Archive | Psychology RSS feed for this section

Gifts Where You Least Expect Them

27 Jun

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness….It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.”
—Mary Oliver

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
-Pema Chondron

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”


I chose all of three of these quotes as they reflect similar themes to me: the theme of finding gifts where we least expect them. It can be so difficult when you are in the midst of dealing with something difficult to hold onto the hope that there is a higher purpose and a reason for this happening.

As someone who is admittedly a teensy bit type A, I struggle with the idea of not being in control. I want to be able to control and plan and have things go the way I think they should. Somehow, this rarely turns out to be the case… One would think that as a yoga teacher and a therapist, I would be better at this. One would be wrong.

A good friend of mine recently told me that we just have to trust that our angels know better than we do. I have been trying to take this advice to heart and not worry as much when things seem to be going awry and just have faith that it will all work out in the end.

When I reflect back on my life, I can find numerous examples of not receiving what I thought I wanted, which turned out to be better for me at the end. For instance, I really wanted to go to one of the Ivy League schools for undergrad. I didn’t get into any. Instead, I ended up attending Amherst College. A Division III school in New England was perfect for me. It allowed me to continue swimming competitively and be a contributor to my team, while still protecting my time for studying (among other things). After graduating, I applied to and was rejected from a few teaching jobs before obtaining a job at an educational policy think tank. This job helped shape my decision to pursue my doctorate in clinical psychology. When applying for graduate programs, I desperately wanted to attend the psychology program at UCLA. Not only was it prestigious and ranked number one, but it would have meant I could have moved home to my friends and family. When I had my visit and interview however, my gut told me this was not my best match on numerous levels. Fate made the decision for me and I did not get in. Instead, I remained in DC and attended a program that more closely aligned with my career needs and allowed me to stay near my friends in DC. Had I been accepted, I’m not sure that I would have listened to my gut.

Yet I still get so frustrated when things are not going my way in a given moment. My yoga practice has been a huge help in allowing me to observe the emotions, sit with them, and let them go without just burying them and hoping they go away only to fester and pop up later. The Pema Chodron quote above reminds me that I seem to have yet mastered this lesson as life seems to keep presenting it to me 😉

Recently I found myself confronted with a situation in which I finally had to acknowledge I had received one bright and shiny box full of darkness, addressed to Kristin. I ignored my gut feeling and intuition and was distracted by the fun wrapping and package and the allure of a gift. After all, it promised just what I thought I wanted! I refused to listen to those that could see past the shiny wrapping paper and tried to warn me, insisting that I knew the true contents and they were not looking hard enough. I had bought into the slick design and packaging and was unable to see the truth. I tried hard to believe that if I only changed or tried harder, somehow the darkness would go away and the true gift would reveal itself to match the packing. I fed the darkness, giving it opportinities to change and prove itself. All it ever proved was that it continued to be a box of darkness. After the fact, I struggled to understand the purpose in having an experience that hurt so badly. Why would anyone want to give me such a gift?

I have to believe that it is true that this will turn out to be a gift, that I am learning my lesson so that it no longer needs to be repeated, and that it is clearing me out for some new delight. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it 🙂

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”

-Helen Keller

PS – My beautiful and talented friend Halle wrote a blog post about a gift of darkness years ago. It has stayed me all of these years, so I’ll share it in the spirit of this post as well. She is a much more poetic writer than me 🙂




The Heart vs The Head (or Why Can’t We All Just Get Along)

21 Mar

Drop back. Copyright Jasper Johal 2011

While I was reading one of my favorite blogs last week, The Hot and Healthy (written by my two very hot and very healthy friends Marysia Weiss and Mackensie Miller), it reminded of a blog post I’d been meaning to write for a while.  Mish and Mackensie talk about the importance of balancing the emotionality of the heart with the groundedness of the head. I also feel frustrated at times in yoga classes where I feel like all you hear is the importance of being heart-centered and opening the heart and listening to the heart and the head is discounted.

One of my favorite parts of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) in psychology talks about this balance between the heart and the head. DBT is based in part on Eastern philosophy and incorporates mindfulness. I find it an interesting treatment modality.  DBT was created by Marsha Linehan for patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, which means their emotions are highly labile and they rarely stop to think things through.  This is also typical of the children with whom I work, who are diagnosed with severe emotional disturbance. All heart and no head is one way to think about them (though more realistically they’re all impulse and no control).

