How Our Body Communicates – Understanding Yellow Lights


I was giving a 10 minute presentation last week and I was talking about what yoga therapy is, what to expect in a session and the concept my teacher Susi describes as Yellow Lights.

This post is going to seek to explain what yellows lights are and how you can start to recognize them. My follow up post will describe an example of how you can translate your yoga experience into business/life.

A yellow light, much like a traffic light is a warning signal. It is something that is telling us to slow down because a red light (danger) is coming. The Yellow Lights concept is a key piece in the healing process if we want to have long lasting sustainable results. Sure, we can seek a quick fix solution where we feel good temporarily, but unless we can get to the underlying issues that are feeding the problem, we are going to stay stuck in the cycle of pain.

Imagine driving down the road and you see a road sign that says, “danger ahead” then a little while after, “road closed,” then, “caution” then “slow down,” then “STOP!” Each sign is a little bit bigger and clearer.

Now imagine that you ignore the signs and speed past them. You don’t stop on time and find your car teetering on the end of a cliff, or you go over the cliff altogether.

Like pain, it’s obviously not an ideal situation to be in. It’s going to take a whole lot of effort and intervention to get your car back up and over the cliff and back on the road than it would have been if you had listened to the signs.

Each sign is a yellow light. These yellow lights are warning you that something dangerous is coming up.

Another way to describe the yellow lights or warning signals is a whisper. In yoga therapy, I talk about how the body is constantly speaking to us. The warning signals are little whispers that are asking you to do something. When you ignore a whisper, it gets a little louder and more frequent. If you continue to blow past the whispers, they will become screams (the red lights) of pain or discomfort.

Our body is constantly giving us feedback. Everything, both inside of us and in our environment, creates a physiological response in our body. Our brain is constantly scanning our environment for safety and danger so it can respond accordingly. It provides information to our nervous system so we feel either relaxed and at ease or on high alert.  We see someone we like and we are filled with a sense of warmth. We hear our inbox ding and we are filled with dread. Our tummies rumble and we know we are hungry. Our knees twinge and we know if we keep going our knees will start to hurt then our hips and then our backs.

The twinge in the knee is a whisper (it’s time to slow down). The hip discomfort is a louder whisper (I told you to take a break). The excruciating back pain that doesn’t go way is a scream (you didn’t listen and now I’m forcing you to pay attention).

When we start to listen to our bodies’ language, we can start to decode and understand how it is communicating with us. The concept of the yellow lights helps us listen. We can use our bodies as a barometer to move towards things that make us feel safe and healthy and keep us away from things that invoke a sense of danger (interpreted as stress and pain). (side note: Pain scientist and researcher Lorimer Mosely from Australia talks about how Safety and Danger can modulate pain).

Listening to our bodies requires some quiet and stillness which can be really challenging because we live in a culture that values hustle and doing, pushing through, driving hard, and giving it our all. We end up ignoring our bodies innate intelligence about what we need because we are so busy chasing after something else. The awesome thing is, it can be learned. Our bodies never lie. Our minds will lie.  We know our minds play tricks on us but our bodies are pretty reliable in their feedback. This is why I love yoga therapy. It slows us down and provides opportunities to feel what is happening in the body.

Where we go from here may be different for everybody. Maybe our starting point is learning how to feel. As we go through a trajectory of movement, from point A to point B, consider what happens and what changes along the way.

Try this: notice what the soles of your feet feel like against the floor. Feel sensation in your hands. Notice what your breath is like (Is it fast/shallow, deep/slow? Are you holding your breath? Can you feel it in your chest? Can you feel it in your belly?).

We can begin to notice a lot just by paying attention to different parts of our body. Once we start to notice, we are growing our awareness, which is awesome, because we can’t change anything we aren’t aware of.

If you are interested in exploring your own red lights and yellow lights here is another way you can start to explore on your own.

  • Take note either mentally or make a list (I love lists because later we can go back and see what’s changed) of what your red lights are.
    • What is happening either physically (pain, headaches, stress, anxiety, fatigue, anger, irritability, insomnia, flare ups, etc) that you consider a scream or red light?
  • Then, and it may or may not be immediately apparent, start to notice what activities or events are correlated with the red lights.
    • Can you identify 1 or 2 yellow lights or whispers that lead up to or contribute to the problem?

The more yellow lights we can become aware of, the faster we can resolve the issue. When you recognize the whisper this is your opportunity to notice what red light is correlated to that yellow light and decide what you’re going to do so you don’t have to hear the scream if you were to continue along the same path.

Can you see how you will start to resolve the issue? If the pain or problem recurs, it just means you missed a yellow light, which is an opportunity for more noticing. It is a new layer of awareness that had become available to you. It’s another interesting data point that something else is contributing to the problem.

