Trust Your Gut

Do you trust your gut feelings? Why is it in yoga that the center of personal power is Manipurna, the solar plexus chakra? How do you sometimes “just know” without words? The answers may literally be inside your gastrointestinal system.


First, a quick neuroanatomy lesson. The electrical wiring of of our bodies is the nervous system. The basic cell of the nervous system is the neuron (though like any star, neurons have a supporting cast of cells). Nerves communicate through a chemical and electrical system. Some neurons sense information, some process and store information and some execute actions. Together, the neurons compose the nervous system of the body. One way to look at the nervous system in terms of anatomy– where structures lie in the body: the Central Nervous System, (CNS) is the brain and spinal cord, protected by bone. There are about 100 billion cells in the central nervous system alone! The Peripheral Nervous System is all the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. The nervous system is also classified by function–conscious and unconscious activities. The Somatic Nervous System controls the voluntary movements of the body, like flexing a bicep. Unconscious functions are controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which runs all the processes of the body we don’t usually think about, like circulation of blood, the regulation of breathing and the digestion of food.


The ANS has three parts. The Sympathetic nervous system, responsible for “fight or flight” responses, the Parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for “rest and digest” responses. The third part of the ANS is the enteric nervous system (ENS). I believe the Enteric NErvous System is why you should trust your gut feelings and part of why Manipurna is located at the level of the stomach.


The ENS is anatomically different from the rest of the ANS. The parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are tied to the brain and spinal cord. The ENS is made of a mass of neural tissue embedded along nine meters our guts, from the esophagus to the anus, including our stomach and intestines. It contains  about 500 million neurons. Compared to the CNS, that doesn’t seem like a lot, until you consider that the majority of the neurons of the CNS lie within the brain. In terms of cells outside the brain, the ENS has the most neurons in its system. Traditionally, ENS is described as coordinating the complex mechanical and chemical processing of food in our body. The ENS can and does operate independently of the CNS, thereby called “the second brain”, though the two brains do communicate via the “brain-gut axis”. We are aware of this connection when a mental stressor causes heartburn (increased acid production in the stomach and a relaxation of the esophageal sphincter) or the sensation of “butterflies in the stomach”. Since language and words are part of the CNS, communication from the ENS can seem to have no words– just feelings or simply a sensation of knowing.


New research is being done on this old wisdom in our bodies, in the field of neurogastroenterology. The aim is to treat diseases via this brain-gut system. Our knowledge about this complex system is expanding and evolving constantly. For example, there is a new appreciation for the neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in regulating moods like happiness and more subtle moods like satiety that are present in the enteric system.


There is a vast system in our body, observing the environment, processing information, making assessments outside of the brain.  Because words and conscious thoughts are at the level of the brain, messages from your gut are often in the form of wordless or hard to describe sensations and feelings. As humans, we are so tuned into words and thoughts, we miss these messages and don’t tend to tune into this vast and innate intelligence.


So how can you harness your brain-gut axis?


First, start by listening. You already know when you are shocked that  you feel “sucker punched” or when something is so wrong it “makes you sick to your stomach”. Listen to those feelings embedded in your body and you will start to become aware of more messages. A second way is by observing your body’s reactions. Do certain foods cause heartburn?  Your body is telling you that it doesn’t like the offending food. Change your food choices and notice how you feel. Another habit to develop is noting how you feel emotionally before and after eating particular foods. An obvious one is craving something sweet: is it really from hunger– or is it a response to anxiety or fatigue? Is the crash after the pleasure of the initial sugar rush worth it? (Sometimes it is, that’s okay, too.) Keeping a food/mood diary for a few days can be eye opening. When you see the before and after patterns particular foods cause, it’s easier to manage the cravings and indulge wisely. You can do the same thing for people, places and situations. What does your gut have to tell you about your habits?


Another way to use your gut is to simply ask it questions. You can ask yourself, “Is this what I really need? Is this good for me?” Listen to the answer. You don’t need to limit yourself to asking your gut about food. Sit or lie down somewhere quiet, place your hands lightly over your belly, take a few deep breaths and ask your gut for advice or insight to problems. Don’t be dismayed if an immediate answer doesn’t come, it may later because the ENS processes information differently than the brain. Remember that gut messages may not come in words, they may come the form of a quiet thought or feeling  or sudden idea.