However, I personally am someone who tends to overly intellectualize and analyze.  I would venture to say that this is common for many people who practice yoga and probably why the leading with your heart concept is so popular. Many of us do need to get out of our heads and check in with our emotions.

Back to DBT. There is a point here 😉  Here is my favorite diagram of my favorite concept in DBT: at the intersection of rational mind and emotional mind is wise mind.

Wise Mind diagram

(Also I love that it’s a Venn diagram.) Most of us tend more towards one extreme than the other. Either you’re someone who lives in the head and creates distance and can discount emotions through rationalization and intellectualization (rational mind), or you live in the heart and act primarily on how things feel and don’t always thing through the consequences of actions (emotional mind). The idea of wise mind is that you are able to think through options and consequences while still listening to your emotions and intuition. That is our goal: to achieve our own personal balance and find our inner wisdom.

I think that therapy is one option for helping oneself to find this balance. (Let’s hope so, since it’s my career!) However, I also think that yoga is a great place to work on this. The practice of yoga (and meditation) helps you learn how to observe and create distance between yourself and both your thoughts and feelings. It’s a chance to see which tends to have a stronger pull for you. As I said in a previous post, I tend to get caught up in my head during practice. Either I’m thinking about my to do list or giving myself negative self-talk or thinking about the class and how I’d like to incorporate aspects into my teaching. Whew! It’s tiring and I love the chance to shut down the mental chatter, even if only for a bit. I would posit that for those who tend to be pulled more strongly by their emotions, yoga is a chance to just exist and notice the emotions without getting too wrapped up in them and acting on them immediately.

Simple concept: in between thinking and feeling there is wisdom. It’s all about the balance.

Since I started with a picture of leading with the heart, I’ll throw in my picture of leading with the head 🙂

Leading with the head

Is Ignorance Really Bliss? (Or in Defense of Planning)

23 Feb

Tripod headstand splits. Copyright Jasper Johal 2011

I wanted a perfect ending.
Now I’ve learned, the hard way,
that some poems don’t rhyme,
and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Life is about not knowing, having to change,
…taking the moment and making the best of it,
without knowing what’s going to happen next.
Delicious Ambiguity.
—Gilda Radner

OK, so I know that in yoga we’re supposed to do like the above quote says. We’re supposed to be ok with ambiguity, with not having a plan and just living in the moment.

I don’t totally buy it.

I mean, I’m all for trying to stay present and appreciate the moment. Intellectually and philosophically, I comprehend how it is a lovely idea to not be attached to an outcome and to not need a plan. This would mean you’re never disappointed because you never had an expectation. You could live completely in the moment and no longer spend time obsessing over what your boss meant by that comment yesterday or how your upcoming date will go. You’d probably be calm and happy and worry-free and all that good stuff.

Again, I don’t totally buy it. I don’t think it’s human nature. Nor do I think it’s an ideal way to get through life in our modern world. Here’s my argument.

Evolutionarily speaking, being able to anticipate danger and plan accordingly is crucial to survival. If you were unable to think about your future hunting expedition enough to know how to avoid being someone else’s dinner, you wouldn’t live long enough to pass on your genes.

Bringing it to the present, for a large number of people who have jobs that involve lots of tasks and scheduling, you cannot succeed (or avoid being fired) if you are unable to plan things and anticipate. I will use myself as an example. I don’t think I could have completed my doctorate had I not been able to juggle a full-time student schedule, 3 part-time jobs (yoga teacher, teaching assistant, and therapy trainee), my dissertation research, exercise,and my social life. I really probably could never have finished all of those tasks without an insane ability to schedule, plan, anticipate deadlines and work, and prioritize. I definitely would not have been able to squeeze in time for self-care (yoga, alone time, etc.) or time with my friends if I hadn’t been able to maximize time in my schedule. In addition, I’d argue that having a goal (an outcome) and working towards it is a useful thing.

That being said, I was able to be flexible when things didn’t go according to plan (especially when I worked at a residential treatment center with adolescent boys where crises constantly erupted). I learned to not be completely attached to outcome (our motto in grad school was B = Ph.D., which is a hard motto for a group of overachievers). It’s true, I couldn’t always know what would happen in the future (would I be a teaching assistant or a research assistant in the fall), but trying to schedule and control what I could let me do the best I could do in school, taking the minimum amount of time to complete it that was possible for me, and maximizing the fun I could have in that time.

