Embracing inner peace and self care through yoga and mindfulness

Interview with Elise Spofford

Hello everyone and welcome to Field Notes, an exploration of functional medicine. I’m Rob Downey, a family practice MD and Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner. I’m coming to you from Seaworthy Functional Medicine in Homer, Alaska.  Today we’re starting our series of interviewing local experts related to issues that matter in functional medicine. We are fortunate enough to have Elise Spofford from Nilnilchik, Alaska. She is a massage therapist and a yoga instructor, and has a lot of interesting and illuminating ideas to share with us about her areas of skill and what it means to deploy and live by those strategies here in Alaska. So welcome, Elise!

Thank you very much for the invitation to be here, Dr. Downey! I’m excited for our thoughtful and hopefully insightful conversation!

We can’t make promises, right? We can only share our passion and hope that’s what goes out there. I’m excited, too, and confident there’ll be a lot that will be of value, and it’s valuable for you to give your time. In reviewing your qualifications and certifications, you became certified in yoga in 2010, although you are currently continuing your studies with an advanced yoga teacher. You wrapped up your massage therapy certification in 2013. You also do a lot of activities outdoors. You lead trips in the summer, love life outside, and love activities with your family here in Alaska. Is there anything else that you would add to your bio here that is important for listeners to know that I didn’t cover? 

Well, I just think it’s wonderful to be a part of something that’s integrative and I really appreciate living here on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. I have worked at a local health club, but I’ve also had the privilege of going into schools. I’ve also worked with local businesses by helping them to provide wellness plans that include yoga and mindfulness practices. I appreciate working with clients one-on-one in the massage therapy realm. About half of my clients come to me with specific concerns such as acute or chronic pain, and it’s fun to be a part of and facilitate that healing process together. I also love and appreciate the group dynamics of my yoga classes in the community. 

Of course, everything has shifted here since we’re in the midst of a lot of change for us locally and internationally during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll be fun to talk about those shifts and changes. I mean, in many ways it hasn’t been fun. It’s been challenging, but at the same time I think if we can look at life’s windings and changes as opportunities or other things that might open up then that’s beneficial as well. So we can ride down those streams together.

Right on, thank you! Well, it’ll be really good to talk about what you see in those different settings and also some specific things you’re doing right now for the Ninilchik Clinic community in terms of doing yoga at their desk, mindfulness to cope with stress, etcetera. To set the stage, were you always interested in yoga and massage, or how did you get to the point you personally valued this and decided to gather skills in it and become certified?

Yoga was not a part of my vocabulary when I was small. I distinctly remember being on my living room floor as a child and bringing my legs up overhead and doing a shoulder stance, and what relief it brought to be able to stretch and move. I’ve always been an athlete. When I was young I played tennis with my family, and then throughout high school and college I was a volleyball player, and then in my twenties I geared towards triathlons. So I really have always loved the physicality of movement. I think that is initially what brought me to my mat, although I had reservations at first about being able to be still for 60 minutes. As often happens in life, I also had a lot of people around me inviting me to yoga classes.

I was 28 when I went to my first yoga class. At that time I was in my twenties and I was traveling the world, doing a lot of volunteering, especially in Latin America because I have a background in Spanish. It was in San Juan del Sur, a town on Nicaragua’s southwest coast, where I took my first yoga class. I remember after that class coming out in a space that felt very clear and very relaxed. It was a flow-based class so there was a lot of physicality and movement in it. At the same time, as I went through these postures or yoga poses, something internally quieted. I hadn’t even noticed how busy I was inside until I left the room and went about into my evening. I just remember that night, and the sunset, and things feeling more alive. I had an awareness that I previously hadn’t had. So it was kind of an ‘aha’ moment.

I think there are many aspects of life that can awaken us to what is right in front of us and what is in our midst. That was my first yoga class! Ironically enough, it was a year later that I returned to San Juan del Sur and I finished my yoga certification with the school Yoga Institute. They’re based in California, but they run a lot of their teacher trainings as intensives around the world. Right now they are bringing everything online, so even though a lot of our options seem to be closing down, things are opening up, too. We have access to teachers and trainings wherever we are now, more than ever any time before I think. 

There’s such a large influx of information and stimuli that there is inherent value in coming to a practice that invites us to breathe deeply and move from the sympathetic and into the parasympathetic nervous system.

