Let's Talk About Sex

The heart has reasons of which the mind knows nothing.

~ French philosopher Pascal

While getting my PhD in San Francisco (which seems like ages ago), I had an interest in gender studies and sex therapy. After graduate school, I continued to learn and work with clients around issues of gender, sexuality, sex, and relationships but I also shifted and put more of my energy into learning about body-oriented therapies such as yoga and somatic experiencing. Years later when I moved back to the Midwest and started my private practice, I was more outspoken about my emphasis on mind-body and holistic psychology, while sex therapy took a backseat. Eventually I was able to reflect and confront myself: ‘If you truly believe in promoting people’s sexual health, why didn't you name that in an outright way and speak more overtly about the importance of sex therapy when you opened your practice?’ Although now these interests have been integrated together in my business, it's interesting how my subconscious fears of judgement silenced me at the time. 

Since I didn't do it as fully back then, let me speak a little louder now -- my work as a therapist is personal, just as any artist or writer connects their everyday life to their craft. But even more importantly, my work as a therapist is political. A healthy therapist is aware of what their politics are. With the state of politics being what it is right now, no one in my field can afford to sit back and be a spectator. It’s time to stand up for what you believe in, even if you think you might be judged or lose a potential client. So I will continue to speak on topics that might be uncomfortable for some, because shame thrives on silence and I'm here to combat shame.

To that end, I believe in reducing people’s shame around sex and their bodies, so we can show up for one another with inner peace, vitality and authenticity. I want to support you in who you love, how you love and what gives you healthy pleasure, which is your birthright. And I want to spread this message beyond the confines of my therapy office to the public, where the conversation also needs to happen  - whether it be pop up events like the one I’m hosting with Flirt Boutique on September 28th, or workshops in studios like the one I’m teaching on October 28th at Open Minds Fusion Studio. Plan to see more events, workshops, and writing from me on this topic. Because too many people are stuck, guilted, afraid, or ashamed of something within them that is a primal, natural, potent part of being human. 

Check out this hilarious video of one my mentors, Seane Corn, talking about her own mother's openness with her body. It's these kinds of real, open conversations that help create a sex-positive attitude! 

Do It For the Love

When there's a big disappointment we don't know if that's the end of the story.
It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.
 ~ Pema Chödrön

Last May I embarked on the trip of a lifetime to Bali, spending one of my weeks there on a yoga retreat led by musician Michael Franti and yoga teacher Seane Corn. It was a last minute decision but considering it was my favorite musician + favorite yoga teacher + favorite country = no brainer! 
Plus, I really needed to feel reinvigorated and my time at Michael's retreat center, Soulshine, did just the trick.
Listen to my brief interview with Michael to hear his tips for preventing burn-out. (His last suggestion certainly rings true for me!) And even better -- meet Michael for yourself at a yoga class I'm coordinating this Friday August 18th when he comes to town! Your donation will go to his "Do It For the Love" Foundation, providing live music experiences to those going through challenging times. With everything going on politically these days, we can all stand to do it for the love, living from our hearts as much as possible. 

Pleasure Is the Measure

“Pleasure is a beautiful word. That s in the middle, pronounced like the z in azure, a word favored by lyric poets, gives a little thrill to the mouth.” ~  William Safire

Since my rebranding last fall, I have added the title pleasure expert to describe my focus as a holistic psychologist, sex therapist and yoga teacher. Understandably, people have asked me, at times with a smirk, “What exactly does that mean?” (It has been interesting to notice that when you transition from the concept of happiness to pleasure, a naughtier vibe is insinuated.) 

For starters, I’m here to help you feel more pleasure in your work, life, and relationships. This extends beyond pleasure in the bedroom, but does not exclude something as essential and primal as our sensual and sexual health. 

As a pleasure expert I help you slow down, listen, and recall what actually makes you feel joy.* What makes you glow, laugh, feel inspired, feel riveted, silly and free. As a somatic psychologist, I know most of this healing can be found within our own body.

I’m here to help you understand what prevents and blocks this. To be an expert in pleasure, you must first be intimately familiar with pain. It is pain that thwarts pleasure. By confronting my own darkness, and working with my client’s for the past 16 years, I’m well aware the barriers to feeling pleasure. 

 ~ Some of these barriers to pleasure are beyond our control...

Like the time I was surfing on a family trip to Baja, Mexico last winter. (I find surfing both pleasurable AND an activity on the verge of demoralizing, given it’s so challenging!) On this particular day, the pleasure I felt on my board was abruptly shattered when someone else’s board crashed into my ribs, breaking one. In an instant, pleasure was transformed into shock and crippling pain — which continued unabated for several weeks. Other barriers to pleasure beyond our control include past trauma (chronic or isolated) or other abuses including neglect. (To name a few, this barely scratches the surface.)

Hospital in Todos Santos post rib breakage. 

Hospital in Todos Santos post rib breakage. 

Pleasure can be taken from us in an instant, it is fleeting. Like a surfboard to a rib, such opposing experiences of pleasure and pain can crash against one another. Which is why we should not get overly attached to chasing one and avoiding the other.  

~ Some barriers to pleasure are due to our own self-imposed limitations...

Many associate pleasure with guilt. They won’t grant themselves pleasure unless they have bent over backwards, toiled away, gone above and beyond, exerted blood, sweat and tears…and even then they might only allow themselves a morsel, lest they “indulge.” Or perhaps they maintain so much willpower for so long that their body finally bursts and they binge on it! 

To them I ask the question: Who taught you that pleasure wasn’t your birthright? The answer is always loaded —parents, teachers, religion, sexism, culture, intergenerational influences…  

Those who have denied themselves pleasure need a pleasure expert to help them realize they deserve it. I might also ask this client the question: When is the last time you played?

