evidence/research-based, long-term results.
But that's not all. They are helping people to stop suffering from their own mis-perceived thinking, over-active and anxious nervous systems, correcting and eliminating disorders like autism, bi-polar and asperger and they are doing it alongside yoga and nutrition. They were speaking my language!
Getting to know Sarah over the past two years as one of my yoga students, I expressed a desire to learn more. "I want to see your brain!" Sara said one day after yoga class. So I popped over for a visit, they hooked me up and scanned my brain. Talk about exposed!
It didn't hurt, was non-intrusive and gave me a glimmer of insight into the daily residence of Heidi-mind. Hmmmmm. I wanted more.
Thus we put our brilliant brains together and came up with a plan. I would spend one week assisting at one of their Costa Rican Transformational Retreats in exchange for a series of neuro-feedback therapy sessions. Okay!
I was wide open and curious.
Anything I can do to be a better, more peaceful version of myself, a more knowledgeable teacher and healthier human being, I'm down for. Count me in.
How does it all work?
Read my daily journal entries below from a 7-day retreat in Costa Rica for some raw and vulnerable details about my unbeknownst depression and way out of it.
First evening, Saturday, 15th November, Casa Ramon, Costa Rica
Arrived after 1 month of traveling and transition from the U.S. to my Costa Rican winter home. Exhausted & ungrounded from the flurries of movement, having daily hot flashes (can't believe I'm starting peri-menopause at 43!) and overwhelmed by some challenges at work. Grateful to have landed in this gorgeous resort with dear friends. Nervous & curious about what's to come.
I'm helping Sarah in the kitchen this week. She's taken on meal prep for the group (quite courageous). I'm "shadowing" Kate Hewett, the yoga instructor, and will have 3 brain sessions this week. Sarah says we'll do about 12 over the next month since I live here and we don't want to overwhelm my brain with more than the usual 6 sessions in one week. I'm still working this week, need to be online and manage Selva. The others are taking a total break from work & technology. 90% organic meals, daily yoga, more.....tired. Must rest. 9:10pm. This is gonna be goooooood!
Day 1 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
"We don't see personality in brainwaves, only what is obstructing perception."
Many times more fascinating than fascinating......
6:30am yoga with Kate. She's quite an experienced and competent teacher, taking it slow & easy, introducing people to yoga. Feeling reserved and unsure in this small crowd of mostly foreigners. Am I a teacher? Am I kitchen staff? Am I a workshop participant? What is my role? Sarah says this is the "self-critic" talking. She's seen my brain (more on that later), she would know. Relaxing into what is and letting myself be quiet.
Day 2 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
The ideal brain is flexible, not stuck in one position. Neural connections, over time, can get stuck in certain patterns. First we "shake up" the brain by giving it random pulses, then calm it with steady, slow waves. The brain enjoys that, thus mimics the induced frequencies post-therapy. This is Neuro-Field Therapy.
Daily Schedule: 6:30am Yoga, 3 organic meals/day, 5:15pm Mindfulness Training.
So far: One Neuro-Feedback and one Neuro-Field Therapy session.
How am I?....I had a melt down today....After the first treatment, the "volume" turned down in my mind. The places my mind had been going to that were causing me stress weren't an option. With so much space, I just felt so sad, spacey and tired. Not in my power. Could be from so much travel, my body's hormone changes, a new environment. Why do I feel threatened even when I am perfectly safe?
My dreams have been startlingly vivid and revealing.
An excerpt from a letter to a friend tonight:
Hello, sweetheart. I haven't wanted to speak these last days as it's been quite an experience over here. I'm doing well and learning a lot. Holding the role of student and learning teacher AND kitchen assistant is not ideal. But, it's beautiful and rich in all the ways you can imagine. Had a melt down today and asked for support (from our wonderful yoga instructor/life coach, Kate). Gosh, that is so hard for me. Learning a lot about my self-critical part/perfectionist who wants to, and usually can, do it all, then gets overwhelmed and keeps it to myself because I don't want to let anyone down or appear the failure. All stuff we are working on my brain with. It's actually deeply engrained neuro-firings that create this behavior and by calming down areas of the brain, the volume of the self critic turns down. Removing obstacles to true perception. Intriguing stuff. I've been told that I'm extremely sensitive and so they are taking my therapy slowly. I'll do something like 12 sessions over 4 weeks time.
So, it's quite amazing that I've become the person I've become. It takes so much courage to want to change ourselves. It's quite easier to stay the same and comfortable, even though it ultimately creates more discomfort.
Day 3 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
"It's obvious you're a mediator," I was told by Sarah upon viewing my brain "map."