That was the beginning of my yoga teaching. I tend to teach a number of styles, and I describe myself as having my hands in many different pots. Yoga has so many different practices. There are practices that link breath to movement that I had talked about called ‘flow’ classes. These are known as Vinyasa classes and are geared around sun salutations. These are strengthening, power building classes. We also have restorative classes such as Yin yoga, and I have come to value those as much, if not even more, than the others as I sift through all of the stimuli we have on our shoulders. With such a large influx of information, there’s inherent value in coming to a practice that invites us to breathe a little more deeply and to move from the sympathetic into the parasympathetic nervous system.  I think as I age, too, um, those aspects are becoming more valuable to me. It’s been a wonderful trajectory, and I’m excited to see where I’ll go on the yoga front. 

Massage came a few years later after I had my daughter in 2013. I was able to study this time with a school out of Grand Junction, Colorado. I completed a lot of the academic portion here in Alaska, and then went to Grand Junction for my practicum. I have felt that both yoga and massage therapy have felt like they compliment each other really well, and yet it’s been wonderful to kind of develop each of those practices in different ways and to take it a step at a time. You had mentioned the Nilnilchik traditional council. Here in Ninilchik, I have presented a number of times about ideas and ways that we can make the workplace a place where we practice self care. A place where we value our employees not only for their output, but also as individuals. 

We want to provide support networks for them, so in the last year I’ve been offering chair massages to our employees and it’s been well received. I was fully booked all of the time, which I’m grateful for. We’ve recently had to shelve chair massage appointments due to COVID-19 so I’ve moved into a role of offering desk yoga and mindfulness classes. It’s looking to be a break in the day, a lunch break, where we join together and talk about what it is to sit with all that we have in a moment. We often think that we are well in control of our life, and yet when we sit and breathe into a quieter place, something infiltrates in a nanosecond. We realize that there are fluctuations all the time, and yet how do we meet ourselves in that space? What do we open up to? What are we willing to examine at face value? So the desk yoga and mindfulness have been fun as well.

I’m really glad for the people that you teach and serve that it brings peace and clarity. It’s always important. I think right now people have a specific thirst to feel a sense of peace, and a way to not be overwhelmed without tuning out. That’s a dilemma that a lot of individuals are facing. I think there’s a bit of an American cultural default to either tune out and ignore or you’ll get overwhelmed.

Yes, or it’s a conversation between the two, right? It’s leaning in and then knowing when we need the rest, and then given that break having the courage to come back. It’s a kind of dance in which we are participants and in which we engage, yet there are times when we notice we’re getting overwhelmed and need to take a step back. 

You were just talking about stressors and that reminded me of different things that affected me when I was younger. I used to be allergic to cats and dogs. When I was really active in my twenties I was almost constantly in a state of adrenaline rush. I would hit this bottom every three weeks that would manifest itself as a respiratory overwhelm. I would sneeze as though I had caught a sudden cold. I think it was my body saying, “You need to rest, you need to stop.”

Another story is from when I lived in Japan right after college. I was teaching English for three years on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program there. During the first year on four different occasions, I inexplicably broke out into hives. Looking back on how our body responds to stress, the symptoms that we experience is our body’s language of communicating with us. If we can choose to lean in, and listen and respond attentively, I think we are much better off. I am getting better at trying to lean into this conversation of what is best at this moment. It takes courage to operate from that standpoint. It takes courage to lean in, to notice, and to acknowledge. It’s this radical acknowledgment of where we’re at. 

I think right now people have a specific thirst to feel a sense of peace and not feel overwhelmed without tuning out. That’s a dilemma that a lot of individuals are facing.

My friend in Montana used to call it radical acceptance of ‘what is,’ which I found very succinct. A couple of things I was thinking about while you were talking are that it’s always fascinating for many of us to reflect on illness or signs or symptoms as metaphors for processes. Going into immune storms and having hives at a point in one’s life where there’s disarray and a need for peace and need for equanimity is particularly fascinating to me from a functional medicine perspective. There are dots that connect together physiologically from what we know about how stress affects the gut barrier, and then how the gut barrier affects the immune system becoming unduly stirred up. It begins to mis-recognize the self as an enemy, and a low-grade autoimmune silent inflammatory storm starts to simmer. You don’t have to poke it much for it to show its manifestation. 

A lot of functional medicine patients who do yoga or mindfulness over time, or who become more peaceful via other practices, often report that their disease manifestations are less frequent and less severe over time. The ability to gain more inner peace seems to clip to the ability to be with our experience and not try to push it away, but also not try to glom onto it. I always loved that word ‘equanimity.’ We don’t push it away but we also don’t grasp onto it. What mindfulness and yoga do is allow us to be with it.