There are those with a tendency to over-indulge and constantly chase pleasure as a way to avoid, numb, run and hide from their pain. They need a pleasure expert to help them realize the importance of balance and boundaries around it. This includes asking clients the question: When is the last time you confronted and learned from your discomfort, rather than distracted from it?

~ Where is the balance?

Let us seek pleasure for the sake of being awake to all we can receive from the world, not to persistently avoid the inevitable suffering that is also essential to the human experience. Yes, it’s a fine balance. 

The seeds of pleasure are safety and security. Add soil and you feel grounded and present. Sprinkle in water and you feel ease and vitality. Soak up the sun and there is the kind of growth that allows you to connect to your purpose and feel loving kindness for yourself and others. This is when we’re most receptive to giving and receiving pleasure.

I’m here to reconnect you to that part of yourself who danced as a kid without caring what people thought, ate with your hands like a 2 year old shoving birthday cake into your mouth, and laughed with such giddiness you snorted a little. That part of you who isn’t so self-conscious and buttoned-up all the time. That part of you who listens to your internal wants, needs, desires and drives, and mindfully reaches out to manifest them, because they are yours for the taking. 

So if you are pleasure-starved I am here to help you reclaim it. If you pleasure-saturated I’m here to help you release your grasping. 

Find balanced pleasure in --

your relationship with food

your body

your sense of purpose

your relationship with a beloved

your relationship to your sensuality

your relationship to your sexuality.

... And the pleasure will be all mine to help you get there!

*You might be wondering, what’s the difference between joy, happiness and pleasure? As I define it, joy is found within ourselves and often can have a spiritual component. Happiness is found from our perception of external circumstances. Pleasure is that cherry on top, felt within our entire being at the sensory level = a full body experience.

Winter Solstice

When I am happy for too long I become lazy. Not my physical self but my spiritual, existential self. The compassion-for-the world’s-suffering self gets complacent. After all, who has time to ponder that heaviness when there’s stand up paddle boarding and happy hours on patios to be had?

My blog post at the summer solstice — when I talked about my love for nighttime bike commuting and calculated risk — as compared to my essay now as we hit the winter solstice, exemplifies my current pendulum swing. I have gone from blissed out to blah’ed out. Thankfully, as Rilke says, “no feeling is final.”

My current crankiness has forced me back, at first kicking and screaming, to my more curious and tender self; that part of me who knows I can’t hide from my discomfort. Texting or shopping or Netflixing or eating will not make it go away. Those are just temporary false refuges.

So it’s back to school time. Gotta go inward. Happy hour on the patio will return eventually. Now is the time to read from my favorite spiritual teachers, listen to Pema Chodron, write in my journal, and take more yin yoga. Time to delve back into the RAIN method of relating to my feelings: Recognizing what I’m feeling, Allowing it in, Investigating what it means, and finding Nonattachment or Nonidentification with it, because this crud does not define who I am. It is simply a messenger that something within needs attention. 

    “But it felt so good to indulge in frivolity and distract from your sh*t!” 

- says the impulsive, pleasure centers of my mind

 

    “But you can’t run and hide any longer with your frolicking. Things are falling apart: Trump will be president, your heart feels broken, and the sun sets at 4:30pm (if there even is sun that day).” 

    - says my gut

All the playing and indulgence had its time and place, but now its time to indulge in learning from my doldrums. This darkness helps keep me real. It circles me back to my shadow. Although I sometimes hate this humbling reality check, it has traditionally helped me cultivate empathy for myself and all the others in the world who are feeling the same way. It’s the darkness that helps me love the human condition and the way we’re doing the best we can, in our own goofy ways. It’s this darkness that helps me feel proud of the way I let myself love fully and let myself be vulnerable, no matter the outcome.

It’s December in MN. We’re in survival mode. We’re sleepy. But these can also be the moments that awaken us.

Time to do the work and connect to our wise and weird and raw emotional selves.

Because soon enough it will be spring. And when it is you’ll see me raising a glass on the patio and toasting farewell to the darkness! 

For now.

Escape the Rat Race

Bangkok at 2am: It was a budget motel room we rented above a discotheque. I returned there with friends and despite my exhaustion couldn’t sleep amidst the thumping beats below me. In lieu of earplugs I did what any tipsy 23 year-old might do — reached into my backpack for the remains of a baguette, scrunched two chunks into little pieces and voilà — homemade ear plugs! I felt smug as I drifted off to drunk-sleep. It wasn’t long before I felt something else delighting in my brilliant plan.

A rat. Feasting from my ear.

I leapt up and shook it off, literally, only to find myself completely unable to sleep the rest of the night. To this day my stomach feels slightly queasy as I recount it. Because let’s face it, that’s disgusting. (It’s like the 80s song lyric, “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble…”)

This is among the more random of my travel experiences. There are many other memories, some that have left me awestruck, some that are simply gross. No others involve such intimacy with rodents, fortunately.

There isn’t a trip I wouldn’t do all over again (granted, if I went back to Bangkok I’d sure want to upgrade my accommodations) because compared to my daily life at home, when it comes to travel I can go with the flow. I delight in taking the good with the bad, the glorious with the gritty, because I love to explore. It makes me feel alive. Some call it wanderlust.

I think of the expansiveness in this world around us. I don’t want to be sheltered, shielded or unaware from what exists beyond my own little bubble. For me, international travel is a portal to understanding the ways we are exquisitely different from others and the ways we are all connected at the human level.

On a more individual level, travel has the potential to be a fast track towards transformation. I’ve seen it in others and felt it firsthand. Whether I was participating in a retreat or leading one, I’ve seen people soften and return home to their best selves, to parts of themselves that got lost in the shuffle of the rat race back home. They frolic, connect, rediscover. They reunite with their laughter, their bodies, their presence, and their best intentions to maintain that inner glow as they return home.

