Author: Vicki Ballas Community Nutrition Instructor

Interview with Janel Crooks Certified Yoga and Meditation Instructor includes 6 minutes of meditation practice

February 28, 2022

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Welcome to the Alger County Communities That Care podcast series. I am Vicki Ballas, Alger and Marquette County Community Nutrition instructor for Michigan State University Extension. MSU Extension is partnering with Alger County Communities That Care or AC3 for short, to provide informative and real conversations from our community. AC3 is a coalition of community members working together to keep Alger County united and thriving by providing programs and resources that promote a safe, healthy, and prosperous environment for all youth and adults in Alger County. So welcome to our Alger County Communities That Care. Sixth podcast episode. Today we are talking with Janel Crooks, who is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. She also guides the Munising Bay mindfulness meditation circle an informal group that gathers to meditate weekly. So welcome Janel.

Janel: Thank you, Vicki. I'm happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Vicki: Happy to have you. So Janel what is mindfulness and is mindfulness the same as meditation?

Janel: Those are good questions Vicki. So mindfulness, There's a lot of ways of describing it. But one of the definitions that I really like is used by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, He is a monk. He actually practiced in Asia and then came back to the United States. And as a practicing doctor, recognize that mindfulness can have some benefits for his patients. And he defines mindfulness as awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way. And the particular way part has, has four parts to it, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. And then the fourth little piece there is that all of that comes together in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. So it's a big package and it's a big mouthful. But it comes down to paying attention in a particular way that is really compassionate, self-compassionate, and compassionate of others.

Vicki: Sounds wonderful! (both chuckle) How did you come to practice mindfulness or meditation?

Janel: So for me, the practice of mindfulness came about, I would say as an offshoot of practicing yoga for, for many years. And I discovered the word mindful really because I was looking at ways of simplifying my life. And I had read a book called voluntary simplicity. And I was, was the early days of the Internet that I was googling around to looking for more, more reading material on that vein and I came across that word mindful. And when I Googled on mindfulness, the top thing in the pile of results was a meditation center. And so I just, I started realizing as I read more about Mindfulness, How, how much it connected with my meditation or with my yoga practice, which is very much an embodied awareness kind of practice. You are aware as you move through your poses. And so I began to explore mindfulness and meditation. And my practice grew from there.

Vicki: And I get to practice that with you. And it's amazing. (both chuckle) What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation, or are they the same?

Janel: Another really good question, and it's mindfulness is paying attention. We tend as a, as human beings to get lost in our thoughts, to really be distracted most of the time and not here in the present moment. For example, just think about how much time you spend thinking. How much time you spend listening to. Maybe it's a very repetitive tape that runs through the brain that's telling stories about the past. Maybe judgments about self or other. Maybe it's worrying about the future. You know, each of us will have a little bit of a different tendency. It's very, very, very common for the mind to be distracted by all of this thinking. So mindfulness, this way of paying attention, invites us to come into the present moment and into what's happening right now. Not to think about it, but just to observe, just to be a witness to what's happening in this moment. Letting go of the stories that proliferate in the mind and just coming back into the body where the present moment is always alive, right? You think about breathing, the present moment is always in the breath. It's always here and now. So meditation. If you're practicing mindfulness meditation, it's a deliberate training, then we can be mindful in our daily lives. We might pause for a moment and notice, oh yes, I'm sitting here in this chair right now talking with Vicki. And then I'm going to move through the conversation hopefully mindfully. But I'm interacting, I'm in daily life. Meditation, on the other hand, is more about deliberate training of the attention. Often includes stillness in the body. So maybe you're sitting or standing, or possibly even lying down, although it tends to be harder because we tend to want to fall asleep. But meditation then that deliberate sitting down or settling down anyway, coming into awareness of the body. And then practice. And you'll often hear the word practice, my meditation practice, right? When you talk to someone who does meditate. And that's because it is about practice. There is, I like to think there's not a, not a way of failing as a meditator. Because as long as you're practicing, you are succeeding. And that practice is anytime I notice as I sit down on my cushion and I decide I'm going to meditate for 20 minutes or whatever. I set my alarm, you know, maybe it's two seconds later or maybe it's two minutes later. I notice, Oh my gosh, my mind has wandered. I'm going to bring it back here. I'm going to settle it on my breath and I would watch myself breathing in and breathing out and resting and that's still place. So that practice, that very deliberate training, coming back again and again and again. That's where we find ourselves in meditation practice. So how's that for a start?