Yes! It reminds me of a metaphor that I often use in class. I’m always coming back to our breath, so I will often talk about the inhalation phase of breathing as embracing an experience as is. It’s welcoming, and it’s a receptivity. Then we have this pause at the top of our breath where we linger. We hover for a moment and take a look around, but then we release. We practice this non-attachment. We need to let go in order to make space for what comes next. I think this is indicative of so many things as we move through life. It’s something to remember, that with our breaths we receive, we pause and take a look around, and then we relinquish. I do like metaphors and anecdotes. In our many conversations we’ve had together a lot of them stick with me. 

Every once in a while I’ll have somebody in my clinic whose communication system doesn’t work around metaphors and analogies. Then I’ll realize, “Oh my gosh, my toolkit’s pretty bare!”for this person. My brain is pretty much built that way. 

A lot of times we learn well through stories. It can be helpful for most of us but not everyone, because we all have our own learning styles. All we can be is be ourselves, though. Whenever I present to a client or class I say a prayer to help me to be authentic. I think by putting ourselves authentically forward, we offer that space to whoever is in our midst to be themselves. I often talk about growing our capacity. The capacity we have for ourselves, for graciousness, for gentleness, for generosity and patience. We can only give the capacity that we ourselves are able to attain via our own practice as an offering to our spouse, to our children, to our neighbors, to our community, and to the people we come into contact with as we pass by.

I’ve been trying to make those passing interactions all the more meaningful  as we connect via Zoom and in other ways, and I’m grateful for these opportunities. I miss the exchanges, though. I do feel like I’m leaning in. When I see someone I do happen to know, even though we’re maintaining distance, there’s this feeling of just wanting to linger a little bit longer. I have really missed those personal connections during this time of distancing. I’ve refrained from saying ‘social distancing’ but I say ‘physical distancing,’ because now more than ever we need opportunities to connect to each other and to ourselves. 

Yoga has been especially helpful for me and it’s been meaningful to teach. I remember during our last in-person conversation we were talking about finding what makes our heart beat. When we have found what we’re passionate about, and at the same time have these gifts given to us, we then have a call to duty to share our passion and gifts in whatever capacity we can. By no means does that translate into us exhausting ourselves. Day in and day out, that’s our call to order, but it’s also what enlivens all of us. How to live a meaningful life is the biggest question we ask of ourselves, you know? So yeah that’s another reason it’s been fun to be here with you today and to share.

I’ve refrained from saying ‘social distancing’ but I say ‘physical distancing,’ because now more than ever we need opportunities to connect to each other and to ourselves. 

I’ve found that the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic have indeed sweetened the sensibility of people we know, people we value, people we share things we’re concerned about with, our community, our friends, and our acquaintances. I don’t take it for granted, and I never did, but there’s this sense of now, less than ever, do I take seeing someone I have a connection with for granted. I loved what you were saying about goodwill towards others. When I was in my twenties and onward, one of my big struggles was having a tendency to judge or a tendency to hold a grudge. I’ve really been struck by how that’s a big part of our health. I think one of the big benefits of mindfulness and yoga for me over many, many years were aspects of loving kindness meditations, and literally having mantras of goodwill toward others and a policy of goodwill toward those I have adversity with.

I’ve been really struck by how logging a lot of time with mindfulness and yoga has created this space of acceptance, because it doesn’t come naturally to me sometimes. There’s space, then there’s a pause where I see that part of myself that reacts to things sometimes in ways that aren’t so good, or I’m not so proud of. It sort of happens in the silence within me. So much of the yoga and mindfulness emphasis over the years is on self acceptance and acceptance of others, and we all get to be in the sunlight of that. 

I think yoga and mindfulness have really changed my sense of service. I think it’s really changed my relationships with others. These practices really seem to have immunized me against things that had happened in my twenties that would tend to spool up relationships that would get worse and worse. I don’t find that happening anymore. I think it has to do with learning how to be more internally peaceful with more peaceful outward manifestations.

We can get caught up in what we think other people are thinking, or assuming, or perceiving. I was thinking about how yoga draws from India and the tradition of Hinduism, and can relate to Buddhism. I was thinking about how there’s the Perennial Philosophy, also known as the Wisdom Tradition, that connects the inner core of all religious traditions. I was reminded of don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements based upon the wisdom  of the Toltec from ancient Mexico. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it, but in yoga I will often draw on themes of being impeccable with our word, not making assumptions, not taking anything personally. We never know what other people are putting forth. This even happens within the context of my husband who I’ve been married to for 10 years. I’ll say one thing and he hears another.