You’ve probably heard of FOMO =  fear of missing out. Then there is the opposite, what I call FOLA = fear of living adventurously. Somewhere in between is that sweet spot where we confront the fear or the excuses and we lean in.

Reside in that fearless and curious heart, and the beauty of the world will meet you there.

Just be sure to pack earplugs.

{What will it take for you invest in your self? Space remains in my two upcoming retreats this winter!}

Get Your Freak On

All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.

~ Michael Franti

Why did I wait so long to let my freak flag fly*?

Those who’ve known me for a long time may beg to differ, thinking ‘Rachel, you’ve always been a goofball.’ And while that’s true, I’ve felt regret for all those years I didn’t fully embrace who I was. But now in my life, I am unabashedly me.

I’m unapologetic about the fact that…

I am someone who prefers to smile and give a bow with my hands at my heart than give a handshake when being introduced to someone.

I am someone who loves karaoke and chooses to believe that my enthusiasm for the song makes up for my lack of vocal talent.

I am someone who bike commutes in wedge sandals and a sundress and doesn’t care if I arrive sweaty to my fancy destination.

What are your quirks that you aren’t going to hide or apologize for?

Now I GET that being different is harder to embrace when it goes deeper, when it feels like the core of your identity, as compared to something more lighthearted like a quirk. Or when it feels like everyone else around you in your community is the same, except you.

It took me a long time to embrace and respect myself for the fact that…

I am someone who ultimately did not feel called to have children, and instead believe my path is to be a caregiver in a different manner – helping to alleviate the suffering of those who seek me as their therapist or yoga teacher. 

I am someone who believes in and supports untraditional relationships of all kinds, and has never been into labels for myself or others.

I am someone who talks frankly about taboo topics whether it be sexuality or depression or divorce, and this sometimes makes people uncomfortable.

I’ve been told I don’t seem like I’m from the Midwest. Too direct, too single, too childless, too brazen… too much this, too little that.  And I’ve come to the point in my life in which all I can say is, THANK YOU. Thank you universe for providing me with all the ways I’ve felt included, cradled, and supported. And yet thank you for all the times I’ve felt a little different, misunderstood or separate; this has helped give me perspective, gratitude, and a gravitational pull towards the underdog.

I don’t know where my quirkiness will take me. I don’t know if I’ll lose my home, my business, or worse, my mind to Alzheimers someday. But I know that my soul feels more content because I’m living true to myself. I’m not hiding, pretending, or shutting down. I’m honest about my light and my dark, my peaks and my face plants. (Oh and face planting I have done, believe you-me. And it will happen again.)

At the end of your days your soul doesn’t care whether you succeeded or failed. It only cares whether you lived life your way. That you lived YOUR life. Not the life you think you are supposed to live. Or the life your parents wanted you to live. The world does not need more people being fake or phony or imitating (not to mention it can be personally exhausting). The world needs more people who stand up, be seen, and let their light shine.

{…And with that I’ll leave you with a short video of me standing up – onstage, that is – with one of my favorite singers, Michael Franti. I didn’t care how I looked, how sweaty I was, or that I was about to fall off the edge in front of hundreds of people, I only cared about enjoying him and that spirited summer night.)

Don’t postpone letting your freak flag fly.  Radically accept and display who you are — quirks, goofiness, bad karaoke singing and all. I want to be with the real you.

 

Micahel Franti concert, St. Paul Jazz Festival June 2016 - Video by Lisa Venticinque.

 

*A characteristic, mannerism, or appearance of a person, either subtle or overt, which implies unique, eccentric, creative, adventurous or unconventional thinking.

Love is the Answer

We can live our daily lives

in such a way that every act

becomes an act of love. 

~ thich nhat hanh

Since my last mailing over a month ago I’ve enjoyed an unbelievable summer. Swimming at night under a full moon, stand-up paddle boarding at sunset, dancing to music in the mountains, and connecting playfully with new friends and old. I stand in gratitude and awe at the beauty around me. I stand in gratitude for the privilege in my life that allows me these opportunities and feeling safe to frolic in the world.

Since my last mailing there have also been events in the world that have led me to feel outraged, sick to my stomach and downright discouraged.

Life is full of complexity. Like the fact that it’s possible to feel both joy and sadness at the same time. We can experience our life at polar ends of the spectrum and everything in between, all in moment. This is something I know how to deal with, personally and professionally. What I don’t know how to deal with is being a bystander to injustice around me.

I am dedicated to being an agent of change. I am dedicated to helping end this epidemic of violence, the best I know how.

For now I simply share this –

To my brothers and sisters who experience systemic oppression, discrimination, judgement and any form of hatred based on race, sexuality, class, gender, religion and beyond, I send love.

To my brothers and sisters who are profiled, held back or live in fear, I send love.

To my brothers and sisters who work as civil servants, committed to bringing safety and justice to our communities, I send love.

Philando Castile went to my high school, albeit years after I graduated. He was pulled over and killed weeks ago close to the house I grew-up in, on a street I drove down nearly every day. Things have hit close to home for me more than ever. I sit here with feelings on each end of the spectrum: feeling distraught about what happened yet also feeling renewed energy to do more to stop these tragic events.

Let’s not wait until something happens in our backyard to be shaken and reawakened.

Let’s no longer be complacent. The time is now to spread peace, justice, love, compassion and connection.

{Listen to this song “Love is the Answer” by Aloe Blacc. Love his message, love his voice.}

 

 

Live With a Little Abandon

I love the summer solstice…the long days, the outdoor time, the smells, the activities in my community and the potential of summer as it lays before me.