Vicki: Ya, that's great. Yes. That's what meditation is a practice. It's all practice.

Janel: Yeah.

Vicki: That's what it is.

Janel: right! Yeah. Maybe I could talk for a minute about where meditation and mindfulness originated as a practice. Meditation practices developed as far as we know, the earliest records, several thousand years ago in Asia, there are multiple, mostly Spiritual Seekers who were looking for a way to reduce human suffering. And they noticed about what is this proliferation of thinking that often exacerbates human suffering. So there are kinds of suffering that we can't avoid, right? Somebody accidentally trips me and I fall. There's a suffering there that comes maybe with a tripping I skin my knee or something, might think of it as the first arrow, right? It hurts. But it's the second, third, fourth arrows that we often inflict upon ourselves. And that's what they noticed. That's like saying now maybe, maybe the first arrow happens and then the second arrow is, I get all upset and I am mad at myself for me so clumsy and I should have seen that person's foot tonight. Just and I really feel bad about myself or maybe I just get really bad at the other person. Am I blame them for doing it? And, and I get all angry and I make a fool of myself yelling at this person. So I'm just, there are so many ways and examples where we inflict these multiple extra sufferings upon ourselves. And so that awareness that this is what happens in human beings was an impetus for this training. Because it helps us to notice. The more we practice it, right, the more we start every time we notice ourselves wandering into one of these unhelpful trains of thought. We can notice if we're mindful, the more we practice being mindful that better we'll be at it, right? And we can notice ourselves and catch ourselves and not inflict that second or third arrow. And that was the idea behind the origins of this practice. And then it came really. You may have noticed too. I mean, I would say about 10 years ago, it began to be more in the news. In Western countries. Researchers began to do more and more scientific research on meditators and what was happening in their minds and how it called their minds and their bodies. We began to hear about it more and now you can find thousands of books on Amazon or at your book store in town. To learn more about mindfulness,

Vicki: I can't help but think of some of the things that you've taught us about thinking, while you were just describing about how we are not what we think. And that was so profound for me, we are not what we think. We can control our thoughts even though we don't think we can. But that's what meditation and mindfulness has done for me personally. It has made it so I can control my thoughts completely. Really. (she chuckles) I can practice controlling my thoughts?

Janel: Right, right! We don't have to believe our thoughts. Yeah, they are thoughts and we can acknowledge oh, yeah, I just thought that thing, right. Is it maybe it maybe it's true, maybe it's not. What else is true, right? There's a lot of You could say, power. and opportunity in becoming more aware of our own thinking and turning it into a skillful tool.

Vicki: One of the things that I read about meditation and how it benefits you. And I was just amazed that studies actually show that as we age our DNA, the ends of our DNA ravel. But people who meditate, they either ravel less, stay smooth. But meditation can affect our DNA and help us to age better.

Janel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Research that's been done over the many years. It is really fascinating and they're ..... You know that you've pointed to one excellent benefit and think about what the benefits of resting in a state of open attention where you're mindful, observing your thoughts and feelings without getting wrapped up in them, without judging them, without judging yourself, without judging others. (exhales deeply) Just the sound that brings about a little bit more ease for me. Other benefits that have been noticed though by researchers would include just the ability to be more focused in the present moment. Being able to be really present and open to whatever you're experiencing. The people around, you know, to really be there for the people you love, to be less reactive thinking about it if you have a temper or something like that. Where we can learn to be aware of the the more opportunity, we have to choose differently, right? It tends to help people practice less judgment, to be more compassionate for themselves and for other people. And just to feel less maybe driven by some of the forces of society, I'm thinking about non-attachment to material things. Just because you have that capacity to pause before you actually actively chose Rather than just say, Oh yeah, the new shiny object, that's what I need. Put it in your shopping basket without really thinking. And so in general, this biggest benefit being the opportunity for more peace and stability. I love that word equanimity . It's just more ability to feel grounded and not tossed around. So there are a lot of potential benefits. One of the things that makes me think about though, is also that it's really important to be aware that if you are someone who's interested in meditation and you think that mindfulness and meditation practice might offer some benefits that you're looking for. Do pause and think about whether you might also need because meditation is not, it's not counseling, right? It's not going to be an analysis of your problems or challenges that you're facing. And so it can be really, really helpful to think about. Would it also be helpful for me to talk to a counselor who could help me and then you also have that practice alongside of it so that the two things are moving forward at the same time. The other thing to think about maybe is to say you know, if you feel like you have a trauma background. It's possible that the practice of meditation will bring you in touch with that trauma again. And so that's another reason it's a sign where you you know, if you notice, ooh sitting with my breath. It started to make me really remember something that happened in the past. It's another sign That's really a good idea to have a councilor also that you're working with. I just like to put that out there because they think it's important. It's easy to think of. To be tempted to think of meditation us being perfect for everyone. And it's okay if I'm at a moment, it's, it's not perfect for you and you need something else. In addition or instead,