Ask your gut. Trust your gut. You’ve always known that and now you know there’s science behind it.


The First Five Pounds of Inertia


 I don’t know about you, but I find that weight gain creeps up on me. It starts with a few days of indulgent eating, a few skipped skipped sessions at the gym, a few late nights. At first, it seems okay.  Our modern clothes, especially athleisure clothes which are so popular are designed to be forgiving— forgiving of sweat, forgiving of movement, and forgiving of weight gain. Even the last bastions of one hundred percent cotton– men’s undershirts and jeans, now commonly incorporate stretch fiber. On one hand, it’s great that our clothes breathe better, move with you comfortably and wrinkle less, but a rise in five pounds of weight is less noticeable than when we dressed in stiffer fabrics and fitted clothes.

     Five pounds is the critical mass at which a waistband feels tight and zippers start to strain—five pounds equals one dress size. That’s just the clothes. At an extra five pounds on the body, the stress on lumbar intervertebral discs increases, possibly resulting in back pain. With five extra pounds of belly fat, insulin regulation starts to become unbalanced and it’s easier to get into the cycle of sugar cravings, caffeine highs followed by inevitable afternoon energy crashes.

     For me, with the creep of just five pounds, I start to feel depressed.  My clothes feel tight, my gym outfits show unflattering lumps, my energy starts to flag.  Even thinking about going to the gym or out for a run seems daunting. It feels so much easier just to lounge on the couch, eat ice cream and watch The Last Jedi. Again.


     Isaac Newton can shed light on how to break out of this sad cycle.

     Newton’s first law, the Law of Inertia, states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless a acted upon by a force.  With weight gain, that extra five pounds of flab just became the weight of inertia keeping us on the sofa and off the trajectory of a health.

     Healthy weight loss, which is losing fat rather than water and muscle, for the average person is about one pound a week (a half pound for the smaller, up to two for the larger). It can take at least thirty days—about the time it takes to form a new habit, before the results of a fitness routine is felt. In the first ten of those thirty days, as the weight comes off incrementally, it feels impossible, like nothing is going to change, and that those five pounds (or more) will never budge. The second ten days gets a little easier, and then in the last ten days of building a healthy habit– clothes feel better, the body moves more freely, metabolism improves and the benefits of your new habit becomes self-reinforces the habit.

     Any change requires getting past the inertia—it takes energy (remember, Newton said it takes a force to change inertia) especially in first ten days to create or recreate good habits.  Hang in there! Losing the first five pounds is a matter of putting in the energy and having faith that the inertia is moving. So get going, and know that a first you’re fighting inertia—and remember, once you get moving, a body in motion stays in motion.


This a repost from my previous blog.


A Valentine For You, With Love and A Leap of Faith

Writing is a little bit like falling in love. There’s a blurriness to everything outside your obsession. You’re totally in your head, dazed, romanticizing, wondering about little things, like does that mean something else? Besides the giddiness, there’s underlying anxiety, too, as you’re questioning whether everything’s good enough, pretty enough, smart enough…And in the end, writing, just like love, boils down to being your authentic self, open and vulnerable, ready to let go and go where this trip takes you, heaven or heartbreak, as you gather up your courage, take a deep, deep breath, and jump, taking a leap of faith, trusting love and the Universe to catch you.

With that, here is an excerpt from my novel Dakini, a work in progress. Thank you for being here.

Dakini, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Invocation

“Raise your arms, open your heart,” I say in my breathy, slightly sing -songy, yoga teacher voice. I suppress a sigh and continue in the same upbeat tone, “Open wide, as if your back is straight against a wall, and your heart is unlocked, ready  to give and ready to receive.”  The ten Seniors in my last class of the day dutifully raise their arms to varying degrees of physical ability and shoulder arthritis. It’s not perfect form by a long shot, but it doesn’t matter. I love teaching Seniors Level 2 at River Oaks Senior Living Center. Here, they’re enthusiastic, smiling and have great attitudes…the best type of yoga students.

Despite the constant drone of the gym’s air conditioner, it’s humid. I can feel wisps of my hair wilted against the back of my neck. I wish I’d worn anything but the long black Lululemon leggings and long sleeves I’m sporting today, maybe capris and a tank.  Even the smiling Buddha on my t-shirt looks sad. But I’m dressed to teach the Senior Center, not the Power Yoga set at Crunch, where the expectation’s a little more sleek, a little more skin and yoga fashion forward.