So cool right?! Sometimes it can be really challenging to identify the yellow lights if we are experiencing chronic pain. Yoga therapy can help you reduce the pain so you can find those correlating pieces as you work to build stamina around new movement patterns so pain eventually stays away.  If you need more support send me an email and I’d love to chat!

Stay tuned for part two, where I will guide you on how to use the yellow lights to make work more enjoyable.

Pain and Healing – Part III

This week I am reflecting the interview with David Butler who is a physiotherapist and educator on pain science. I learned two new terms DIMS (danger in me) and SIMS (safety in me). DIMs and SIMs are used to describe experiences that either increase pain (DIMs) or decrease pain (SIMs). This has implications for our immune/inflammation systems, our nervous system and brain network.

Pain science tells us that pain occurs when the brain perceives danger in the world. The brain perceives safety when we have less pain. Often times in yoga we experience a stopping point. Such as, we gain a certain amount of strength and stop or we are unable to relax beyond a certain point. At some point in our lives we have learned not to advocate for ourselves or we feel too unsafe to be able to let go. From a movement perspective, we can break movements down even more in order to “trick” our nervous system to strengthen more or to relax. From a psychological perspective we can explore beliefs of why we feel unworthy of getting stronger or letting go.

The language we use in how we express our story of pain also plays a role in how we perceive pain. For example, instead of focusing on the negative (the swollen knee), focus on the positive (you are healing already) because you came in for therapy. This is an example of turning a danger in me (DIM) into a safety in me (SIM). Another example of a DIM is blaming your health care practitioner. Change it to a SIM by thinking that your health care provider is trying to help you. Not sure how your use of language frames your pain? Have your partner or friend report on the language you use. Expressions such as “my back is out…” or “it feels like a knife,” are a DIM. The story we tell ourselves over and over again impacts our brain by becoming ingrained. Even the expectation of pain can increase our pain experience.

David described the Protectometer which is a metaphorical device to demonstrate the ups and downs of DIMs and SIMs. The balance shifts up and down. Education and exposure to movement are powerful SIMs. So are taking care of our emotions, well-being, and safety. For example, going for walk (movement) and enjoying the weather (happy emotions) increases your SIMs. Our immune system is impacted by SIMs.

A DIM at one level may not be a DIM at another level. For example, at work your neck hurts but it doesn’t hurt at home. Explore what aspect of work is making your neck hurt.

A SIM or a DIM can be something as simple as a thought. In fact a thought can change a DIM to a SIM. For someone in chronic pain going to the movies for the first time in 6 years could be a SIM. We need conscious awareness to go through this process of recognizing DIMs and SIMs. They tend to hide in hard places to find. A loved one who knows you well, a yoga teacher or a therapist might be able to help you with this process. There could be 30-40 DIMs in someone with chronic pain.

For people in pain, David Butler recommends

1) looking for a health care practitioner who is scientifically aware and believes recovery is possible (very few doctors are well versed in pain science). The biomedical model doesn’t work because it operates on the causal. A biopsychosocial model requires discussion, explaining and curiosity.

2) Look online and familiarize yourself with SIMs/DIMs/Protectometer.

3) Seek out Level A evidence from studies that are a trusted resource.

4) Start a journal of your SIMs and DIMs. There are apps for symptom tracker than can help, if a journal is a DIM.

4) Adopt a sense of curiosity and discuss what you find. Awareness follows and then clarity arises.

5) Be aware of your frame of reference – we may not notice what changes when pain goes away.

Here are 10 Target Concepts to get into this new way of thinking.

  1. Pain is normal, personal, real
  2. Danger sensors, not pain sensors. It is the brain that weighs whether or not it will hurt. We don’t have pain neurons.
  3. Pain and tissue damage are rarely related. It’s all about context.
  4. Pain depends on Danger and Safety. More danger = more pain.
  5. Pain involves distributed brain activity. Different areas of the brain are affects such as memory, fear, future, vision and smell.
  6. Pain relies on context. What we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, say, think, believe, places, people, what we do.
  7. Pain is a protected output. This mean other things change our immune system and nervous system. For example, someone with back pain likely has gut (digestive) issues.
  8. We are bioplastic in that we can change. At any age our brains can change.
  9. Learning about pain can change you. Understand why you hurt.
  10. Active treatment fixes pain. Doing, learning, dealing. Can’t be passive (pill popping).

In health,

Lindsay

Breathing for Stress and Anxiety

Yoga_Photoshoot_Hany_easy pose 2Wouldn’t you love to live in a world where you could flip a switch and all your stress and anxiety would just go away? There are many different strategies we can employ such as going to a yoga class, getting a massage, meditating, being in nature or exercising. These are all wonderful things that we can do that will help. These all require finding time and going somewhere to do it. However, there is one more tool that we can use at any time no matter where you are. That is your breath.