One of my favorite summer activities is bike commuting. I’m not hard core enough to bike the other 9 months of the year, but in the summer I soak it up. Plus, Minneapolis is an amazing bike city.

Last summer there were reports of bikers on the greenway getting mugged at night. Friends have suggested I avoid riding my bike home from work after dark. This distressed me for multiple reasons.

But I’ve decided my nighttime ride is a meaningful ritual and I cannot bear to give it up.

This is because it’s a moment to feel free and live with a little abandon.

With the troubles of the day behind me, I hop on my old mountain bike. It allows me to jump on and off curbs or little trails, as if I’m back in my Utah days. I make my way down the greenway and along the lakes, breathing in the nighttime air, feeling the wind in my hair, seeing the lights reflected in the stillness of the water, and playing my favorite tunes on my iPod (my summer 2016 mix just might be my best yet). I know I should wear a helmet and I know I should not play music. But I persist at times anyway because I love it so. (A quick note to my nephew Henry if you are reading this: I typically do wear a helmet and by the way you should always wear a helmet.)

Given last summer’s crimes on the greenway, my decision to keep biking reminded me of the Take Back the Night movement. More than the title of a Justin Timberlake song, Take Back the Night began in the 1970s as a way to protest all forms of sexual, relationship and domestic violence. I participated in a Take Back the Night march during college and it made an impression up me.

Perhaps my nighttime biking escapade is my way of taking back the night. I’m not going to give up something I love because it could be risky. Heck, anytime we get out of bed we take a risk. We also take a risk if we choose to stay under the covers.

I’m cautious when need be. I have brighter lights on my bike, I play my music a little quieter and I typically wear my helmet, despite my hair wanting nothing more than to blow in the wind.

But sometimes, with intention, I don’t do what is safest. And it makes me feel alive.

It’s okay to want to live on the edge a little. There are plenty of ways to break free from your doldrums, to liberate yourself and have fun, if you give yourself permission. These activities might reawaken something inside of you that’s been lost.

Reclaim your right to space and the joys in your life. What are you waiting for?

Most Sensual Moment

We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings.

– Audre Lorde

When I am socializing I am “off the clock.” I am not wearing my psychologist hat and analyzing you (at least not any more than the average person does). But these days I have occasionally turned gatherings with friends or colleagues into opportunities to sneak in a little professional research.

These gatherings have been all women, or a mix of men and women. Some of the guests are in partnered relationships, some of them are not. Some of them are long married, some of them newly single, some of them arrive single but leave with a prospective mate by the end of the night! Every type of relationship status or lack thereof is fair game with my research.

I wait until the wine has been flowing and the conversation feels more spirited.

Then I explain that I’m working on a book. And I pose this question:

What has been your most sensual moment?

More often than not, this question is first met with blank stares.

While there have been those folks who dive right in, many people tell me they don’t know what I mean, and can I explain the question further? For some, they know exactly what I’m asking but it feels too private. For others, they need time to brush off the cobwebs in their mind and dive into old memories.

{What can I say, I’m used to asking probing questions that make people squirm a bit. But please don’t be afraid the next time I invite you over.}

I explain to my guests that ‘sensual moment’ is defined as an experience in which you felt heightened awareness of one or all of your senses and this led you to feel particularly present, awake and alive. I remind them that sensual does not necessarily mean sexual, although it can include their sexiest of moments if they so choose.

On a recent night that included men and women from fields ranging from producer to dentist to college professor, these are the themes I heard:

connection to another

current lover

young love

first love

sex

stars

nature

wind

childbirth

biking

snowboarding

mountains

candles

collective grief

music

singing

clarity

presence

thrill

ecstasy

animals

ocean

underwater

hot springs

The question conjures up an array of images and moments. For some the question feels confrontational, for others it feels nostalgic. For everyone who lets themselves ‘go there,’ it feels personal. They are recalling a moment that touched their heart and their livelihood.

I have discovered that many need clarification on what it means to be sensual for two reasons: (1) We are disconnected from our sensual self. The modern day sensuality-killer is the computer, phone and tv screen, after all; (b) We live in a culture that blurs the lines between sensual and sexual. Specifically, we live in a culture that skips over the sensual on its quest for the sexual.

I understand the confusion. As a busybody myself, I’ve had phases in which I couldn’t be bothered to slow down and sense my way through life, let alone notice the food I just wolfed down. Which is why I’m writing a book on sensuality as a portal to pleasure. If we are disconnected from our sensuality we are disconnected from pleasure. Many deprive or deny themselves pleasure, which is a basic human right, because they don’t feel they deserve it. Or they chase pleasure down all the wrong paths, looking for it from things outside of themselves. And when we look for pleasure from other people or other things, without knowing how to be sensual within ourselves first, we tend to get overly attached or seek sexuality from a misdirected place.

These are complicated, nuanced topics. Curious to learn more? Until its published I’ll continue to share segments of my book here on my blog. The title of the book is The Pleasure Is All Mine: Your Path to a Sensual Life. I would love to hear what your most sensual moment has been, should you decide to contribute to scientific research! Anything shared will be confidential.

For now, begin your own experiential process of sensuality and see what pleasures you find. Start by opening your eyes to the acid green lushness of the leaves this spring. Smell the lilacs draping off the bushes. Hear the echo of the grasshoppers at night. Let your bare feet touch the dewey grass. Feel the wind in your hair. Close your eyes as you take your first bite of food. Reunite with the little sensual moments around you.

And begin to feel at home in your body. 

 

Make the Passage

Stuck. Stagnant. Constricted. Constipated.

Yes, constipation.

We’ve all been there. Something interrupts our routine, and our intestinal track is out of whack. Perhaps this is related to how you respond to stress. Perhaps traveling is the contributing factor. Ideally this is temporary. You get over your stress or jet lag, chug a bunch of water and you’re back in action. But sometimes the body has a much harder time letting go.