To temper my point at the beginning, I am the first to admit I can be overly anxious and waste unnecessary energy stressing about stuff I can’t change. I find that when you have to nurture certain qualities (e.g., organization, planning, being detail oriented) in your professional life, it can be a challenge to turn them off when you’re not at work.  THAT I think would be a great thing to work on (and stress about how I’m not doing it right lol). I also agree it is good to be flexible and not too rigid with planning and to be able to be spontaneous at times. I just don’t think that never planning, never committing, and never hoping for things should be a lifestyle that one necessarily strives for.

Some psychologists argue that a certain amount of tension is necessary to obtain goals. We can all think of an iconic character, like Sean Penn’s character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, he’s not stressing about anything and he totally lives in the moment. However, he’s not achieving any goals either (aside from getting laughs from fellow students). A little stress is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and moving towards the things you want. Goals don’t have to be materialistic. They’re not inherently bad to have. It’s good to know what you want and align your life accordingly.

In addition, I think anticipation and hoping is part of the fun! I love looking forward to something and thinking about how fun it could be. Sure, sometimes the reality isn’t as good as my fantasy, but sometimes it’s just as good or better. It’s kind of like the saying, “’tis a far better thing to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Sometimes you  risk disappointment, but it can be good to put the energy out there and think about what you would like to happen. When the event is done, it’s fun to reminisce about the good times (within reason).

Finally, as a psychologist, I have to say that it can be helpful to think about the past and how it impacts your experience of the present and possibly your future. No, ruminating and obsessing and living in the past does not help. But I think that being self-aware, accepting responsibility for what you did in the past and letting it inform your future actions is definitely helpful. It’s important to learn from your mistakes so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

In sum, I think that planning and having goals is often helpful and necessary to be able to survive in today’s world. I think the trick is to maintain flexibility and accept that even with planning and hoping, the outcome is not within our control. We don’t get to know what will happen. All we can do is try our best to prepare, know we’ve done our best, and hang on for the ride.

Good thing we have yoga 😉

Quote about enlightenment

9 Jan

There are various ways in which you can talk about enlightenment—or oneness.
If you are a neuroscientist, you will say it is a shutting down of the parietal lobes.
If you are a psychologist, you will say it is the loss of the sense of self.
If you are a philosopher you will say the sense of separation is gone.
A mystic would say, “I am experiencing reality as it is.”
A spiritual person would say I have achieved unity-consciousness.
There is one single state common to all of mankind— it is not certain!
The experience is different for different people.
For some people it is like a noise generator that suddenly comes to a halt.
There is immense silence; a silence, which is not simply the absence of noise.
Such a person would say, “I am silence.”
Yet another would be a total witness—witness to thought and life at large.
Some others would land in a state of such compassion and oneness that there is no separation from others whatsoever.
Another person will experience causeless love and limitless joy,
yet others would experience cosmic consciousness, a state of higher awareness.
Whatever the experience, the common denominator is the absence of personal suffering.
Problems could still be there, but they would not affect you anymore.
Because there is no person, there cannot be personal suffering.
You would never the less sense the suffering of the world.
—Enzo Buono & Alfi Martins (from the song, Age of Enlightenment)

I really loved this quote as I am always attempting to bridge my experiences in yoga with my training as a clinical psychologist. I’m  a huge believer in the concept that often we all have the same idea, but it gets lost in translation because everyone wants to define it in different ways.


Image taken at Fred Segal Yoga in Santa Monica

Welcome to K.O. Yoga!

29 Nov

I’m an avid yoga student and fitness enthusiast, as well as a yoga and fitness teacher. In my spare time, I’m also a child psychologist. This website is designed to be a place for me to provide updates about my teaching schedule as well as fun tips for yoga and working out. Maybe even some mindfulness/psychology stuff to round it out, just for kicks 🙂

The K.O. in K.O. yoga is for my initials (Kristin Olson). Also, the idea is that if you stay active with yoga and fitness, you’ll be a knock out (or KO for those of you not down with the boxing lingo). 🙂