Breathing Techniques to Help with Claustrophobia

Enid’s note: in 2015 I collaborated with the Center for Diagnostic Imaging to teach breathing techniques for patients undergoing MRI scans. I didn’t know then that my uncle would end up using this when he underwent MRI tests during cancer treatment. In the days before his death, I sat by his bed and simply breathed with him. We practiced this square breathing until his last breath.

Breathing Through MRI Claustrophobia

by Center for Diagnostic Imaging

Staying very still for 45 minutes in an MRI scanner can be too much for someone with claustrophobia. Center for Diagnostic Imaging (CDI) patient Stuart George described his experience as, “Too tight, too claustrophobic. It wasn’t good for me. I couldn’t handle it.” Desiree Rocovich, CDI’s Renton Center manager, calls claustrophobia a common issue and estimates that 40% of her patients mention it during the screening phone call before their first appointment. While some use sedatives to cope, others are looking for help without medication.


Yoga Tips for Your Next Exam

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath before tackling something that makes you fearful, you’ve experienced the power of the inhale and the exhale. “Breathing is everything in yoga,” explains Seattle yoga instructor Enid Spitz. At the heart of her teachings is one of life’s basics: Breathing.

“It’s really important because it can control your central nervous system. It can calm you down or it can amp you up. It has an effect on everything from your heart rate, to your pulse rate, to the thoughts in your mind.”


How to Practice Square Breathing

Some breathing styles used in yoga are very advanced, but Spitz recommends a basic technique called square breathing. You start with an inhale to the count of four, then you hold your breath for four counts, next exhale for four counts, then hold empty for a final four counts. When you’re finished start over, using your belly and focusing on where the breath goes in your body. “When you take an inhale, focus on expanding your ribs in all four directions,” Spitz explains. “Most of the breathing we do is really shallow in the top of our lungs. But we’ll get more air to our brain, which will calm us down if we breathe really deeply into the low part of our lungs.”  Here’s her square breathing how-to:

The more you practice square breathing, the longer you can make the count, building from a count of 4 up to 8 or 10. And Spitz says if, for some reason, the retaining of your breath makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you can just focus on counting the inhales and the exhales and skip trying to retain the air.


Uses for Square Breathing

While you might be considering square breathing for an upcoming MRI exam, the technique can come in handy in other situations. The NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine says breathing techniques are used to help with anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia and chronic illness. So whether you are stuck in traffic while running late for work or in the midst of a fight between your kids over who gets to go first, square breathing is always available.

“Absolutely anywhere,” says Spitz. “You can do it seated, you can do it laying, you can do it standing, you can do it in traffic. Wherever you would like.” All it takes is counting the inhales, counting the retentions, and counting the exhales. Anywhere. Anytime. Once you get the hang of it, you might just find yourself breathing a sigh of relief.


Mindfulness Beyond the Mat Retreat

May 1-3, 2015

The Yoga Lodge on Whidbey Island

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May 1-3, 2015

 – Register HERE –

The Yoga Lodge

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Mindfulness Beyond the Mat Retreat

//Mindfulness – intentional focus on the present

Stretch your yoga practice beyond the mat with a weekend of mindful living. We’ll explore nature walks, enjoy delicious meals, and grow your yoga practice with daily classes, meditations and workshops. The retreat also includes my “Mindful Practice: neuroscience + yoga” lecture and practice. Whether you come for a mindfulness check-in or weekend getaway, please join me on the mat on Whidbey Island. And then, mindfully beyond.

Retreat includes:

  • 2 night stay at The Yoga Lodge (shared rooms, comfortable lounge areas, well-stocked yoga studio)
  • All meals: fresh, vegetarian and mostly organic catering*
  • Daily yoga classes
  • Mindful Practice” neuroscience + yoga workshop
  • Option for private yoga instruction
  • A yoga journal
  • Art supplies and inspiration library

* Gluten-free/vegan/dairy-free/allergy accommodations can be arranged with advance notice

About Me as an Instructor My yoga mantra is: explore. My practice began as a fun activity with friends and a physical outlet, but over the past decade yoga became not only my connection to community but to myself. It is now my therapy; my inspiration; my community; my lifestyle. I completed my 200-hr teaching certification in 2011 in Portland, Ore. after practicing for years and studying with various yoga/movement schools in London and around Western Europe. And in 2014 I became Yoga Alliance E-RYT certified with over 1,000 hours of teaching experience. My classes are strong vinyasa flow, inspired by music and influenced by my Ashtanga experience. Additional trainings include: yoga for PTSD and brain injury, yoga for the military, teachers’ intensive with “Yoga Anatomy” author Leslie Kaminof, and studies with Noah Maze, Tiffany Cruikshank, Shiva Rae, Suzanne Sterling and more. I strive to combine these many influences into a unique yoga experience where students can explore their bodies, brains and breath…on and off the mat.

