B is for Breathe

just-breathe-beach-lgWould you like to add more balance to your life? Let me show you how. Simply remember the acronym B-A-L-A-N-C-E. In the next seven blog posts, I will share with you how to maintain a balanced life. This post begins with B is for Breathe.

“Just breathe.” “Take a deep breath.” You have heard these words of wisdom before. While breathing is a normal function of the human body, you are mostly unaware that it’s happening since it is controlled by your autonomic nervous system. Breathing occurs, on average, from 12 to 20 times per minute. That’s a lot of breathing. The benefit of breathing is to bring oxygen (good) into your body as you inhale and remove carbon dioxide (bad) from your body as you exhale. Oxygen in. Carbon dioxide out.

When you consciously focus on your breathing and extend that breath to your diaphragm (diaphragmatic breathing), it results in even greater health benefits, as illustrated in this Harvard Medical School article. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, diaphragmatic breathing can help to calm you, release tension and get you in touch with your body. You may feel stress when you are doing any variety of day-to-day activities, like preparing for an important presentation, simultaneously juggling too many tasks or caring for everyone but yourself. If you have difficulty sleeping, take in a few deep breaths. With each breath, tell yourself, “I am relaxed.” “I am calm.”

Yoga practitioners master diaphragmatic breathing because it brings healing oxygen to major organs and muscles. To learn more about yoga diaphragmatic breathing, read Dr. Roger Cole’s detailed article, Your Best Breath.

If you want to try something very simple that takes just a few minutes, consider alternate nostril breath or Nadi Shodhana with this short instruction from the Chopra Center.

The next time you feel stressed or out of control, tell yourself, “Just breathe.” Take a few minutes to practice diaphragmatic breathing. Slowly, gently breathe in vital oxygen and send its healing energy throughout your body. Exhale fully to release carbon dioxide. Add movement if you can. Take a short walk outside or simply walk down the hall, around the corner and back. You will clear your mind and feel refreshed.

Remembering Mattie Stepanek


Ten years ago this week, America lost a young hero, Mattie Stepanek. His name may not be widely recognized, yet, his poetry and his passion for life touched the hearts of young and old alike. Mattie Stepanek achieved more in his short life – just 13 years – than most do in a lifetime.

I first discovered the poetry of Mattie Stepanek while standing in a bookstore in 2001. A table near the front door was filled with dozens of copies of a featured book entitled Heartsongs. It was the cover’s whimsical design and vibrant colors that captured my attention. I opened to the first page of the book. Greeting me was a photograph of the author, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek, along with his biography. I began reading his heartwarming story. In this book of poetry, I selected and read several poems. As I read his story, I learned that Mattie was born with a rare disease, Dysautonomic Mytichondrial Myopathy, which interrupts the body’s automatic functions, like breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. It also causes muscle weakness.

Mattie began writing poetry at the age of three. From an early age, he accepted his disease, even though he required a ventilator, regular blood transfusions, medicine, therapy, leg braces and eventually a specially designed power wheelchair. As a prolific author of several New York Times best sellers, he appeared on all of the major television networks (yes, he appeared on Oprah), cable and radio stations and was featured in most major print publications.

His message was simple: Love life and love one another. Despite a life-threatening disease, he joyously embraced life and treasured each day. The disease claimed the lives of Mattie’s three older siblings and then in 2004, it claimed his life. He wrote seven books and created several audio recordings. He regarded himself as a peacemaker because he truly cared about the global community.

I keep his poetry books on my bedroom nightstand, ready to be picked up and read any time I need to listen to Mattie’s words of hope, love and joy. To learn more about Mattie’s legacy and the continuing work of his mother, Jeni Stepanek, Ph.D., and the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Foundation, visit www.mattieonline.com. Be sure to sign the petition by July 17, 2014 to officially create a Mattie J.T. Stepanek Peace Day.

“Peace is possible…it can begin simply over a game of chess and a cup of tea.” Mattie J.T. Stepanek

Photo: Mattieonline.com

Beauty: Still In the Eye of the Beholder

This past weekend, I took my 93-year-old mother, who is an artist, to see artist, poet and former actress Kim Novak at a special public appearance at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. Ms. Novak’s gentle spirit, both on the screen and off, is beautifully portrayed today through her exquisite artwork and poetry. Her inner light shines brightly. She graciously posed for photographs with admiring fans and stopped to give autographs. She stood the entire time, despite her age…81.


My Mom and Kim Novak

As I read her biography, I was inspired by the number of obstacles that she has overcome in her life and her tenacity to adjust and move forward. Two fires destroyed most of her artwork and a nearly complete book manuscript. A diagnosis several decades ago revealed bipolar disorder. Through it all, she adjusted and rebuilt. As I listened to fans talk about her, I heard one consistent message: “She is just as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside.” Hearing those comments reminded me of the recent bullying attacks of Donald Trump, the media and the American public about Novak’s recent appearance on the Oscars. Society’s overzealous obsession with beauty and vanity were revealed through nasty social media posts, mostly about Novak’s face. Kim Novak fought back, sending a strong message to Trump and others: Stop bullying. I applaud her for her strength of character.