Literally.

This was the case with me last winter in Morocco. We had a 2 night layover in Paris on the way, during which I indulged in cheese and cream. This surely didn’t help matters within my confused colon. I was a couple days into my Morocco visit and my constipation became all I could think about. We made our way to a little pharmacy in Fez to buy anything that would help me. Since I don’t speak French or Arabic I pantomimed a person struggling with constipation. The woman at the counter directed me to maxi-pads.

No.

I continued my pantomiming, pointing to my stomach, making a squeezed-up, painful face. She directed me to anti-diarrhea medication.

I wish.

At this point a man came out to assist. Apparently he had witnessed the interaction. With broken English he asked me, “Do you need to…(awkward silence) make the passage?”

YES.

He gave me something that did the trick. Ever since, I now pack prunes on all my long trips.

As much as I wanted to blame my constipation on travel and cheese, I realized that was only part of it. I had also been holding on to more stress than normal for months, without my usual methods of release and recovery. My body, being the intricate and wise system that it is, responded accordingly. The gut is our second brain, after all. This network of neurons lining our gut communicates with our brain, influencing mood. It is said that 95% of the body’s serotonin (a neurotransmitter implicated in feeling content and at ease) is found in our bowels!

We all get stuck at times, unable to make the passage. We get stuck in fear. Or paralyzed by the unknown. I’ve been stagnant myself these last couple years regarding how to evolve in my professional path, given the complicated changes in healthcare, in a manner true to who I am. But now as I return from leading an amazing yoga and surf retreat in Nicaragua with 18 other beautiful participants and a magnificent co-leader, I feel refreshed and filled with perspective. My belly is at ease.

After the retreat, I spent a couple weeks exploring Southern Nicaragua and Northern Costa Rica. I learned that crossing the border from Nicaragua into Costa Rica is chaotic and downright random. Plus, there’s this “no man’s land” just after you exit Nicaragua but before you enter Costa Rica. There are no signs, no one is directing you, and you certainly don’t want to ask for assistance from one of the militia standing by with rifles. They’re a little busy managing what has been called the single largest drug transit point in the Americas. With confusion and heavy backpacks, we kept moving forward and before long we were feeling the Pura Vida.

 

These are the gritty moments of travel that I love. It’s funny how I’m able to view these challenges as part of the adventure while I’m in another country but at home they’re annoying setbacks. So I’m setting the intention to bring this adventurous spirit back home with me and apply it to my professional stagnation. I hereby declare this my sankalpa —  sanskrit for a wish or hope that comes from your heart which you will make manifest. Specifically, I will create space for my dream: writing a book* and organizing more retreats.** This will be my practice, my yoga off the mat.

The ancient yogi Desakachar writes that definitions of yoga have one thing in common: “…the idea that something changes. This change must bring us to a point where we have never been before. That is to say, that which was impossible becomes possible; that which was unattainable becomes attainable; that which was invisible can be seen.”

Are you currently stuck in the feeling that what you want is unobtainable? Are you constipated by your fears? Is your belly holding on tightly as a way to keep it all together? Take it from me, the recovering perfectionist – being tightly wound will not protect you from the unknowns in your life.

Dealing with our fears is a complicated matter, of course. But for now, for this moment, we can start simply, one breath at a time. We have our body as a resource to retrain our mind, teaching it that constriction is not the answer, expansion is. Scientists call our gut the “enteric brain” full of neurons delivering information to our brain. Help your belly to communicate and tap into your wise mind, rather than your fearful mind. Instead of shutting down even more in the belly, turn to it as the gateway, the border crossing.

Let yourself inhale fully, generously.

Oddly enough, filling up is the key to emptying out.

Deeply exhale, moving into the lower lobes of the lungs, noticing the strength in your core at the end of the exhalation, your center of empowerment. Massage the belly. Befriend it.

Repeat.

Together with our belly brain, our breath, our adventurous spirit (and the occasional prune + probiotic gulped down with water), our doubts can move through that invisible no-man’s-land within and make the passage to the further shore.

*Forthcoming book is titled “The Pleasure Is All Mine: Your Path to a More Sensual Life”

** Aspirations for late 2016/early 2017 : wine country in Northern CA, a couple’s retreat in Tulum, and a yoga/surf retreat in Nicaragua. Send me your suggestions!

 

 

One Comment

  1. Jennifer David February 17, 2016

    Other great things to travel with to keep things moving are Young Living’s Digize as well as Traditional Medicinals’ Smooth Move. Both easily portable for travel. Happy pooping!

    https://www.youngliving.com/en_US/products/digize-essential-oil
    http://www.traditionalmedicinals.com/products/smooth-move/

Sensual Healing with Ben Wa Balls & Bandhas

This blog post can also be found at elephant journal:  http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/07/sensual-healing-with-ben-wa-balls-bandhas-dr-rachel-allyn-adult/#idc-cover

 

What are ben wa balls and bandhas you might be asking?

I’ll start with the balls.

I wasn’t familiar with the term myself until recently. I was with two old girlfriends for a weekend away. One of them recently got a new car and was still learning how to manage the sound system. She described picking up her mother-in-law from the airport and while they drove away her car automatically resumed playing her “50 Shades of Gray” audio book. My friend fumbled to turn it off but this took a while and it was during a juicy part of the book. She recounted how mortifying it was, explaining “it was during the part when they talk about vagina balls.”

        “Ummm, vagina balls” we asked?

We were amused. Not only by the idea of something as weird as vagina balls but also why a mother who shuttles her two young children in this very car was nonchalantly listening to “50 Shades of Gray.” You go girl.