Many of us who practice yoga or any of the above activites have gotten a glimpse of the switch that leaves us feeling, calm, relaxed and at peace. Unfortunately these feelings are fleeting, stressors find their way back into the limelight and it leaves us wanting without knowing how to get it back.

The answer lies not just in our breath, but how we breathe and the mindfulness that arises from this awareness. After years and years, dare I say decades of stress, years of being on anxiety medication and then the death of my mom, I stumbled across a doctor who told me I wasn’t breathing. I was holding my breath. I was certainly taken aback by this observation and it was turning point for me. Albeit slow, the process brought me to where I am today and now I want to share the skills with you so you can reap the benefits now and not years down the road.

Breathing is important for two reasons. One, it brings oxygen to our blood and two, oxygenated blood helps to heal our tissues. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we have unconsciously learned a disordered way of breathing that is fast and shallow, that limits the flow of oxygen into our bloodstream. As a result, we are not taking in sufficient oxygen or able to expel sufficient carbon dioxide. Reduced lung function reduces our vitality, ages us prematurely, lowers are immune function, etc. So not only does breathing impact our cardiovascular system, but it also effects the respiratory, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular and psychic systems. So you can see how important optimal breathing is for our overall functioning.

When we re-learn how to breath optimally we begin the healing process and improve our ability to cope with stressors.

We can also begin to experience these benefits for the long term:

  • Less respiratory problems, stronger heart by reducing it’s workload
  • Relaxes body and the mind
  • Improves the health of the nervous system, including brain, spinal cord, nerve centres and nerves.
  • It has an effect on your sleep, your memory, energy level and concentration.
  • Aids in digestion and elimination. Assists in weight control. Oxygen helps burn up excess fat more efficiently.
  • More oxygen in the blood means better complexion, fewer wrinkles, more energy, clarity for the mind, positive thinking, supports vision and hearing.
  • Rejuvenates muscle and organ functioning. Lack of oxygen to cells is a major contributing factor to cancer, heart disease and strokes

Why Do We Breath Fast + Shallow?

Let’s face it, our lifestyles often dictate that we are in a hurry most of the time. Our movements and breathing follow this pattern. Perhaps you have noticed in your yoga practice how your mind and body mirror each other. The increasing stress of modern living makes us breathe more quickly and less deeply. Other reasons could be related to negative emotional states, reduced physical activity,  environmental pollution and even our culture (the desire for an attractive flat stomach results in gripping and holding of the abdominals. This interferes with deep breathing and gradually makes shallow “chest breathing” seem normal, which increases tension and anxiety.)

Medical journals suggest that fast, shallow breathing can cause fatigue, sleep disorders, anxiety, stomach upsets, heart burn, gas, muscle cramps, dizziness, visual problems, chest pain, and heart palpitations.

Disordered Breathing Patterns

In addition to fast, shallow breathing, you might resort to chest breathing which is a habitual pattern failing to fully exhale and inhale. Other disordered patterns include mouth breathing, breath holding and hyperventilating.  When the sympathetic nervous system is switched on all the time, it can lead to changes in anxiety, blood pH, muscle tone, pain threshold, to only name a few. Overuse of accessory breathing muscles can lead to neck and shoulder pain/dysfunction and could even mimic cardiovascular and gastrointestinal problems.

Typical symptoms of disorder breathing can include:

  • Frequent sighing and yawning
  • Breathing discomfort
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Erratic heartbeats
  • Feeling anxious and uptight
  • Pins and needles
  • Upset gut/nausea
  • Clammy hands
  • Chest Pains
  • Shattered confidence
  • Tired all the time
  • Achy muscles and joints
  • Dizzy spells or feeling spaced out
  • Irritability or hypervigilance
  • Feeling of ‘air hunger’
  • Breathing discomfort
  • Back pain. Research suggests there is correlation between breathing pattern disorders and low back pain.

Our reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

The stress response suppresses the immune system, increasing our susceptibility to colds and illnesses. The build up of stress can lead to anxiety and depression.

We can learn to use our breath as one tool to down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system and up-regulate the parasympathetic nervous system that helps the body rest, digest and recover.  The body is designed to spend the majority of its time in the parasympathetic nervous system.  Ideally, it only uses the sympathetic nervous system for true life-threatening emergencies.

To learn how to optimize your breathing to reduce stress register for my Breathing for Stress and Anxiety workshop May 20, 2017 at Leslieville Sanctuary. These are skills that you take with you in the car, at work and play. This workshop is appropriate for kids, teens and adults. No yoga experience is required.

To find out how you can host a Breathing Workshop for Stress and Anxiety at your workplace contact me for details.