The importance of feeling safe

Feeling safe isn't just an emotional nicety. 

When we feel threatened, our biology steps in. Hormones are released that increase the heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow, small airways in the lungs expand, our vision narrows as our other senses sharpen. We can't control any of this. This response is millions of years old and happens without thought.

Now, why we don't feel safe is another story. The threat might be real (being stalked by a cougar) or imagined (worrying about being stalked by a cougar while camping).

The thing is, to a certain degree, the effect in the body is the same whether the threat is real or not. This response is also activated when the threat is not life-threatening, which is why the medical world has labeled "chronic stress" as a major factor in illness and dis-ease.

We're designed to move fluidly in and out of the stress response -- there's a threat, the nervous system activates the appropriate response to flee or fight, we escape, we recover and the nervous system resets back to a regulated state.

The "threats" of our times are more constant, as well as intangible -- deadlines, mortgages, traffic jams, societal pressure. We don't get the chance to cycle completely through the response and reset, re-regulate. The overabundance of stress hormones in the body causes a big mess.


It's easy to understand that not feeling safe makes it really hard to sleep.

And you know how I feel about sleep.

Recently I was in Berkeley for another training. I stayed at a hotel this time. It was an intense training and I was feeling out of sorts, out of myself. What I really needed was good sleep and I didn't want to mess around with the possibility of not getting it.

When I'm disregulated like this, otherwise known as vata-deranged, one of the things that plagues me is fear. Just a general umbrella of anxiety. I manage well through the daytime hours, but it shows up with a siren and spotlight at night. Sometimes I experience it as a non-specific worry about life; other times it can be a specific obsession, for example, a fear of someone breaking in and attacking me.

This seems crazy in the light of day, but at night, my heart races, I hear every single sound and I can't sleep.

You can't talk or rationalize yourself back into regulation.
That's not the way the nervous system works.

Knowing that I needed good sleep to help keep me grounded, I did what would make me feel safe: I leaned the ironing board against the bathroom door, which opened to the entrance door. My rationale being, if the door moved, I'd have a lot of warning!


safety barricade

Did I feel a little crazy setting this up every night? A LOT crazy! Did it help me sleep? YES.

I'm not saying we should always indulge our neuroses. Gradually increasing my window of tolerance for fear and anxiety is a good practice. And using all my tools and resources for regulation is hugely important.

And... there are times to self soothe in the way that works (as long as it is safe for everyone), even if it doesn't make sense in a "rational" mindset.

What my fear told me is not that I'm unstable and need help being more reasonable and sane.

It showed me just how stressed my system was, how I hadn't been caring for my basic needs.

Once I recognized that, I could address the core issue.


"Safety precedes curiosity."

This is one of my favorite teachings: safety precedes curiosity.

And to be curious is to engage with the wonder and awe and beauty of life.

And isn't that what we all want?

It starts with feeling safe.


What does it take for you to feel safe?
How easy is it for you to give that to yourself?
What does feeling unsafe teach you?


My sleep test

Tired of being tired

For years I have dealt with insomnia. Some of it seemed "normal" -- anxiety over buying my first house, restlessness before an early flight, worried about a meeting the next day.

Those temporary and situational bouts of sleeplessness were manageable and passed.

But over the years, the occasional night of sleeplessness worsened to long stretches of insomnia. Months on end of sleeping for what seemed like only a few hours a night, feeling exhausted and physically stressed.

I've tried everything under the sun. Tinctures, herbs, OTC sleeping aids, pharmaceutical drugs, natural remedies, eating certain things, not eating other things, all kinds of body practices...and some of it worked for a while, but not consistently.

I felt totally helpless and hopeless upon going to bed -- will this be a good night's sleep or not? The question itself creates an anxiety loop that makes sleep less and less likely.

Going to the science

I started hearing about other ways to work with insomnia -- ways that could be as effective as prescription drugs. By addressing the mental aspect, one could repattern the brain to avoid those potholes of sleeplessness. I began working with some of these techniques, as well as being more accountable for my "sleep hygiene." And miraculously, I started sleeping.

This did not happen overnight (no pun intended) -- it took patience, discipline and effort. 

But OH was it worth it. There is NOTHING like getting a good night's sleep, especially consistently!

Putting my new techniques to the test

sleep products

Travel is another time when sleep can be disrupted. This past weekend I had a training in Berkeley. I was about to put my newfound sleep to the test.

I packed my normal nighttime routine essentials... AND an ambien just in case.

I had three nights to experiment with sleeping well away from home.



I slept!! If you've suffered from insomnia, you know that this is a big deal!

Especially because I was at a training and I wanted to be fresh and alert for learning.

Part of the success is that I've made new patterns around sleep and my brain is more accustomed to nighttime + bed = sleep. The other success was that the techniques were powerful enough to work outside of the comforts of home. 