This is good because apparently, my "fight or flight"/sensory motor area of the brain is overactive. This can be from life-long patterns stemming from childhood trauma. AND I'm low on dopamine (a neuro-chemical that creates feelings of well-being). No wonder I've felt whacked!!!
I had my second Neuro/Bio Feedback treatment today. We are working to calm down that fight/flight area and the area that is the self-critic. Yes, please. To shift from Delta brainwaves to Alpha and Beta waves, move the activity around and make space for clearer thinking. Uh, yeah, that will be wonderful.
With my brain make up, it is no wonder that my body and mind love and gravitate toward yoga and meditation. It gives me solace and relief. Alpha waves are prevalent during meditative states. Alpha brainwaves are slightly faster. This is the state of mind when we are "in the now." Some call it "open focus." For practiced meditators, Alpha is always present.
Felt much more alert, lively and happy today. To bed with this brain....zzzzzzzz
Day 4 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
The most significant thing to report today is around my body's well-being. One month ago, I started having hot flashes, a pre-menopausal symptom and a signal from the endocrine system that can indicate a woman's shifting out of child-bearing stage (Gentlemen who love the feminine, take note). Intense!!! At 43 years of age, this is quite young to be having these symptoms. Sarah recommended raw, organic maca root taken by tspn each day. My body has been calm, no hot flashes, for 2 days now. Could be a combination of no caffeine and alcohol (which can be contributing factors) AND the neuro-feedback treatments, which help to balance neuron-hormones as well.
(Maca is an adaptogen which lets your body regulate itself, telling it to produce what it needs rather than one specific hormone)
In all, energized & positive, 2 hour nap on veranda, a close encounter with a hummingbird, intensity of dreams continuing.
Day 5 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
Here's a nifty little secret...I have experienced 1 Vipasana (10-day silent meditation retreat) and MANY yoga classes, trainings & workshops, but I've never been a student in a yoga retreat. I teach them, I organize them, I run a yoga retreat center, yet this is the first I've experienced one as a (semi) student. The dedication of daily practices alone are shifting me. I am waking without my mind racing to the long list of "to doobey do's." My body feels incredible, light and strong, clean and clear. Even though I've been working throughout the week (participants usually do not), I've been able to step back, look at some current challenges more objectively and approach them with logic and ease.
Whaddayaknow?....This stuff really works! Okay, could have something to do with the neuro-therapy, as well. Although we've only been able to fit in 2 sessions for me personally, I am told they continue to work long after. The brain LIKES the shifts the therapy allows it to feel, therefore continues to move in that direction without stimulation.
Goodnight, sweet brain.....I am so happy to be taking great care of you.
Day 6 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
Care and feeding of the brain: Post-care was covered today at lunch. It's recommended to avoid or limit alcohol intake for at least a month. It's not that alcohol will reverse or undue the work that has been done, but for about a day after drinking it, the progress will come to a stop. Alcohol inhibits healthy brain function (obviously!) and it slows the formation of the new pathways that are being forged from the therapy.
The good news is that the work will continue. The ways in which our brains have learned to function, turning down here, turning up there, etc., will enhance over the next 4-6 weeks, becoming stronger and more deeply engrained patterns. I like that.
Today, I feel the biggest shift. My mood is steady. The self-critical voice is dialed way down or not present. I lead our Mindfulness Training/Closing tonight with the group and it was pure pleasure. I'm grateful to be witness to the transformations around and within me. Teaching yoga in the morning....what dreams may come this night?
Day 7 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat
Taught 6:30am yoga today around the theme of "Transition," staying present in the "in-between" places as we journey from one location to another, one asana to the next. Ate our final scrumptious meal prepared by Sara (I will miss learning in the kitchen with this wise woman!) and said our sweet goodbyes. Wrapped up a lovely morning by clearing the space we've shared together, opening it up once again to be blessed by all who enter.
Post-Retreat Thoughts and Therapy
It's now 10 days from the retreat, I've had 2 more neuro-therapy treatments with about 6 more or so to go. What I'm noticing is an ease in my being and a realization that, prior to the retreat, I was depressed. It's one of those things that you don't see when you're in the middle of it. Kind of like emerging into bright sunshine after being in a thick cloud of fog. I didn't know I was so depleted until my body and mind felt better. Looking back, I see that recent intense life challenges, hormonal changes and edging toward empty in the dopamine tank created the perfect storm for anxiety and depression.
In a world where anxiety, depression, asperger syndrome, autism and many social, mental and emotional disorders are on the rise, I applaud Sara and James Roy for courageously bringing this cutting edge therapy to the public. I am, as well, so grateful to have crossed their paths and to be forging new paths in my own brain's journey into greater well-being.
Keep an eye out for 7 Tips for a Healthy Brain. What you can do to promote your own brain's health, support your nervous system and just plain feel better!
Peace to all, please.