At this year’s FARE National Food Allergy Conference, teens with food allergies participated in a 90 minute yoga workshop learning how to enhance their quality of life and experience the mind-body connection. The workshop was led by Kristen Kauke, a licensed clinical social worker and 200-hour registered yoga teacher who teaches yoga weekly. Kristen’s two sons have food allergies, and Kristen also lives with food allergies herself, so she has a wealth of experience in coping with anxiety and living well with food allergies.
We asked Kristen to give us a recap of the mental and physical exercises that she led the group through during her workshop, as well as provide us with information on the positive effects of yoga.
By Kristen Kauke
Drawing on my knowledge of psychosocial principles, empirically based treatment modalities, group processes, yoga, and overall wellness, during this workshop I helped teens to quiet their minds, gain awareness of their body, and learn tools for coping with stress and regulating emotions. Research shows that stressors associated with managing life-threatening food allergies can have a negative impact on quality of life. Research also demonstrates that yoga is associated with a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression, and an increase in self-compassion. As the body and mind relax and release through breath and vinyasa (flow of postures), so do pent-up emotions and traumatic memories. This workshop allowed teens to experience such positive outcomes of yoga.
During this transformational workshop, I introduced teens to the connection between thoughts, actions and feelings. I call the negative cycle “the Bermuda Triangle” where catastrophic thoughts exacerbate anxious feelings and reinforce protective actions. In exploring the “Bermuda Triangle,” teens shared common anxious thoughts about living with food allergies such as “I’m not in control,” or “Sometimes I’m afraid I might die.” Teens noted correlating feelings such as anxiety, sadness, annoyance, or flabbergasted. And they identified typical protective actions such as isolating or being shaky. I challenged the teens to consider more ideal patterns of thoughts, feelings and actions in living with food allergies. These included more optimistic thoughts, feelings of safety and calm, and actions such as connection with others. I emphasized how changing thoughts changes feelings.
Then I led teens through the action of a gentle yoga flow. In this manner, teens experienced relaxation of the body, and consequently, a shift in baseline feeling. I highlighted how in using an action such as yoga, they could tolerate and even soften feelings.
Finally, through an experiential activity called “Being Willingly Out of Breath,” teens learned about parts of their Self, as well as applied tools to observe thoughts, tolerate emotions in times of stress, and listen to their inner wisdom.
Teens shared freely, laughed, and gained insight. They moved and stretched themselves both physically and emotionally. In the end, they learned that they DO have control over their wellbeing and can utilize tools to achieve calm despite living with food allergies.
Another important takeaway is that any BODY can do yoga! Yoga is for athletes and those who only run when being chased, super bendy people and those who can’t touch their toes, teenagers and silver-haired folk, women and men! Yoga offers something for everyone! If you’ve never practiced before, it’s best to take a class with a qualified teacher or follow a video. There are many different styles of yoga from restorative to powerful. However, the following are some simple and relaxing poses you might enjoy at home:
3 Part/Elevator breath – why and how
Beginning any yoga practice with a centering breath is of utmost of importance. When the breath slows, the thoughts follow. Diaphragmatic breathing signals the relaxation response in the central nervous system. One of my favorite breath exercises is the “elevator” or “3 part breath.”
To begin, exhale!
Then begin to inhale from the low belly and stop at “floor 1.” Pause. Inhale more to mid-belly or “floor 2.” Pause. Inhale to upper chest or “floor 3.” Pause. Then exhale slowly, contracting belly towards spine, tucking pelvis and lengthening spine until empty, or back to “floor 1.”
Begin again and repeat the cycle two more times.
Neck – why and how
We hold a ton of stress and tension in our necks! When our neck and jaw remain tense, it sends a signal to the central nervous system that we are in danger. This signal activates and maintains the stress response. To achieve consistent peace, we are wise to mind our necks!
Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Being by inhaling and simultaneously raising the right hand. As you exhale, bend the right hand over the top of your head and pull down on your ear, moving ear towards right shoulder. Continue to inhale and exhale for three cycles. Then scooch your right hand to the base of your neck. Gently pull down on the base of your neck so your chin eases down and angles towards your right knee. Inhale and exhale for three cycles.
Release your right hand and allow your right palm to press into your forehead, easing your head back to center.
Repeat this process with your left hand over your right ear. First, left ear to shoulder. Then base of neck towards left knee.
Legs up the wall – why and how
If you’re only going to do one yoga pose, this is it! This pose is like getting an oil change for all your internal systems. Besides increasing strength and flexibility, you reap cardiovascular benefits; you reverse the effects of gravity. This pose balances hormones, increases immunity, soothes the nervous system, and aids digestion and restful sleep.
To begin, scooch your right thigh and glut against the wall. Then shift your legs up, back down. Center your legs against the wall and align hips square. Allow spine and neck to lengthen and rest on the floor. Breathe your 3 part breath, allowing spine to sink to the floor, heart to lift with inhalation. Hold legs up the wall for 3-10 minutes, with increasing amounts each trial.
Thank you to Kristen for providing this summary! We hope those of you reading at home will try some of her sample yoga exercises. For more content from Kristen, you can view a webinar she presented on the topic of “Dating and Intimacy Challenges Associated with Having Severe Food Allergies” on FARE’s website.