All the effort and inconvenience of these past months paid off. 


Are you tired of insomnia?

If you've suffered from sleeplessness and want some support, tools and resources, join me this coming Sunday for: 

Tired of Insomnia?
Sunday, March 11, 1-3:30 pm

We will cover:

  • sleep preparation
  • physical practices that can calm the nervous system
  • mental/cognitive tools to get and stay asleep
  • natural aids that help support a sleepy state
  • and more

If you plan to sign up, please do so early -- I have homework for you this week that will be part of the workshop.  

Register HERE. I'll get back to you within 24 hours with your homework and additional information.

Part of changing the patterns of insomnia is not making a big deal about going to bed. This is hard to do when it's been a stressful thing for a long time.

Getting restful, restoring sleep changes EVERYTHING. Your body, your nervous system, your work, your relationships will all thank you!

Let me know if you have questions. And if you have friends who could benefit from this workshop, please pass this along.


yoga props

200 Hr Yoga Teacher Training

If you are looking for a space to question and move and grow, this is a beautiful way to do it. 

Read about this opportunity. 
Or contact me to chat. That's what I'm here for.


two new workshops

Workshops in the works! Two upcoming offerings...



Seasonal Care : Winter to Spring

Address the unique symptoms that can arise from the upcoming seasonal transition -- colds, mucous, sluggish energy and digestion -- using the accessible tools of Ayurveda and Yoga.

Sunday, January 28, 1-3:30 pm

Email to register.

The shift from winter to spring can be tricky for the body, digestion and sleep. In our climate, winter is cold and spring is generally wet — qualities that together can create mucous, heaviness and sluggishness in energy and digestion.

Using the tools and Yoga and Ayurveda (which has to do with what we put in and on our bodies), we can warm the chill, absorb excess dampness and keep things moving.

This workshop will include suggestions for foods and beverages appropriate for the season, tips for balancing body practices and aromatherapy.

Plus -- cold care. You'll get a take-home of my #1 oil for fending off a cold.

These seasonal workshops are a ton of fun, very popular and Include take home goodies!

Sunday, January 28, 1-3:30 pm $75
Hosted at Figure 8 Studio at 28th and S Streets
Class size is limited; register early.


sleeping angel

Tired of Insomnia?

Sleepy solutions based on science and real-life experience. Take home tools and samples included.

Sunday, March 11, 1-3:30 pm

Email to register.

Do you have trouble falling asleep? Or do you wake in the early a.m. hours and stare at the ceiling? Insomnia not only puts you in a bad mood, it’s bad for your health. Studies show that insomnia affects everything from our immunity to our lifespan.

No doubt you have tried many remedies, maybe some with success. But if you are relying mostly on pharmaceutical drugs and luck to get a good night’s rest, there’s more you can do.

Sleeplessness becomes its own cycle of anxiety over going to bed and fear of the effects of not sleeping ("Tomorrow is going to be terrible if I don't get any sleep!"), which make the possibility of actually sleeping even less likely.

Join Michelle for a workshop full of sleepy solutions based on science and personal experience. We’ll review the basics of sleep preparation, yoga poses to help set the nervous system and tricks to get and stay asleep. 

Includes take home tools and samples.

Sunday, March 11, 1-3:30 pm $65
Hosted at Figure 8 Studio at 28th and S Streets
Class size is limited; register early.


Questions about either of these workshops? Just ask. To register, email me. You will receive all workshop details after registration.

sleepy time

Our bodies can't "make up for" or catch up on lost sleep.

If you read about the magic pill that neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett prescribes for brain, body and emotional health, you know that sleep is at the top of her list. Like, science has proven that it's the number one determining factor for our over-all well-being.

As a long-time insomniac, I have tried every prescription, over-the-counter, mail order remedy I can find. I have a drawer of things that didn't work, including those that actually made me jittery and anxious rather than relaxed.

And from conversations I've had with just about every group I've been a part of lately, I am not alone.

A few key things to consider:

  • Mix up your sleep aids -- use a sleepy tea for a few nights, then a different herb for a few nights, then maybe nothing for a few nights. The body will habituate to whatever you're doing and they will all lose effectiveness if you don't vary your approach.
  • But have a consistent bedtime routine. The brain/body loves routine. Start to wind down at the same time each night -- shut down the screens, dim the lights, take your time through your personal preparations like face washing and teeth brushing.  Start slowing down least an hour before you hope to be in bed.
  • Don't try to sleep until you're sleepy, not just tired. Your body can be exhausted, but your brain and nervous system can be amped. See above -- prepare your body to slow down and be sleepy.
  • This segment on NPR's Fresh Air with sleep scientist Matthew Walker has even more great tips on how to make sure you get enough sleep, and what to do if you aren't sleeping.