Tentative Schedule


3 – 5pm Arrivals/Check-In

5 – 7pm Welcome & Yoga Practice: “Mind Yourself”

7 – 8pm Dinner

8:30 – 9:30pm Yin Yoga Sensory Experience


(optional earlybird led Sun Salutes before breakfast)

8 – 9am Breakfast

9:30 – 10:00am Body & Brain Warm-Up

10:00-12:00 Nature Hike: “Living Yoga”

12:30 – 1:30pm Lunch

1:30-3:30 Free time/ Private yoga lessons

3:30- 5pm “Mindful Practice: neuroscience + yoga” lecture

5 – 6:30pm  Yoga Practice: “The Mindful Practice”

7 – 8pm Dinner

9 – 11
 Movie Night


(optional earlybird led Sun Salutes before breakfast)

8-9am Breakfast

9:30 – 11:30am Yoga Practice: “Beyond the Mat”

11:30-12:30pm Photoshoot/Closing & sack lunch pick-up


 – Register HERE –

or contact me directly:


$145 deposit holds your spot; full payment by April 15

$445 before March. 1, $495 after

offsite: $325

Ask about offsite lodging choices nearby

* You are responsible for transportation to/from the Lodge. Ferry times to/from the Island are at:


Contact cell: (916) 712-3050

A 3 lb. Snarl of Nervous Tissue: How Does My Brain Work?

It’s a big and confusing world, the brain.

Good thing there are TEDtalks. TED’s How Does My Brain Work? playlist is well worth the quick watch (and re-watch).

TED talks about your brain

In “The real reason for brains” it’s all physical for Wolpert. Maybe our brains are the sexiest organ. Domasio’s talk on consciousness might make you second-guess your own. And finally, what do grumpy fruit flies have to do with anything? Everything according to Anderson.

Yogis Feeling Themselves: scientific studies on yoga + self-perception

Nerding out on yoga + brain science thanks to a new article from the Neuro Lab at Harvard on self-regulation.

Turns out science is catching up to 5,000+ year old yogi beliefs.


The long and short of it? Yoga makes you stress less…surprise!

The short: Practicing yoga boosts the brain’s ability to make sense of all that overwhelming input.

Here is the long version:
“Yoga practice is a comprehensive skillset of synergistic process tools that facilitate bidirectional feedback and integration between high- and low-level brain networks, and afferent and re-afferent input from interoceptive processes (somatosensory, viscerosensory, chemosensory).

The processes that sub-serve self-regulation become more automatized and efficient over time and practice, requiring less effort to initiate when necessary and terminate more rapidly when no longer needed.

To support our proposed model, we present the available evidence for yoga affecting self-regulatory pathways, integrating existing constructs from behavior theory and cognitive neuroscience with emerging yoga and meditation research.”

But, of course there is so much more – nerd out at your own discretion: Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health

And also, this study of Ashtanga yogis’ impressive self-perception is worth a glance.


4 Brain Facts for a Stronger Yoga Practice

4 Brain Facts

…and why they matter on your mat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“brain jelly” Sarah Schlesinger

1. Your mind likes new things

The brain is naturally drawn to novelty. We comprehend everything from music to other people and daily interactions in terms of contrast. The new and different automatically draw our attention, whether or not we eventually favor or loath it. This is true even in the most habitual situations, where our brain-functions might run in the background like a constant, unnoticed observer.

On the mat: Come to your practice with a beginner’s mind. Even practicing a set sequence of postures (like Bikram and Ashtanga) your brain will notice any slight differences. Rather than fight this tendency or retreat into repetitive mental patterns, you could make it a huge advantage. Try exploring that novelty – the new sensation of focusing on your fingertips might help handstand. Try new poses, new breathing techniques, new styles. Not only will you build strength in your body by avoiding plateaus, you’ll allow your mind to develop by engaging it.

2. Use it or lose it – brain firing can stagnate if unused.

The good news is results from isolated brain exercises last long after the exercise is done; by consciously activating neural activity you teach your neurons to fire even in less conscious states. In this way the electrical system of the brain is very much like working out your biceps. But prolonged results are not eternal results. To ensure continued firing of those neural pathways they have to be maintained. When practicing actions that trigger desired hormones and brain responses (ie. movement to trigger adrenaline) consistency is key.