And so a conversation ensued about placing two small metal balls in the vajayjay to help strengthen the pelvic floor and learn about g-spot stimulation. There are different names for these magic bullets—everything fromkegel balls to venus balls to ben wa balls.

About two weeks after returning from this trip I got a package in the mail from my friend. Yes, my very own set of ben wa balls! Puurrfect timing given it was just days before teaching a workshop called “Yoga to Enhance a Woman’s Sensuality.” As a sex therapist and yoga teacher, I delighted in offering this workshop.

Americans in particular can have a top-down relationship with sensuality and sex as seen in these two problems:

(1) We are overly focused on the outcome (typically in the form of orgasm) and (2) We are stuck in our heads and disconnected from our bodies.

We are also a culture that likes concrete coping tools and formulas to fix things, so I offer this one: Sex Therapy + Yoga = Sensual Healing. A bottom-up approach.


Sex Therapy

When working with a couple, it’s no surprise that I focus on verbal communication between the two people. Just as important, I encourage each individual to listen to the language of their own body; sensations.

Sensations are the language of feeling; senses are the syllables, emotions are the words and thoughts are the sentences.

Establishing this type of awareness can be tricky when there has been abuse or emptiness for an individual, because most likely they developed a pattern of shutting down and disconnecting. These are the partners who may be frozen or rigid in the bedroom, or avoid sex altogether. We use the therapy space to safely uncover the reasons for disconnection.

This can go much deeper than simply being caught up in the to-do list or needs of the children. This can be about not trusting one’s body, not feeling worthy of pleasure, or associating sexual pleasure with shaming messages.

+ Yoga

Enter yoga. One of the best ways to have a body-conversation is with this mind-body-spirit practice.

Case in point, my “Yoga to Enhance a Woman’s Sensuality” workshop. For women, as compared to men, sensual healing is about addressing the whole body versus solely focusing on anatomy. Women can be particularly challenged in the area of slowing down, not feeling guilty if they do, and owning their basic human right to feel pleasure.

The workshop was well attended and many who couldn’t attend asked that I teach it again. There was clearly a yearning for this type of conversation. I ventured down this yummy topic through discussion of everything from ben wa balls to bandhas (a yogic concept involving an energetic and muscular tightening and lifting of the perineum and/or belly).

I led them in experiential exercises that connected them to their bodies in a slow and erotic manner. I saw firsthand how women crave this discussion with each other and within their bodies, but rarely give themselves the time, space, or self-justification to do so.

The yoga studio is an ideal place to engage in this conversation because yoga is a philosophy that encourages showing up as you are, free from shame or embarrassment. I received questions from students that ran the gamut from ‘how do I use yoga to recover from sexual trauma?’ to ‘what yoga poses help my sex life with my partner?’

I explained to the students that through movement—whether it be walking or breathing or yoga—we increase our sensory output, stimulate nerve endings and extend our field of perception.

Sensuality is a gateway to passion and allows for a charge within the body. We can all start this sensuality practice by closing our eyes as we take the first bites of food, feeling the tangy sweetness of the strawberry or the bitter earthiness of the chocolate.

It’s ultimately about connecting moment by moment to our present experience rather than living in the frenzy of the next one. Listening to our sensations encourages curiosity and exploration within our bodies rather than judgement. This leads to greater understanding of how bodily cues inform us, keep us in balance and help us thrive.

Slowing down and listening on a sensual level can lead to enjoying beauty in art, gazing at the colors of a sunset, savoring the way a yoga pose relieves tension and having vibrant, intimate, look-me-in-the-eyes sex.

(Equals)

Sex is a wonderfully mysterious endeavor. I recognize it takes more than a workshop and some ben wa balls to achieve the kind of sexstacy we may aspire to. But if we bypass the foundation of our sexuality, the sensations, we run amok in the kind of sexual disconnection that even the best sex therapist can’t “fix.”  

Get on the mat + listen to your body sensations + reclaim your right to feel pleasure + let go of the outcome = reacquaint with our fabulous sexual selves. And maybe even the person lying in bed next to us.

 

Save Your Cards

My client asked with a shaky tenderness, “Maybe I don’t even know what love is? I don’t think I ever learned what it means to be in a healthy relationship.” It was an ah-ha moment. After months of sorting through the details of the relationship and conflicted feelings of whether to stay or go, it boiled down to these fundamental questions.

Of all the reasons that bring someone to my office, nothing permeates more than issues surrounding relationships. Clients come for clarity regarding relationships between lovers, family members, friends, colleagues, and (it is my hope) the relationship with their own self.

The nuances of relationships transcend and overlap the many stories that bring people in. There is a seeking for answers to questions: how to find a lover, whether to stay with a lover, how to maintain one’s freedom in a relationship, how to feel inspired with their partner, how to ensure everlasting passion, how to be understood and show our real selves (assuming we know what that is), how to be sure we don’t scare them away, how to keep from running away ourselves. We want to know what it means if we “fail” at this? What might be regretted later? Are humans even meant to be monogamous? Like the client in my office this can lead to a search of ‘what happened to get me to this place?’

I’m not there to give answers (sorry to burst your bubble if you thought that was the case). Aspects of it will always be a beautiful mystery. Yet there are many psychologists and scientists who study these questions seeking answers. Currently I’m enjoying the wisdom of Esther Perel’s book “Mating in Captivity.” We cling to science to ensure we make the right choices and will be okay.

Until we arrive as some semblance of an answer we cope by retreating into our “love stories.” I hear many of these — narratives of when they met their partner, why they don’t have a partner, how the love faded, how they drifted from lovers to more like roommates and perhaps lovers again, how they don’t deserve to be loved. We all have these stories. Over the years I, too, have created my own. They gradually became less fact and more fiction due to my biased “memories” filling in the cracks over time.