If more people looked at a person’s true beauty – what they see on the inside and how that person makes them feel – they would understand that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. When you see things only at face value, you miss so much more.

After shaking Kim Novak’s hand and receiving her autograph, my mother smiled exuberantly and began singing “Heaven…I’m in heaven…” Artist to artist, actress to actress, mature woman to mature woman, these two strangers showed to each other mutual respect and admiration. And what a beautiful thing it was to behold.

How can you see the true beauty in others? The answer: Get to know people for who they are on the inside and take the time to understand their story.

Respect Nature

water-drop-pearls-on-green-leaves-thumbAs you celebrate Earth Week this week, take a moment to pause and respect nature. Let it inspire you. Nature provides abundant experiences. A wide, expansive sky. Varying cloud formations. A spectacular sunrise. A glowing sunset. Majestic mountains. Roaring oceans. Tranquil lakes. Rushing rivers. Tall trees. Fragrant flowers. Take the time to see, hear, feel, smell, taste and experience what is around you. Nature plays an important role in helping you lead a balanced life.

How do you respect nature? Perhaps it’s the biodegradable packaging made of corn that you buy for the office. Or the eco-friendly detergents you use. Or the simple act of using compost to enrich your garden soil. Or using repurposed wood in a new project. Or reducing the number of plastic garbage bags you fill each week. To me, one of the most important ways to respect nature is to leave as much of the natural environment undisturbed and in tact. Ask yourself, “How do I, or can I, respect nature?”

A colleague of mine recently commented, “I need to take the time to stop and smell the roses.” He was well aware that he needed a break from his busy work schedule. I smiled and reminded him that the roses will be in bloom in June.

Here are a few questions to get you thinking about nature:

What is your relationship with nature? How often do you take the time to enjoy it?

How can you incorporate more of nature into your life?

What are your favorite outdoor activities? Do you prefer to hike alone or take a walk in the park with a friend?

When you are working inside, how often do you stop to look outside a window, or take a five-minute break to walk outside, just to clear your mind?

Happy Earth Week. Now get out there!


The Value of Vacation

14068931-beach-and-tropical-seaStop what you are doing. Take a breath. Imagine that you are sitting in front of the ocean. Its vastness stretches as far as the eye can see. The sky is a clear blue with a few wisps of clouds. The horizon between water and sky blends almost seamlessly. The sun warms your body. The breeze is light and refreshing.You don’t have to be anywhere or do anything. There is no business suit to wear. No meetings to attend. No urgent phone calls to make. This is not a normal day for you. No, you are not dreaming. You are on vacation. You are living in the moment.

“I haven’t taken a vacation in a long time” you say? Why is that? Is it because you are too busy, too important or “the only person who could get the work done” to take off some time? Everyone is expendable to a certain point, and that even includes you. Whether you take off one day, two weeks or one month, build vacation into your annual calendar. You will clear your mind, function much better, and the people around you – both at work and at home – will be happier as a result.

In case you have forgotten, let me remind you of the benefits of vacation time:

Vacation provides a change of scenery. When you change what you’re looking at, it opens up your mind to see things differently. It shifts your perspective. Instead of seeing the same things, you will see something new and fresh.

Vacation introduces new experiences. Whether you travel to a new destination or return to the same place every so often, new experiences will be waiting for you. A new restaurant to try. A new beach to discover. A new museum to visit. A new trail to hike. Be open to those new experiences.

Vacation reacquaints you with yourself. Sometimes you lose yourself in work and forget who you are underneath it all. When you strip away the business suit and shoes, and let your bare feet feel the warmth of the sand or the coolness of the ocean’s water, you rediscover a side of you that you may have forgotten.

Vacation introduces you to new people and other beings. You meet interesting people on planes, boats and trains, in airports, at retail shops or tourist destinations. Some of my most memorable encounters happened while vacationing. I met Silver Hans on a train in Germany. I met a village elder, Kaki, in Bali. I met a wild horse with no name on Assateague Island, Maryland.

Why does it take a vacation to remind you that there is tremendous value taking off that time? Take out a pen and paper. Write “This year I am vacationing in…” Fill in the blank with one or several destinations. Select a time. Book it. Enjoy your vacation!

Right now, I am sitting by the pool in the Florida Keys, admiring a picture perfect day, soaking up the sounds, sunshine and positive energy, and sending this important message to you. I am having a wonderful time. How about you?

Dear Mother Nature: Thank You

WinterHemlocksDear Mother Nature:

Thank you for reminding me that there are forces larger than me in this world; that there are certain things that I cannot control in my life. The weather is one of them. I accept that.