On the mat: Is it too obvious to point out that we call it yoga practice for a reason? “Practice” implies prolonged repetition, not perfection or performance. It’s easy to think of “advanced” poses as the peak of physical practice, but often consistency is the surprise challenge. Whether it’s maintaining breath (check out: pranayama and the central nervous system), correct alignment, or just showing up – like practicing math equations to train the analytical regions of your brain, regular practice is the key to not getting stuck.

3. The brain gets high on participation

Though nicely encased in the skull, your brain is hardly isolated. Seperate regions of the brain collaborate; they are inextricably linked to other body systems; and your brain constantly interacts with your external environment. Each sensory experience, whether touch or smell or sound, triggers a certain reaction and builds a memory in your mind. This is why human interaction and tactile stimulation are vital for development in early childhood. The brain is highly participatory and develops with each engagement.

On the mat: Don’t be a passive practitioner. Rather than completely zoning out, actively participate in your yoga by taking notice of those interactions that engage your brain. This can mean taking a moment to really notice your environment before practicing, mindfully reflecting on the light, air, ground, sounds. Also literally participate in your yoga experience by engaging your community.  Why not? Yoga teachers generally love to interact with students, you know you share a common interest, and having a strong sense of community is life-strengthening in more ways than one!

4. Feedback is key

Similar to #3’s participation, feedback gives your brain vital information. Since the brain is constantly changing and learning from new experiences, when different feedback comes in it stores that as memory for future reference. For a technical example: when something threatens you your sympathetic nervous system (think fight-or-flight response) activates testosterone and automatically stores memory of the experience so you can avoid it in the future. If you react but more feedback comes and tells your brain the threat was false, the parasympathetic nervous system is allowed to take over, releasing cortisol to try to calm you down. Of course this goes into your memory too. So, the feedback you get from reacting in certain situations will guide your future actions and reactions.

On the mat: With memories constantly forming and re-forming, moments of feedback on your mat build framework for the future. This can be a challenge: you fall out of crow and don’t want to try again. Or it can be incredibly helpful: one moment of balance in handstand means your body and brain have that memory to make next time even more stable. Part of what we practice on the mat is breathing through that feedback, allowing our brains time to process in a safe environment rather than reacting suddenly. By reflecting on and slowing automatic reactions to feedback, you’re more likely to store accurate memories. Allow those muscular and mental memories to form, but mindfully, knowing that you can always build new memories …by re-approaching crow maybe?

TEDtalk: Body Language + Your Brain

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on empowered body language links the physical and mental, explaining how the movement of our limbs can alter the neurological makeup of our mind. Empowered posture naturally creates empowered mental patterns, even cuing the release of certain pivotal hormones like testosterone or cortisol, which affect everything from mood to heart rate.

Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.

Amy Cuddy’s research on body language reveals that we can change other people’s perceptions — and even our own body chemistry — simply by changing body positions.

In yoga practice, we create shapes with our body…but it’s more than that. How do poses, like body language, shape who you are? They can affect your mood, reactions, and eventually mental habits. A deep backbend  for example constricts the lungs, shortening the breath and activating a natural fight-or-flight response in the brain, increasing stress hormones and adrenaline production. It will energize (and possibly empower) you; it is also an opportunity to practice breathing through anxiety, building memories and neural pathways that last beyond the physical practice.

Design: “Brainstand”

I created “Brainstand” in the style of “Flight,” my yoga + planes collection, as an inspired look at different aspects of yoga and the mind.



As a neurology nerd, I am enthralled by the brain and its complex functions. From mental body maps to the amygdala’s fight-or-flight response to neuroplacticity (yes, you can change your brain)–the brain is incessantly and complexly running life from behind the curtain like The Great and Powerful Oz, but with less green smoke.

Here is a brain-meets-life interaction: you see/hear/feel a stimulus and the sensory cortex sends cues to your mind’s memory centers, the hippocampus and amygdala. The result might be a fight or flight response (ie. headstand turns you upside-down and you freak out a little).

And brain versus mind?

Yogis may meditate and literally head stand, but many of us spend our days ensnared in our heads as well. With busy schedules, FOMO (fear of missing out), multitasking and screen addictions, it’s easy to be so caught up in a mental whirr that the grounding physical aspects of life become wallpaper. How often are you fiercely aware of your body and environment, versus how often you’re caught up in judging traffic, to-do lists and those 5 e-mails that just gave your iPhone a seizure?


…just a little something to think about!