I really think, like you said, that yoga can offer us an opportunity to understand our inferiority, to get to know the topography of all that we have within us, and to begin to know more readily what trips us up. There will be times where I know the timing isn’t right and I don’t have the words. I can see myself getting worked up, yet I still make the decision to say something I don’t want to, or not in the right way. Yet what yoga also offers us is the grace of practicing ahimsa or metta. Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word for all loving kindness, whereas metta draws from the Thai tradition of practicing this sense of tenderness with ourselves. I like what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodrun will talk about the way that we reach back for a child’s hands. That tenderness that we so readily give to a child is the same loving kindness that we need. If we can cultivate that for ourselves, we start from a very good place because that’s mainly where we are. This is where we were, and we still are that child even as we grow in our bodies, right?

The tenderness we so readily give to a child is the same loving kindness that we need. If we can cultivate that tenderness for ourselves we can start from a very good place. We still are that child even as we grow.

Yes, I really like all those things you shared. I think they’re so good and so important. I feel that some of the most important things to talk about in these explorations of functional medicine are in the domains of mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Mental health is at the center of the Institute for Functional Medicine Matrix in terms of if that part isn’t addressed, or if that part doesn’t have spark in the chamber, then the plan doesn’t work, myself included. There’s been a lot of cartoons or cliches over the years about our emotional state, or our compass heading of meaning- who we are, or whatever spiritual path we pick. I find with the ideas you just flagged there’s often this false dichotomy, in that we’re either hard on ourselves in an American work ethic way, or if we’re nice to ourselves we’re just giving ourselves a ‘get out of jail free’ card for bad behavior. There’s no middle path for compassionate acceptance of the self and accountability.

That’s what I see with patients who are coming in and establishing care with me or who are continuing work with me. They’ll say, “Well, my food plan isn’t working.” Then they’ll immediately segue into beating up on themselves. I find as they eat whole food over time, or try to implement another recommendation that we’ll often have a conversation about getting into a compassionate space with yourself about what matters to you. Let go of the beating up. Stay accountable, but start with a place of peace and compassionate acceptance of yourself. Once they hear that you can almost visibly see them release the punishing thoughts and self-judgement. It’s just like, “Ahhhhhhh!”

Yes, I see. I feel that at least for me it stems from our education. From the time we’re little we are taught to categorize, box, separate, and bifurcate what is right and wrong, and what is black and white. It’s only been in my adult life that I am seeing life as ‘both’ ‘and.’ In my classes I’ll talk about equally setting an intention for our practice and welcoming the place we’re at right now. Can we hold space for paradox inside for both at the same time? Using ‘and’ and ‘both’ in the same sentence is okay. We don’t need to be all on one side or the other. Life is this array, it’s complex, it’s messy, and it’s beautiful. 

It’s important, as you said, to not totally lean one way or the other, but we’re somewhere on this continuum. Can we practice a little more grace with ourselves, and humor? It’s so good to learn how to laugh at ourselves. Yoga has helped me. For example, with balance poses, why did we get so serious? We’re going to all fall out, and it’s okay! 

I want to tell you a really quick anecdote. I recently have been sharing a lot of poetry in my classes. I feel like poetry offers this embodiment of human experiences that we all have. I especially like Rumi’s poem The Guest House. Are you familiar with it? 

No, but I love Rumi. 

Okay, Rumi’s is wonderful! In the poem he talks about how ‘being human’ is like a guest house. Every morning, there’s a new arrival, a joy, a depression, a meanness, a dark thought, a shame, a malice. He personifies all the array of what we may feel in a given day. Then he goes on to say, “Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.” Even if they’re a crowd of sorrow who violently strip your house empty of its furniture, welcome and honor each guest kindly. He goes on to write that this may be clearing you out for some new delight, and he ends with saying that all that comes to you comes from beyond. It’s an opportunity to learn and to grow, and even if grief or loss is part of that journey, we are making space. 

We are making space for what comes next, although we can really trust in our fluctuations. We are part of the fluctuations and I think it’s important to remember that we are always changing. We can choose to be participants in that change or we can choose not to. It’s our choice and our agency to claim for ourselves. Whether it’s yoga, massage therapy, or functional medicine, there are a number of modalities that are helpful to bring into our life in terms of lifestyle and looking at the relationships we give our energy to. When we grow our mindfulness we also become more aware of what has resonance for ourselves. 

It’s important to remember that we are always changing. We can choose to be participants in that change or choose not to. It’s our choice and agency to claim for ourselves. 