It’s warmer than usual, with temperatures in the nineties early in May, hot for Portland this time of year. Outside, the sky is patches of blue peeking through irritable grey clouds, threatening thunder, the earth holding her breath.

The gym is normally air conditioned at a constant temperature of 72 degrees that I dial up to 78 for class, but today, despite the thermostat showing 72, it feels much warmer. It’s also usually perfectly lit for the seniors with poorer vision. River Oaks is meticulous about catering to their older clients’ needs. They should be, as the Senior pay premium prices for the amenities here to enjoy their retirement.

Today, though, everything feels off. Not just the temperature, but the overhead lights are too bright even though I’ve dimmed them. Dust floats lazily in the air as I survey the class. I love teaching here, but I’m dragging.

Despite my inner lethargy, I think I’ve kept a good flow going. We’re into the last sequence before the final resting meditation, savasana. Corpse pose.  For some strange reason, the name of the pose sends goosebumps prickling down both my arms. Get a grip, Maddie, I shake my head at myself.  Savasana is just a metaphor and worst experience I’ve had in savasana was the time Mr. Kanzaki fell asleep and started apneic snoring. I don’t need to worry about it anymore as he no longer does yoga, having gone to a final resting pose of his own, four months ago.

My regulars are here today, so at least there’s no one new to worry about. In the six months I’ve been teaching at River Oaks, I’ve learned who has a bad knee, who’s had back surgery, whose diabetes or high blood pressure might make dizzy. In the unlikely event I forget, the Seniors have no qualms to remind me. It’s worked out well so far.

“Right knee over right ankle, feet about three and half feet apart.” I pause and nudge Mrs. Elliott’s foot with mine, my bare foot sliding on the warm, shiny wood floor so her knee is in better alignment with her ankle. Today she’s sporting a French pedicure matching her finger tips. I’m wearing Chanel’s Starry Night, a navy glitter polish on my toes. If there’s one thing people notice about yoga teachers, it’s our toes. It’s my reasoning for my regular indulgence on spa pedicures and designer nail polishes.

Mrs. Elliott is seventy-eight years old and had a second knee replacement three years ago. She glances at me, “Thank you, Maddie, dear,” she beams, her gray bob and azalea lipstick impeccable. Her gaze shifts past me. She smiles brightly at Mr. Xio. She’s strategically placed herself next to Henry Xio. He’s a relative newcomer to River Oaks, straight into the residential program instead of first joining as a community member. That, from the gossip I’ve overheard, gives Mr. Xio an alluring air of mystery. Mrs. Elliott’s main romantic competitor for Mr. Xio is Elvirah Gray, who doesn’t take Yoga 2 because of wrist arthritis. I think it’s a smart strategy for someone gunning for his attention.

Mr. Xio glances at Mrs. Elliot, gives her a small formal nod, then looks back at the mirrors in the front of the room. I smile back into Mrs. Elliott’s crystal blue eyes encouragingly, but her smiles fades a little and her face drops, disappointed.

If I thought it would help, I’d tell her that anyone who didn’t love her back wasn’t worth it, but while that’s always believable intellectually, it’s a lot tougher to actually feel. I can relate all too well, but I refuse to let myself think about it now.   

“Your gaze is over your right index finger, sink down into the pose. We are now in Warrior II.” I demonstrate the pose quickly, making sure my own alignment’s correct, so my students don’t hurt themselves following me. I’m not too worried, as this group has a good yoga practice already and follows my instructions diligently. “Beautiful, everyone, just gorgeous,” I say looking around the room.

I turn to lift Mr Xio’s arms straighter and higher. Under my hands, he’s all wiry muscle, he’s actually pretty strong and flexible for seventy-two. His intelligent eyes meet mine briefly as he gives me a formal nod before he turns his gaze along his right hand and he’s focused at the front of the room again. He reminds me of the ravens that collect in the trees outside the Center’s picnic area, waiting and watching patiently with sharp eyes for anything good that may drop. I follow his gaze and for a second, out of the corner of my eye, something flickers. I snap my head to look, but it’s just the fake tea lights in the mirror on the little yoga altar some long past yoga instructor has set up in the front of the room. I blink, trying to clear the fuzziness.