Vicki: Ya, I imagine we go through our lives busy, busy, busy and trying to avoid and kind of push back those traumas in our life. And so then when we would sit to be mindful and quiet, that that would just come rushing forward. It might really surprise some people and scare them and to experience that without some kind of support, I imagine that would be. Yeah. Yeah. Very difficult.

Janel: Yeah. Really well, really well said Vicki. Yeah. I'll also point out that there are many different kinds of meditation out there and, and there are many different meditation instructors. So I would encourage people to look for a meditation. You know, if, you know that that's something that could be true for you too, that you might might have some repressed trauma working with your counselor and you want to move forward also, a community of practice of meditators. Look for meditation teacher, talk to the meditation teachers before you sit with them, find out if they understand trauma sensitive or trauma informed meditation techniques to let them know where you're at with that and see if they're comfortable with it. And a good meditation teacher will, will be honest with you and tell you what their background is. And you know, and if there's something they feel they can't help you with. I think that's just really a good, a good practice.

Vicki: And I really think just what I've experienced myself with meditation and mindfulness, that it could be a really good tool for dealing with traumas in life.

Janel: Yeah, absolutely. It absolutely can be. I would agree. Many people come to meditation because they are experiencing some kind of dissatisfaction were at the lower end of suffering and maybe even some really big stuff going on in their lives on a higher end up suffering. So yeah, that's true.

Vicki: I know for myself, meditation has really helped me live in the moment. And that in itself has just brought such a quality of life to my life and such a peace And I know you mentioned just a grounding. We lot of times we go through life questioning, What am I here for, what's life all about. My life seems a little empty or selfish. I don't know. (chuckles) But I think meditation for me anyways really helped with that In my life, I just feel like my life since meditating is so much more full and rewarding and grounded and peaceful. And what I want it to be,

Janel: it certainly can have a positive impact. And you mentioned kind of a sense of seeking for that. That's a natural human desire to find a sense of peace. I also, I didn't mention that earlier, but do think that sometimes people might think, well, might be hesitant about meditation, and thinking You have to be of a certain religion or something. Or that it automatically comes with religion that maybe isn't your religion or whatever. And I'll just say that it comes in many forms. I did say that, but for you, you can find secular mindfulness-based stress reduction is an example of a secular mindfulness practice. You can find practice groups that are like ours is that it's a mindfulness group. And we do refer to many of the old teachings that came from Asia. but, you don't have to be a particular religion to participate. It's good wisdom that really blends well with either a secular or other religious ideas. And then on the other end of the spectrum, there are some types of meditation that are very much interwoven with, with a, with a religion. Can just put that out there too. That there are options and you can find one that's comfortable for you, just like you can find a teacher that resonate with your ideas about life.

Vicki: And there are many more meditation instructors out there.

Janel: Oh, there are

Vicki: ever used to be,

Janel: so yeah, I'm really so again. Yeah. If you find if you find one that really resonates with you, that's awesome. If the first that you've listened to, you don't doesn't ring a bell for you, then don't give up.

Vicki: like anything, you know.

Janel: Yeah, yeah.

Vicki: Find what what you like, what works for you. So it's now a good time. Shall we try a little?

Janel: Yeah. Yeah.

Vicki: So the people that are listening, if they would like to participate? they're Welcome to that. Or they can just listen and absorb it or what ever they're comfortable with.