One of the biggest things that I also like to bring forth in my conversations with clients and students is that I have my own traditions and my beliefs.  I grew up Catholic. I was raised with Christianity. Those are my fundamental traditions. I have chosen to draw upon wisdom lineages from around the world and I will bring them in, but if by any means they don’t resonate with you it’s okay. I like the conversation! I was hiking with a gal once who shared that her grandmother always said, “Just put it on the shelf,” as in put it there for later. You don’t have to accept or totally throw something away. If it doesn’t have resonance or applicability to your life, just put it on the shelf. It doesn’t need to take up space or take your energy, so just put it on a shelf. I think a lot happens on a hiking trail too, by the way. If hiking is not your thing just sitting in nature or getting out on the water to ride a wave, or walking along a shoreline is great. A lot happens when we’re outdoors and giving ourselves a little more space to breathe. 

I find what you’ve articulated to be poetic, and I think the concepts are very moving. I think that there are things that are of value to our listeners for some sort of mundane reasons in that part of what happens in the United States, as wonderful as it is, is that we can end up with these sort of mechanistic experiences. We can fall into the thinking that things are black or white, or that every disease requires a procedure or a drug. I think it’s an important time to hear a complex description of what it feels like to have momentum and for things to be changing in real time as we move forward. One thing I’d like to connect for people is that what you’re describing, which is a state of openness to change, is the only thing that doesn’t change. We’re always changing.

That’s the gig! Our world is changing and our lives are changing so we can participate or we can fight, but change is a constant. I’ve mentioned in a number of these interviews that I have sometimes historically skipped the step where I stopped to recognize a person’s pain or suffering. So I currently don’t talk to people much about flowing with adversity or the blessings of adversity until I acknowledge the pain of the adversity, because there’s such a beauty then in getting into a flow state like you’re describing. One of the things I wanted people to know is that David Perlmutter is one of the brightest luminaries in the functional medicine world. He started making a big appearance with his book called The Grain Brain a number of years ago. He’s a functional medicine neurologist out of Florida, and he lectures at Harvard University and across other platforms. His most recent book is Brain Wash. The premise of Brain Wash in a positive way is that we need to wash our brains and get into a receptive state. We tend to default into this kind of narrow, fear-based stuckness and we need to break that spell to be able to heal and to be able to be optimal.

Sure, and to notice when we’re projecting and how that begins to spiral faster and further out on the horizon.

We tend to default into a narrow, fear-based stuckness, and we need to break that spell to be able to heal and function optimally.

Let’s make sure to include your website and how to connect with you in the show notes. Over time, it’s going to be important for people to know whether they can work with you in your bricks- and-mortar setting or remotely, but it’s particularly important right now. Can people work with you remotely, if they’re intrigued by what we’re talking about or if they want to benefit from what you do professionally?

Absolutely! With this great pivot I’ve been teaching weekly classes online and the best way to access that is via my website. Please look in the show notes, and I would love to have you join me! I’m teaching you as well as the audience. I’m teaching a kind of flow class, and then today I taught a haka class, which bridges the sense of both movement and then finding stillness within the movement within the postures. My Wednesday class is one of my favorites. It’s a twisting class and we’re looking at mobility through the spine, all of the different planes that we move in, and how we can initiate movement with core strength. This class was inspired by a class I took during my first yoga conference in New York two years ago. I went to a twist class led by Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman, and it was the most powerful response I’d had to a class. It was both a kind of emotional wash or cathartic cleanse, and then a physiological response as well. No two classes are alike, but I walked away thinking, “I’ve got to teach this class!” It’s been fun to put a spin on traditional poses, too. For those who are artists and really creative thinkers it’s a fun class to come to. So, thank you, and yes!

It will be in the show notes and there will be some people who like to watch a recording and others like to read. So folks can watch the video or read the blog  which will have all the links. The blog is more distilled. When I get carried away my part just gets whittled down to short questions and your part gets center stage, but people will be able to see how to connect with you there.

You have made some very important points yourself, so I certainly hope not. That reminds me of the movie Lost in Translation with Bill Murray. He’s in Japan, and the Japanese person says a very long-winded piece of dialogue, and then the translation is only three words long. It’s narrowed down to the essential message.

No, don’t worry, they won’t carve me out they’ll just distill my part. They will also put links for the people that you mentioned. I’m fortunate to have a super gifted team who takes these ideas that you and I care about or things we worked hard to learn and makes them accessible for anyone who wants to learn. In the blog version they’ll put hyperlinks that will direct readers to the people you mentioned to learn more about those folks.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today with you and to have this conversation. I really appreciate it!

On behalf of me and the listeners, thank you! It’s a big deal to have your time! And I know it was during some of your family time, which is precious, so I greatly appreciate it. I think it’s going to ripple out there into the digital ether and make a really positive difference in a lot of people’s lives!

Wow! Well, thank you, and I look forward to sharing it as well.

Rob Downey, MD

Founder of Seaworthy Functional Medicine