Which is why it was such a gift to rediscover boxes full of old cards and letters from friends and ex’s as well as old journals going back to 7th grade. They were stored in 2 bright red boxes from Ikea that had been locked shut many years ago. I somehow managed to lose the keys. It wasn’t until I had to move that I was reminded of them and became curious. I brought them to the cabin with the intention of keeping them in storage. One day while me and my Beloved were at the cabin the time seemed right to investigate the contents.  He smash the locks off with a hammer and opened them. Low and behold it was quite the time capsule. I still haven’t been able to read some of the old journals for fear of what I might find. But I did delight in seeing the birthday cards, evidence of a time when people actually wrote down their sentiments and used snail mail.

I wasn’t prepared to find the old letters from my Beloved who now once again sat there with me. Our love story goes that we were together in college, went our separate ways for 17 years until we reunited again. (I guess you can thank electronic correspondence for some things). The reunion was just as romantic as these letters he’d written me many years ago that I saved. We sat on the screen porch nestled in our own little tree house at the edge of the lake. I listened with nostalgia as he read postcards sent to me while in the heart of our relationship. They were gushing with the adrenaline and sweetness of a 19 year-old. Then the tone shifted when he read a letter written about one year after we broke up. (I broke up with him. Don’t ask why I did that…when you’re 19 years old do you really need a reason? Maybe the answer is in one of those journals!) In this letter was his sadness, longing, regret and recovery from the relationship ending. His words were poignant and unlike a typical 20 year-old college kid. I suspect his open heart and raw vulnerability scared me off at the time, but I cherished it now. I started crying. He teared up as well. I was grieving all the lost years together but also reveling in the gratitude of being reunited. Could it be that here was a love “story” that had truly existed beyond my imagination and come full circle?

Tucked amidst the cards and journals was a poem. I think I had torn it out from a wedding program.

 “Love is a temporary madness; it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of eternal passion. That is just being in love, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Those that truly love have roots that grow towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from their branches, they find that they are one tree and not two.” ~Louis de Bernieres

Happy Valentines Day.

Perfectly UnExtraordinary

Do you suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out)? Do you deflect compliments rather than say thank you (“What, this old thing?”)? Do you drive while simultaneously talk on the phone, eat lunch and change the music?

These experiences can be due to a number of factors. They can also be subtle examples of being a perfectionist.

It takes one to know one. I am in recovery myself. (Disclaimer: I use the term perfectionism here to mean mental rigidity and expectations that are unrealistic and all-consuming rather than a balanced sense of healthy striving and goal-setting.) A small example of my recovery — as I type this, pain shoots down my back and neck. This is less about working long hours at my computer or sitting in my therapy chair. It’s pain from waterskiing last weekend. I simply had to get up on one ski. Never mind I was in no condition for it. Apparently I needed to prove to myself I could still slalom ski and cut waves like I did at 15.  I now pay the price!

 

I’m often humbled by the ways I still get seduced by what Buddhists call the “wanting mind” which whispers you’re not enough. I observe the ways I pushed myself waterskiing and now chuckle at the silliness in loosely associating slalom skiing with self-worth. It’s a remnant of the girl I was starting in about 5th grade. By day I was a teacher’s pet with pens, notebooks and binders that all matched. By night an insomniac mentally recycling the next day’s plan in order to get it right.

Somewhere along the way I started letting go of the type A people pleaser. Somewhere along the way I learned that what truly connects us are the imperfections we all share.

Sadly we’re bombarded by messages that disconnect us, even within the world of yoga. The most popular yoga magazine displays cover models from a narrow demographic. The hyper-focus on the perfect body in the perfect clothing while ‘doing’ the perfect yoga pose fuels new versions of inadequacy, control and separateness from one another. This is antithetical to yoga’s original intentions over 5000 years ago.

Connection to our own self begins by having the courage to step on the yoga mat simply as I am… hot mess. speedy mind. pissed off. blissed out. wanting to hide. comparing to others. rising high. falling over. crackling joints. epiphany. sensations. exhalation. out of my head. back in my head… I arrive and I practice how to ride the wave of emotions within me rather than distracting from them, denigrating myself, or projecting onto another. (Practice is a powerful concept, perhaps the second most important factor in behavior change second to self-compassion). Most days I arrive at my mat and actually let go of unhealthy striving and simply settle in. One day farther from being the 5th grade little-miss- goody-two-shoes and another day closer to the real, raw, middle-aged woman. Another day closer to allowing the flaws and the scars but also the compassion and the wisdom.

May we all adopt the definition of “perfect” in the eastern sense of the word rather than the western sense. In the U.S. perfectionism is unachievable because it’s a neverending cycle. There’s always more money to make, more work to do, more power to have, more improvements to the mind and body, and more adventures to behold. In the eastern sense of the word we are born perfect but the ups and downs of life can interfere with remembering our inner light. Our perfect self gets buried under the rights and wrongs, the not-good-enough’s and the he-said-she-said story lines of life. We lose our true essence, our innate goodness and become stuck in the gap between who we are and who we think we should be.

Popular researcher Brené Brown speaks of a prevalent modern form of shame in which we never feel we’re extraordinary enough. We have gone from simply never being enough to never being extraordinary enough. How American of us to push it to the next level! The rise in anxiety and insomnia in our culture clearly exemplifies how harmful this concept can be.