My current favorite bedtime cocktail

Key ingredients

  • Yogi Tea brand has two Sleepy Teas -- one regular (in the blue box) and one Caramel flavored (in an orange box)
  • Ground nutmeg
  • Non dairy milk -- I like Flax
  • Coconut butter -- you can find it in the nut butter aisle of a health food store. If it's cool where you are, it will be solid. If you're able, it's great to heat and stir it up as the "butter" and the oil separate.
  • Local raw honey

How to

Heat about a cup of milk in a saucepan with about 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg. Nutmeg is a sedative, but it's strong, so if you're not a fan of the flavor, use less. Let the milk come to a low boil.

Pour hot milk into a mug and spoon in at least a teaspoon of the coconut butter -- stir well until the coconut butter mostly dissolves. Then steep the two teabags -- one of each -- for about five minutes.

Remove the tea bags and add a little more milk (or water) so that the milk is warm but not hot. Then add a dollop of honey and stir.

I like to get in bed with the lights low and sip my special tea right before going to sleep. Part of what makes this "work" is the ritual and my enjoyment; the herbs and goodness in the tea doesn't hurt.

If you try it, let me know how it goes!

the magic pill

If you've been in class lately, or seen me in the grocery store for that matter, you know that I can't stop talking about the book How Emotions Are Made by neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett.

This book is causing a bit of a ruckus in the psychology world, even though many of the ideas Dr. Barrett is talking about have been proven (or disproven as it were) for around 100 years.

The main premise, as I understand it is:

Our brains are constantly making predictions based on our concepts and past experience to interpret the pleasant and unpleasant sensations in our bodies. The feedback from the body (in the form of sensation) about how the physical systems are working is called interoception -- being aware of the internal world.

Those concepts and guesses are how we make sense of sensation so we know what caused the sensation and what to do about it. More intense sensations are used to make emotions; less intense sensations are used to make thoughts and beliefs.

Emotions don't happen to you. Emotions aren't reactions to the world. 

Emotions are your brain's effort to make sense of your body in the world. 

An example: a dull ache in your stomach could mean... you're hungry, you're anxious, you're tired, you're disgusted by someone, you're nervous to give a talk, you have a longing, you're getting the flu... the possibilities of what a dull ache means go on and on and on.

All of the previous times you've had an ache in your stomach help your brain solve this current ache so it can get your body systems back into balance.


Every waking moment of your life is simultaneously physical and mental. Every experience has both.

The connection between mind and body is biological, not just metaphysical. The brain is trying to keep all the systems in the body in balance, like a financial office of a company will shift resources around to make sure all departments have what they need. Dr. Barrett calls this your Body Budget.

If your Body Budget is out of balance in any way, you'll feel distress, and your brain needs to make sense of why, what it means and what to do about it.

It's more helpful if your brain is able to distinguish -- through practice, past experiences and available concepts -- the difference between the feeling of disappointment and the feeling of anxiety. Instead of just feeling "bad" which would require the brain to make many more guesses about a useful solution, if the brain can be very specific about its interpretation of a body sensation, it will have more precise concepts for feelings and it will be more successful in finding a remedy quickly.

Like that dull ache -- it wouldn't be very helpful to eat a sandwich to satisfy hunger if the sensation really meant you were nervous about a presentation. 

In the most simple terms, emotions are the brain's interpretation of basic body sensations.

How Emotions Are Made


Emotional Health

Your brain uses a lot of energy to manage your body's budget and if your budget becomes unbalanced, it's exponentially harder for your brain to manage your emotional states.

The great news is that Dr. Barrett gives us the magic pill to feel more balanced and emotionally stable. Here are her exact instructions:

The neuroscience is very clear - if you want to control your emotions better, if you want to be more of an architect of your own experience, then the first thing you must do is get enough sleep. You must get enough exercise, and you must eat properly in a nutritious way.  

Keep your body budget in balance.

Isn't this great news!? Our physical health, mental and emotional well-being are dependent on the simplest things that we have access to every day.

The secret is always that there is no magic pill -- for anything worthwhile. 

If you're reading this, you are probably already doing a great job at taking care of yourself.

It still may be worthwhile to ask --

  • Is there any area where I'm still believing in a magic pill?
  • Do I get a full 8 hours of sleep every night? If not, why?
  • Can I do better at choosing nourishing food and making sure to eat greens every day? 
  • Can I get another 10 minutes of increased heart rate activity in a few times a week? Even if it's just doing jumping jacks and push ups in the living room?

We can drop the search for the magical fix (whew), and invest a little more time and consistent effort into ourselves, and we'll be able to do everything with more energy, attention and joy.

(Stay tuned for my nighttime concoction for good sleep!)

Have you read the book? Any thoughts about this article? Would love to hear.