Thank you for giving me a reason to pause and reflect on the beauty of nature. During these times, I create a “snow meditation.” I simply sit, with crossed legs, and look outside to our snow-covered hemlocks (pictured above). I am transported to a quiet, peaceful place.

Thank you for snow. As an Aquarian, my love affair with snow has always been there. During my childhood, living in the snow belt of the Midwest, I thought it was normal to have a minimum of one foot of snow on the ground at all times during the winter.

Thank you for inventing Snow Days. What’s that you say? That wasn’t your idea? Are you sure about that? When I was growing up, there was no such thing as a Snow Day. We walked to school back then. I sound more like my father every day.

Thank you for reminding me how peaceful snow is. It feels good to hear the quiet of snow as it’s falling on my face and jacket. When I am fully present in that magical moment, I am one with nature.

Thank you for sending me a message of gratitude. Whether it’s the Polar Vortex or Winter Storm Nika that is rearranging my schedule, I feel most grateful for what I have. Many people are in need…of a roof over their head, food on their table or even spare change in their pocket. During severe winter weather like this, we need to reach out to our families, neighbors and strangers to make sure they are all right, to let them know that someone is there to help. At times like this, we look at both our individual and collective needs, as a community and as a nation. Let’s help each other and face the storm together.

Look Up and Around…and Connect

CloudsBlueAs my friend, Marty, prepared for her first trip to Africa recently, she expressed both excitement and a little anxiety. “What advice do you have for me?” she asked. My response required no thinking because it came from the heart. “Look up,” I said. You see, the night sky in Africa looks quite different than it does in Kansas City, where Marty lives.

I recalled two stand-out memories from my travels. The first was seeing the night sky of Bali in Indonesia’s Archipelago, with vast stars and constellations that I could only see there. The second was viewing the Milky Way while visiting Arizona. Since I live so close to the Great Lakes, the Milky Way is not visible from my home in Ohio.

I told Marty that her primary role as a traveler was that of observer, to be fully present in the moment and enjoy a more engaging sensory experience.

Leading an active, productive life, you may often find yourself immersed in work, errands, appointments and meetings, squeezing as many tasks into one day as is humanly possible. Yet, when you take the time to observe from every perspective — up, down and around, you will have a completely different experience because you are open to a deeper connection.

What is right in front of you that you are not seeing? What are you observing in  your day? In your life? Are you taking the time to look up and see everything with fresh eyes?

Take Time to Retreat

Sunrise at Yumigahama BeachImagine getting away from everything that is familiar to you, allowing yourself to experience something new. In the process, you get to know yourself at a much deeper level. That, in essence, is what a retreat is designed to do.

Retreats come in every size and shape, offering a short or long stay, structured or unstructured, communal or private, religious or nondenominational. Your primary goal is reflection, either about your personal life or your professional life. Searching the internet, or following recommendations of friends or colleagues, you will find hundreds of retreat centers and spiritual centers around the world. Some include simple, rustic accommodations and ask for a freewill offering. Others feature more modern facilities, an organized plan and fee structure. Some retreats are self-directed; others are organized for you.

I enjoyed my first self-directed retreat five years ago and chose a private hermitage in a natural setting. For me, the term self-directed meant “Be open to see what each day brings.” I was fully present in each moment. My journal was my constant companion. I looked at every experience with fresh eyes and captured those thoughts on paper. Recently, I revisited that journal. As I read my words, I relived the experience.

If you are feeling unfocused, scattered in your thinking or overwhelmed, a retreat may be just what you need. Schedule regular time for yourself each year to go on a retreat to just be or to think, create and plan. When you plan a retreat, do it with an open mind and open heart. You will return home feeling rejuvenated and more focused.

When will you plan your next retreat?

Take a Hike or Jump in the Lake!

sunglasses by poolIt’s summertime…that time of year when the weather is warmer, the days are longer and nature beckons you to escape outdoors. When you get out and enjoy what is around you, you will create a positive shift for your mind, body and spirit (and the people around you will be happier). Here are a few ideas:

  • Inhale, exhale. When you breathe in fresh air (rather than recirculated indoor air), your brain will be refreshed and stimulated by the intake of oxygen, resulting in clearer thinking.
  • Shift your focus. Focusing on one task for too long leads to fuzzy thinking. Put a task aside, focus on something that doesn’t require such intense thinking, then come back to it later.
  • Move it! Movement stimulates thinking. If you are struggling or are sluggish, get up and move. It will open up your thinking.
  • Clear your mind. Just like clearing the computer of cookies, clearing your mind lets you start fresh.
  • Go outside every day. Even if you have just five minutes, spend it outside in nature. Enjoy your morning coffee on the deck. Stop at the park on your way home from work. Walk around the neighborhood. Play with your dog or your kids in the back yard.
  • Share the space with others. If you are a team leader, why not host your next team meeting outside? The ideas will flow when people are surrounded by green space rather than white space.

Including nature in your daily activities allows you to stress less, interact better with work colleagues and produce higher quality work.