Carol Penn on Finding Calm in a Chaotic World
by Sandra Yeyati
D Dr. Carol Penn, double board-certified in family and obesity medicine, is a movement, meditation and mindset coach who teaches people to prioritize self-care to achieve their best and highest selves. She is certified in mind-body medicine, fitness and personal training, yoga and qigong, and draws inspiration and wisdom from a previous career as a dancer and dance educator with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Penn is the author of Meditation in a Time of Madness: A Guidebook for Talented Tweens, Teens, Their Parents and Guardians Who Need to Thrive.
Why did you write your book?
Because I was heartbroken after speaking to an 8-year-old in Parkland, Florida. I asked him, “Are you looking forward to going back to school?” not realizing his older sibling was one of the teenagers murdered in the Stoneman Douglas school shooting. He responded, “I feel like something bad could happen, and no one will be able to help me—not my parents, not my teachers, not even the president.”
An 8-year-old shouldn’t be afraid to go to school, and if that’s what our society is becoming, then children need resiliency skills, a way to self-soothe, and so do their parents. The book is a response to gun violence, but it also applies to the pandemic and other unprecedented events that cause that kind of internal chaos and disorientation that leads to mood disorders, depression, anxiety and suicidality. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, journaling or something else, mind-body skills can get you back to your center so you can function at a higher level from a place of calm and relaxed awareness, versus out of fear and nervousness.
Why do you define meditation as relaxed awareness?
Many people think that you have to sit in a certain posture and have no thoughts to meditate, but that isn’t true. We have 60,000 thoughts a day, and we don’t pay attention to most of them. Meditation allows you to slow your thoughts so they’re not as overwhelming and don’t interfere as much. When thoughts slow down and there’s space between them, your body also begins to slow down. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins are released in the brain, and you feel their downstream effect, which we call relaxation.
What is soft belly breathing?
Many times, you get into this rigid kind of breath where you’re holding your belly in and your shoulders are thrown back. People think they look better if they have a flat, tight belly, and that’s how they’re moving in the world, but they’re not getting the full experience of the breath. Soft belly breathing relaxes the torso, particularly that area just below your navel. This type of breathing allows the diaphragm to push down and massage everything beneath it, improving digestion and elimination processes and allowing the lungs to fill out from their bases where you pick up all the oxygen and nutrients that need to be carried throughout the body. As you inhale, say the word “soft” to remind yourself to soften and let go of any muscle tension. As you exhale, say “belly” to be reminded not to hold that part of the body in a rigid way.
Why do you say that movement is medicine?
Motion is synonymous with life. There’s always something moving, even when we’re asleep. Even gentle movement helps the body release endorphins, which elevate our mood, reduce pain and bring us pleasure. We want to bring that flow and fluidity into our lives so that we can tap into it on purpose. Have you ever noticed the less you move, the harder it is to move? Movement needs to be encouraged throughout the lifespan.
What movements do you recommend?
One starts in a standing position. Notice how the rib cage moves as you soft belly breathe. Soften the knees, drop the chin to the chest and as you inhale, lift the arms and feel yourself float away slightly from the body to create a gentle undulation of the spine. This stimulates the “mu” receptors that cause our brain to release pain-reducing endorphins.
Another is to shake it off, like when a dog is walking along and all of a sudden their back twitches, they shake and then continue along their merry way. If we’re bothering them, dogs will literally shake it off. They don’t let it anchor in the body, in their muscles and in their nervous system the way that humans do. Some people wake up tired. Their jaw hurts because they were clenching their teeth all night. By shaking off that tension for one to three minutes, you loosen the tight ligaments where we habitually hold tension.
What is “taking your seat on your throne,” and how can it help us?
I came up with that when teaching women how to meditate from a seated position. Women wear so many hats that life can feel weary, so asking them to sit down as if they’re taking a seat upon the throne of their own well-being gives them a way of sitting that’s different than just plopping down and collapsing because they’re exhausted. It shifts the energy and mental picture. You are more than the exhausted mother, executive, wife or caretaker. There’s a regal elegance, calm and quiet strength inside, and we’re going to meet her in our time of meditation.
Sandra Yeyati is national editor of Natural Awakenings.