I check on Mrs. Starkly, this is where she typically wobbles—her issue is arthritis in her spine. I put my hand on her knobby back and whisper, “Sink down, it’s better for your back.”

“Bless your heart! You remember,” she booms dramatically. She says this every time. Mr. Santori, an octogenarian, looks at me, rolling his eyes. I give him a little grin.

I’m having a hard time staying focused. Do not think of Nick Pirelli, I tell myself. Thinking about him is why I have the dull remnants of a headache. If anyone asks why I look tired– and one of the Seniors is bound to ask– I’m going to say I had a hard time sleeping because the heat. No one needs to know I’ve got a modern air conditioned apartment above a Whole Foods with a security gate and garage parking in the northwest part of town.

No one needs to know the real reason I can’t sleep because I lie in bed thinking about that rat bastard, Nick Pirelli. I keep reminding myself of his fifty bad qualities, a list my best friend Kate helped me make, to get over him. Except then I start to feel stupid that I could fall for someone so awful, that I be so damn dumb and then the whole, stupid cycle begins again.

At least my eyes are no longer puffy–the Seniors are a pack of wolves with a carcass when they sense I’ve got a problem they can pry into and may need their advice. Maybe I should ask them, nothing else about Nick makes sense to me or my friends.

Not thinking about him, I remind myself.

I smile brightly at the class again, forcing myself to sound cheerful. “We’re going to be in this pose for five breaths, so use the first breath to become aware. Use the next breaths to ease into where you feel most limited.” I step back from the group to walk around.

“Inhale one,” I scan to the corners as I walk, “Exha–” My words disappear as I glance towards the altar again. There are the fake tea lights, a little vase of plastic orange chrysanthemums and a small brass statue of Ganesha on a blue African kente cloth.  

The brass Ganesha’s a representation of the Hindu god with an elephant head and pot bellied human body.  As a statue, he’s shiny, rotund and smiling benignly. He’s one of the gods traditionally associated with yoga, often called the Remover of Obstacles, invoked for auspicious beginnings and for success and protection. He loves sweets and candy, which is why I normally leave whatever sugary affair I’ve scrounged from my pockets on his altar at the beginning of every class here.

I have no problems with the brass statue Ganesha. The problem I’m having is that there’s another, life size Ganesha standing next to the statue, leaning nonchalantly in the corner.

This Ganesha’s wearing a beat up leather jacket, a burgundy and orange plaid flannel shirt, black ripped skinny jeans and red Converse high tops. He’s eating strawberry Starbursts. He’s littering the yoga altar and floor with pink wrappers, his trunk bobbing as he chews.

I left the Starbursts at his little brass statue before class today. Since he’s taken them from his statue, I guess they’re his, but the mess he’s so casually making is a bit rude. As if he reads my mind, Ganesha’s lip curls into a little smirk under his broken tusk.

Suddenly I’m back in real time. My heart’s pounding in my chest. I’m teaching a yoga class. How long have I been silent?

“Exhale,” I manage, forcing my gaze to survey the class briefly. No one’s looking awry at me. I don’t think anyone else sees him. I peek into the corner. He’s still there.

Maybe I shouldn’t have washed that Benadryl down with a shot of Jack Daniels last night. Damn that bastard, Nick Pirelli.

Ganesha winks.

I force my attention back to the class. I catch Mr. Xio staring at the corner too, but when I turn to look at him, Mr. Xio’s eyes are closed. His balance is really good for his age, I think, momentarily distracted. I count out the inhales and exhales, moving my arms up and down by my torso in exaggeration, walk around, continue helping the other students in the class, following my sequence, by rote and sheer reluctance to look at Ganesha. If the flow’s different than normal, no one’s looking confused. I try to avoid looking in the corner, but my eyes are magnetized to the altar.

Yeah, Ganesha’s still there.

It’s time for savasana. I’m suddenly nervous again, but Ganesha slips into a graceful lotus position, hands at his knees. He closes his eyes as he meditates, chest breathing rhythmically as I guide the class through a relaxation sequence. I find this reassuring.  

It’s that he follows the rules of yoga. It’s extremely rude to disrupt savasana, though my Power Yoga crowd, the worst offenders, do it all the time in their rush to get to their next Instagrammable moment, unable to surrender to the moment of letting go. But Ganesha is serene in his meditation. Being a Hindu god and all that, he probably should be.