I love this passage on letting-go by Oakland poet Marvin K. White, which is essentially an ode to allowing ourselves to be un-extraordinary once in a while:

… is so not into working harder than everybody else today or trying to be smarter than everybody else, showing up earlier than everybody else, leaving later than everybody else, taking the assignments that no one else wants to take. Is not into over achieving or grinding today. Is not fighting for that promotion today. Is not going to feel bad about taking his eye off the prize and disappointing everyone who had a higher hope for his life. . . Is not going to regret jumping from dream to dream and praying not for world peace or cures but money and clothes and homes on every continent and then not really believing in their possibilities. Is so alright with the local news of his life and the neighborhood newsletter of his story. Would be okay if he was one of Oprah’s least favorite things. . . Is so not into fighting to get in through the front door when the back one and the windows all lead to the same room. Is not into feeling stronger from what didn’t kill him. Does not want gain to come from his pain…Today, he is feeling common and pedestrian and willy-nilly. Today he cannot commit to excellence or to honoring his fray by trying to rise above it. Today he is rank an filed. Today, he has will to not try to convince himself that he is better than that. Today, what ever happens will happen because his is a life unremarkable. Today if you ask him how he is doing, he will tell you, that he, is “Aiming low.”

For more insights on letting go of rigidity and unhealthy perfectionism, attend one of my upcoming workshops this fall called Yoga for Overachiever’s and Perfections.

Reunion Grief

Recently I fed my sister’s cat while she was away.  She’s fostering him until he can return to his original owner. His name is Nernie (it was originally Ernie but as can happen with pet names, a nickname evolved).  It took a couple days for Nernie to warm-up to me.  Even then as I reached my hand out to pet him he would alternate between eagerly approaching me followed by retracting and hissing. I knew he was lonely, but his fear dominated.

We’re not so different from our fury four-legged friends.  As human-animals we too can hiss, swat, and scurry away from our innermost desire.

Nernie’s behavior reminded me of “reunion grief.”  Contrary to how it sounds, it’s not the hassles from the annual family get-together or the disappointment at who actually shows for your high school reunion.  It’s a complex psychological process that occurs once you finally get the very thing you longed for after years – perhaps a lifetime – of waiting, wanting and yearning.  Break out the champagne and celebrate, right?  Oddly enough, for many this can be the beginning of a journey that includes sadness, fear, anger, avoidance, and self-sabotaging.

Picture this example: a little boy goes away to day camp. When his parents pick him up that evening, the boy cries at the sight of seeing them. This is because he managed all day to cope without mom and dad; upon their return he is flooded with feelings of sadness from having tolerated the missing of his parents all day.

Dr. Pat Love * explains reunion grief in terms of what happens when we fall in love: If you really want something for a long time…it becomes a painful subject. The longer you go without [it] the more you begin to associate it with pain. When you finally get something you’ve wanted for a long time, your anxiety goes up because your psyche associates it with pain. [Then] after you accept that you’ve now gotten what you’ve longed for, grief is not over. Once someone has the courage to let themselves be loved, the longing ends but the grief begins. When you finally get the love you longed for you begin to grieve for all the years you lived without it….Like any crisis or stressful situation, when you are in the middle of it you are coping; you don’t have time to grieve. But when the crisis is over, that’s when the strong feelings come up.

Reunion grief can emerge in other situations beyond romantic love. It may arise upon finally seeing your dream career come to fruition. For another, it may begin at the end of a chronic trauma to which they are no longer living in survival mode.

Whether it be romantic love, professional purpose, or the luxury of feeling safe, there’s a special challenge that arises for those who have coped for so long without something essential to their livelihood. Without an understanding of this type of powerful emotion, one can shut down, second guess, numb, act irritable, or disconnect from their true love or true path.

It begins with awareness. Most of us are not aware of how we keep our potential at a distance. Perhaps you’ve self-sabotaged achieving a professional peak by procrastinating on a deadline for fear of failure. Or maybe you ruined a romantic moment by picking a fight for fear of being vulnerable in the relationship. Others pursue little bits of chaos even when their life is stable and content. We are unconsciously aware of the fact that it’s not the struggle or the pain we fear (we grew accustomed to that) but experiencing fulfillment and pleasure. What a totally foreign concept!  And if we were to allow pleasure in, would we get soft and mushy and render ourselves even more vulnerable to loss?

Consider the following practice to greet love, fulfillment or pleasure at your door: (a) recognize your past suffering from going without (b) refrain from reacting, and instead be a compassionate witness to the feelings that arise (c) ride the wave of emotions, staying within (not distracting with procrastination, picking a fight, reaching for the cookie jar…) (d) begin to soften into the sensations as they become more familiar and you eventually respond in new ways. Then repeat steps A through D over and over as you gradually learn to receive.

Oh and one more important step…the hardest barrier to allowing yourself to receive: not feeling you deserve it.  When I first heard the poem “The Truelove” by David Whyte many years ago in my yoga-teacher training, I didn’t even know that I didn’t even know how to see myself as deserving. He states,

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

Let me suggest that just because we didn’t have IT (true love, our dream job…) doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve it now.  Let’s challenge the idea that because we were deprived it meant we weren’t deserving.  Honor our resilience for the years we went without, and the ways we coped. Recognize that anything truly worthwhile comes with the risks of loss and discomfort from time to time.  The only other alternative is to go live in a cave.
Whyte concludes:
because finally after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to {drown} any more,
you’ve simply had enough of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory and any darkness,
however fluid and however dangerous,
to take the one hand you know
belongs in yours.

Practice making a choice: to live in love or to live in disconnection and fear.  As foreign as it feels to surrender to your love or your livelihood, you will adapt and you will find a huge smile on your face when you do.
I wish I could explain this all to Nernie. I wish he would accept my hand held out to him, revel in the affection, and delve into some deep purring.  Whether you’ve got two legs or four, have hair or fur, paws or hands, hiss or purr, know that we all yearn for this deep connection to our rightful path.  Know that we all deserve it.  Go ahead, roll in the catnip, indulge in the pleasure, and let yourself be stroked the next time someone comes to feed you.

*Pat Love, Ed.D. “The Truth About Love” Published 2001