Janel: Yeah, thank you. Vicki, so mentioned earlier that mindfulness is a practice that brings us into the present moment. And it's very much what I think of as an embodied practice. If you think of your body as a house, right? Maybe it's your home. It's, it's the home that we move around our lives in. Very often we are stuck in one room, the brain. We think of our thoughts as housed up there in that room. And we spent a lot of time in that room. And this is a practice that reunites us with rest of our bodies. So with that metaphor, you kind of set us up here and invite you to take a couple deep breaths, just breathing in nice and deep through the nose, maybe. Breathing out through the mouth. (loud sigh) Maybe even letting out a little sigh. Science has found that sighing helps to reset the mind. A little more relaxation into the body. Couple sighs. Maybe softening your gaze downward. If you're, or if you're comfortable closing your eyes, you might close your eyes. Let the breath settle back into its natural rhythm. And notice your body sitting or standing or lying down wherever you are. As you're aware of your body, might notice the weight resting in your seat. You might notice your spine extending up from your seat. And you might notice your head resting on top of the spine. Starting to scan down from the top of the head. Notice that crown of your head to see if you can imagine relaxing your scalp. Bringing your awareness down into your eyes, softening around the eyes, relaxing the forehead, relaxing the cheeks. Notice if your jaw is clenched, that's pretty common. Soften the jaw just gently parting the teeth a little bit, softening the lips and the tongue. Relax your neck. Often people hold tension in their neck and shoulders. Maybe take a couple breaths and imagine the breath can sweep in, gather up the tightness and the stress. gently release it the exhale. And envisioning the breath as a tool for letting go a little bit of tension. Relaxing the arms and the hands. Notice if your hands could be softened, relaxed un-clenched. Might pause for a moment and notice the hands resting. In bringing awareness to the chest. See if you can soften the front of the chest, relaxing chest muscles. And the back of the chest relaxing those muscles in between the shoulder blades along the spine. let your awareness, glide down the spine to lower back. You can soften the muscles there. A couple breaths and then bring your awareness to the belly. notice if you can soften their, maybe, you'll notice the movement of the belly with the breath. gentle And soft. you might bring your awareness to the weight resting in the seat. Softening, relaxing the thighs. The knees. letting the upper legs be relaxed. letting go of any tension. Any holding that isn't necessary to keep you sitting tall, can let go off and then glide where it is down to the calves. Relax any muscles there and that might be unnecessarily flexing. Feel that softness in the calves, the shins, even the ankles. Nice and relaxing at that joint. And then bringing awareness into the feet. Soften the arches, imagine relaxing the heels and the toes. Big toe. The second toe. Bringing awareness to the third toe. The fourth, finally to the pinkie. Breathing in, breathing out, noticing, resting awareness into feet for just a moment. And then gently, slowly gliding awareness back up through the calves. Through the thighs, through the hips, up through the belly. Resting awareness there for just a few breaths. Noticing the movement of breath without doing anything to control it and letting that breath, breath you. Rather than. Doing something. Let the breath be. You might see if you can notice. Inhale, exhale. And then often there's a little space between. you just rest, notice the stillness in your belly. Another option or awareness of the sensation of breathing is to notice the breath as it moves through your nostrils. You might feel the cool air coming in. The warm air flow out. And then again some stillness. Just a couple breaths there. And then taking a couple slow deep breaths in through the nose, out through the mouth. (exhales) Couple more like that. (exhales again) aware again of your whole body sitting or standing or lying. Bring a little bit of movement. maybe to your toes or to your fingers. And then when you're ready, lifting the gaze, opening the eyes, if they were closed, coming back into the room. That's the experience of Bringing our awareness into our bodies with the present moment is always alive. Shifting from hanging out in one rooms to embodying the whole body.

Vicki: That just felt so good. I really needed that right now, for people who have, never tried meditation, I think it's important to understand that. It can be just that short amount of time and you get benefits from it. You don't have to sit for hours and hours. You know, we we we start with these short intervals and we build up and we sit more because well, we want to, it feels so good to sit and have to sit more as you want to. You get so much out of it. And the benefits are wonderful. So you just more and more and more and you explore more and more. Yeah, that's the practice. I think that's the practicing over and over.

Janel: Yeah. Well said well said it needn't be a battle, a trudging. Just a couple of minutes sometimes even it can be really helpful Just one minute. If you pause in the middle of your day to take a breath in and take a breath out and settle into your body and just notice your body. The sensations, just that cloud of sensations of the body or perhaps focused on the breath just for a minute and then letting go. Coming back refreshed into your day.

Vicki: People say things about it being so huge and being so complicated. I think those are some fears that people have that they don't want to get into it. I know it is totally up to you. It's your practice.

