It was this time 4 years ago, at the busiest point in my full-time fitness and yoga teaching career, that my body said “ENOUGH.” I was demo-ing a movement during my 5th class of the day and felt a dull pain that had been lingering in my low back suddenly turn into a shooting pain that extended down my left leg. Several doctor visits and an MRI later, I found out that I had almost fully herniated a disc in my L5/S1 (the meeting point of the lumbar spine and sacrum) which caused severe sciatic nerve pain down my left lower body making it painful to sit, lay down, stand for too long, and move in most ways aside from gentle incline walking. I was devastated.
I had lived with scoliosis for most of my life, but had always found ways to push through the discomfort it caused me and compensate in other ways. Honestly, I was really good at hiding it (you can read more about my full story here). But there came a point where the pushing and resisting and hiding led me to hide from myself and all of the signs that my body had been sending me to slow down, rest, and truly recover.
I saw a lot of different doctors, healers and practitioners throughout my recovery process, but the most powerful and impactful part of my healing journey was my own personal practice of gratitude. Doing little things each day to help transform my mindset from resentment to appreciation, my pain into purpose, and my hiding into healing. Gratitude helped me reconnect with myself and begin to find joy in the new ways I was learning to be in my body again.
While I could feel the effects of the simple and powerful practices I was committing to each day (which I will share with you shortly!), the neuroscientist in my loves to see this validated in significant scientific studies, which demonstrate that a regular gratitude practice has a powerful impact on us both physically and neurochemically:
It decreases stress and brings us out of “fight or flight” survival mode: people who have a consistent gratitude practice showed a marked decrease in cortisol levels (our main stress response hormone), as well as better cardiac functioning and resilience during negative experiences (McCraty & Childre, 2004)
It supports us in processing challenging emotions: on a neurochemical level, gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which manage our emotions, anxiety, and immediate stress responses, and play a key role in keeping us grounded and self-regulated through the ups and downs of life
It enhances our mood: the increased levels of serotonin and dopamine that result from a regular gratitude practice create a natural mood boost and internal feeling of happiness
It reduces body pain: gratitude supports regulation of dopamine levels in the body which enhances our vitality, increases our motivation, and reduces subjective feelings of pain (Emmons & McCullough 2003)
It allows us to cultivate presence: when we acknowledge and appreciate the small moments of life, we actually rewire our brain and regulate our nervous system, which supports us in dealing with the circumstances of our life from a place of deep presence
So how can you get started? Here are three simple practices that have completely shifted my mindset and wellbeing, that you can easily commit to doing each and everyday, in five minutes or less:
Gratitude Meditation: This doesn’t have to be a complicated practice, but simply one where you commit to getting still, grounding inward and bringing your attention to what you are grateful for in your life. Beginning in a comfortable seat (or any comfortable position), bring your palms onto your body and exhale all of the air from your lungs. As you breathe in, connect with something or someone you are grateful for and feel that connection fill you with warmth. As you breathe out, visualize your gratitude and appreciation spreading outward to that person or into the space around you.
Embodying Gratitude: Find a standing position (seated also works!) and place your hands on your body, acknowledging how you’re feeling as you arrive in the space. Then, beginning with your wrists and arms, start to shake out your body. Let the movement shift down into your feet and legs, and begin to move, shake, and dance out any stagnant or stale energy in your space. Once you feel a sense of release, ground your feet nice and wide, place your hands back on your body and begin to focus on one thing you are grateful for. Take three deep breaths deep into your belly and feel that sense of gratitude fill your entire being.
Gratitude Journal/List: Each day, ideally at the very beginning or end, take a few minutes to write down 3-5 things you are feeling grateful for. After you finish, take a moment to read through your list being present with each experience of gratitude and notice the shift in your mindset, energy and mood.
Try out one or more of these practices and see which ones feel best in your space! I have personally found that doing my gratitude practice first thing in the morning before anything else, especially during a busy or challenging time, is a powerful way to anchor the mind and ground the body in a positive space for the day. But find what works best for you!
Let me know how these practices land for you and what other gratitude practices help support your own wellbeing journey! Share your experience below and tools below and let’s stay in the work, together.