I let everyone, including Ganesha, rest for another five minutes of silence. Normally, this is my favorite part of class, when everyone lies still, looking innocent and utterly peaceful. I feel protective of my class, even maternal.

Today, I’m trying to take long even breaths of my own, trying to bring heart rate down. I glance at my watch.

“Wiggle your toes,” I tell the ten seniors lying on their mats of rainbow colors. Everyone wiggles their toes, including Ganesha. He has long, pink, human toes. He’s wearing green polish. As I guide everyone back into class from the bliss of savasana, Ganesha opens his eyes and watches me quietly. I finish up the class, rolling my pink Manduka as the others roll their mats, chatting amongst themselves.

Everyone shuffles out quietly, with a quick wave or nod goodbye to me. No one spares the altar another glance, which I’m not sure makes me feel better or worse. Finally everyone is gone except Mr. Xio who is taking a long time rolling up his turquoise mat.

“Are you going to ignore the elephant in the room?” Ganesha asks. He’s looking at me. His eyes, despite being on an elephant’s head, are totally human, green, flecked with brown. I expect an Indian accent, something Bollywood, he’s an Indian god after all, but his voice is that of a Portland barista. I glance at Mr. Xio. I hesitate, I don’t want someone to realize I’m hallucinating and quite possibly— if not probably– on my way to insanity.

“Don’t worry about him, we’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we, Huang Zhu,” Ganesha says lazily, “But I’ve got to talk to this one,” Ganesha points his trunk at me, “alone right now.”

Mr. Xio stiffens and looks at Ganesha. He grunts and mumbles something under his breath. I don’t catch the words—they don’t sound English—but Ganesha sniggers. Suddenly, I see Henry Xio doesn’t really look like he’s in his seventies. His face is unlined and his muscles under his baggy sweats are thick and defined. He turns to me, not quite looking me in the eye, stands up straight. He even looks taller. He shakes his head, gives me a little shrug and leaves the room. As soon as he steps out of the gym, he slouches, looking like old Mr. Xio again. I want to ponder all this more, but there really is an elephant in the room.

Now it’s just me and Ganesh. I may be crazy, but I refuse to be intimidated by my own hallucinations. Hopefully this is a benadryl and alcohol fueled dream anyway, and I’m going to wake up soon to my shrill I Iphone alarm, with a nasty headache and dry mouth. That’s the best case scenario.

I walk up to the altar, brushing by Ganesha and pick up the wrappers scattered on the floor.

“Those are my favorites,” Ganesha says, “Strawberry flavor is the bomb.”  

“I thought laddus are your favorites,” I say, referring to the traditional Indian sweets Ganesha is offered on Tuesdays. I crush the Starburst wrappers into a crinkly pink ball, toss them in the trash.

I face Ganesha. He’s turned, watching me with the wrappers and I can see that in his profile in the mirror, he looks like a normal person.

“I like laddus when I’m in the South,” he replies, “but back then, no one had these babies.” He smiles appreciatively at the little square Starburst in his hand, pops the last Starburst in his mouth. This time, he carefully drops the pink wrapper into the trash.

I’m fascinated by the elephant head in front of me and the human head in the mirror, eating. When I was little, maybe seven or so, while visiting my grandparents in India, I begged to be taken to the local temple, to feed the sacred elephants there. I gave them small yellow plantains, keeping them flat on my palm as they delicately took them with their trunks, inserting the fruit into their mouth and chewing daintily. Ganesha’s doing the same.

In the mirror, in his full human form, he’s kind of cute. Early twenties, standard Portland scruff, dark curly hair. Medium height, medium build, the type who does yoga in a studio, maybe hikes but doesn’t go to the gym. A little too soft and too young to be my type.

What is wrong with me? I should probably have a number of feelings and conflicted thoughts, but checking Ganesha out should not be one of them.

Ganesha glances at the mirror, following my eyes. “That’s what everyone sees, if they see me.” He says it almost sadly. “You look tired, Maddie, why don’t you grab dinner and I’ll meet you at home. We have a lot to go over.”   

I look for Mr. Xio as I leave, but he’s nowhere to be found in the common rooms. “He went up to his apartment,” Mr. Santori says. I see Mrs. Elliot heading towards me. I’m not in the mood for any more conversation today. I wave to her, point to my watch exaggeratingly, “Gotta beat the traffic on the 5.” I  wave again and scoot out the front door.