Janel: I think often people come into it with fears and maybe in part because they misunderstand the practice. And they think they have to go to some far away for spiritual place or something. And if it doesn't happen soon, they've failed. And certainly it can be a very, very much of a practice that changes the way you move through your life and the way you see life. And like I said before, bringing forward qualities like compassion and kindness and wisdom. But it doesn't have to be complex. In fact, it, if it's complicated, it's you're, you're probably putting your probably bearing down too hard. It should be like taking a breath and noticing your body. I mean, that is as simple as it can be.

Vicki: Thank you for taking us through that short practice. It felt wonderful. I hope some people joined us. Is there anything else before we go Janel that you wanted to talk about that we missed maybe?

Janel: anyone who's interested in exploring mindfulness meditation further, in Alger County, there is a sitting group that meets weekly, we currently meet online, Munising Bay Mindfulness meditation circle. And there are also in Marquette County nearby, there are several meditation groups that meet regularly, can check the Marquette Monthly for dates and times for that. I know that MSU Extension. Educator Tracy Abrams, who's out of the Mackinac County office, has provided information about mindfulness and I think people can find that online.

Vicki: Yes, she does classes and I will post any flyers on the AC3 Facebook page if she has any currently for that.

Janel: Great. Yeah, that's super. I also thought it might be helpful just to reiterate the point about therapists and counselors. Individuals who are dealing with trauma and other issues might really benefit from looking into a counselor and some of the particular modalities, counseling strategies that are really closely embedded in mindfulness and picking up like dialectical behavior therapy, somatic experiencing, or others. So that might be of interest to some people. And then lastly, it won't be a surprise to anyone that there are many resources online or podcasts, apps that you can use your phone if you have one or listen to it. The library, including things like guided mindfulness-based stress reduction meditations, a whole range of different podcasts and an apps that are, some are free and some have costs. So I'll give you that list and Vicki, and with some links that you could share some of those to get people a starting point.

Vicki: that would be great. Also YouTube,

Janel: oh yeah. Yeah. Some of the some of the ones that I listed here are that are aligned that are on YouTube Yeah. (garbled agreement) I will have on line.

Vicki: It is so accessible. now, so if ever you've wanted to try it. Now's the time because it's so easy to try it.

Janel: Yeah, It's very true.

Vicki: one more thing we didn't mention is when we're talking about benefits Oh yeah. About depression, anxiety, meditation can really assist with that. Is that right?

Janel: Yeah, It's certainly can. We talked somewhat about benefits, just the fact that meditation practice can have a real calming effect of body. That piece in itself is part of what makes it so helpful for people experiencing anxiety or depression.

Vicki: There is a lot of that going on right now. It's really moment, pandemic and all of the division.

Janel: It's another reason why I would encourage people who are interested in medication to also look for a community aspect. I mean, you can certainly see it in your living room and listen to a podcast by yourself. That's a good thing and it can be really helpful in developing a mindfulness practice to have a buddy. To put it that way. At least, at least have a buddy or to be part of a group. And it can be online or it can be in your local community. But that, that can really make a difference. I think that's also supports folks who are experiencing anxiety or depression.

Vicki: That's a great point I know in our group. We're also grateful for all of us even though we're meeting on Zoom. Yeah, that's the time to be with people to practice together and it's powerful and meaningful and really enjoy that aspect of meditating with a group.

Janel: It was interesting that the experience of the pandemic kind of pushed us into a situation of practicing a line. And I think maybe we were, I was a little hesitant about how that would be. But it can be really wonderful. We've discovered it's fine. Yeah. Yeah. Reduces a certain level of stress that's required to travel someplace or what have you makes it kinda simple to just sit in your living room or wherever?

Vicki: Yeah, well, I would like to encourage anyone listening to consider meditation and mindfulness speaking personally about my own practice. it's been wonderful.

Janel: Thank you for bringing this topic forward. Vicki. I really appreciate you inviting me.

Vicki: All right. Well, thank you, Janel. I appreciate you taking time.

Janel: Yeah. Yes. Thank you.

Thank you for joining us for this episode of Alger County Communities That Care, promoting the safe, healthy, and prosperous environment for all youth and adults. We hope you tune into our next episode. For more information on AC3, visit us online at Alger Funding for this podcast comes from the US Department of Agriculture Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. MSU, is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer committed to achieving excellence through a diverse workforce and inclusive culture that encourages all people to reach their full potential. Michigan State University Extension programs And the materials are open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, age, height, weight, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, or veteran status, issued in furtherance of MSU Extension work acts of May 8th and June 30th, 1914 in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture. This information is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by MSU Extension or biased against those not mentioned.

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