My Brain on Retreat by Heidi Michelle

A 7-day Transformational Journey

It was believed, in the not too distant past, that we could not change our brains once they were fully developed. That in our mid-twenties, when our brains are more or less fully formed, we’re stuck with it. What you’ve got is what you’ve got, essentially, and that your particular twenty-something brain, with its existing neuro-pathways, configurations and functioning, is what you’re stuck with for the remainder or your long life. The scientific community told us so and we accepted this static view of our neuro-make-up.

Science was wrong.

I met Sarah and James Roy as they were traveling through Costa Rica searching for a new home for their Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Transformational Retreats. I spent an intriguing evening with these two compassionately knowledgeable visionaries, geeking out on the brain and our ability to, literally, change our minds.

I was aware of “neuro-plasticity,” the malleability of our brains and their ability to actually re-configure our wiring, if you will, and teach ourselves new ways of thinking and being. I had also learned about “neuron-genesis,” the process of “birthing” new neurons throughout our lifetime by engaging in things like exercise, proper sleep health and nutrition, novelty and learning new things. Our brain’s plasticity, ability to change, has long been recognized now and exulted in celebratory fashion.

We really can change our minds, thus changing our lives.

What tripped my trigger the most was the therapy that Brainworks, Sarah & James’ London-based organization, is offering. They are helping people change and improve the quality of their lives significantly and with evidence/research-based, long-term results.

But that’s not all. They are helping people to stop suffering from their own mis-perceived thinking, over-active and anxious nervous systems, correcting and eliminating disorders like autism, bi-polar and asperger and they are doing it alongside yoga and nutrition. They were speaking my language!

Getting to know Sarah over the past two years as one of my yoga students, I expressed a desire to learn more. “I want to see your brain!” Sara said one day after yoga class. So I popped over for a visit, they hooked me up and scanned my brain. Talk about exposed!

It didn’t hurt, was non-intrusive and gave me a glimmer of insight into the daily residence of Heidi-mind. Hmmmmm. I wanted more.

Thus we put our brilliant brains together and came up with a plan. I would spend one week assisting at one of their Costa Rican Transformational Retreats in exchange for a series of neuro-feedback therapy sessions. Okay!

I was wide open and curious.

Anything I can do to be a better, more peaceful version of myself, a more knowledgeable teacher and healthier human being, I’m down for. Count me in.

How does it all work?

Below are my personal journal entries from a 7-day retreat in Costa Rica for some raw and vulnerable details about my unbeknownst depression and way out of it.

First evening, Saturday, 15th November, Casa Ramon, Costa Rica

Arrived after 1 month of traveling and transition from the U.S. to my Costa Rican winter home. Exhausted & ungrounded from the flurries of movement, having daily hot flashes (can’t believe I’m starting peri-menopause at 43!) and overwhelmed by some challenges at work. Grateful to have landed in this gorgeous resort with dear friends. Nervous & curious about what’s to come.

I’m helping Sarah in the kitchen this week. She’s taken on meal prep for the group (quite courageous). I’m “shadowing” Kate Hewett, the yoga instructor, and will have 3 brain sessions this week. Sarah says we’ll do about 12 over the next month since I live here and we don’t want to overwhelm my brain with more than the usual 6 sessions in one week. I’m still working this week, need to be online and manage Selva. The others are taking a total break from work & technology. 90% organic meals, daily yoga, more…..tired. Must rest.

9:10pm. This is gonna be goooooood!

Day 1 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat

“We don’t see personality in brainwaves, only what is obstructing perception.”

Many times more fascinating than fascinating……

6:30am yoga with Kate. She’s quite an experienced and competent teacher, taking it slow & easy, introducing people to yoga. Feeling reserved and unsure in this small crowd of mostly foreigners. Am I a teacher? Am I kitchen staff? Am I a workshop participant? What is my role? Sarah says this is the “self-critic” talking. She’s seen my brain (more on that later), she would know. Relaxing into what is and letting myself be quiet.

Day 2 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat

The ideal brain is flexible, not stuck in one position. Neural connections, over time, can get stuck in certain patterns. First we “shake up” the brain by giving it random pulses, then calm it with steady, slow waves. The brain enjoys that, thus mimics the induced frequencies post-therapy. This is Neuro-Field Therapy.

Daily Schedule: 6:30am Yoga, 3 organic meals/day, 5:15pm Mindfulness Training.

So far: One Neuro-Feedback and one Neuro-Field Therapy session.

How am I?….I had a melt down today….After the first treatment, the “volume” turned down in my mind. The places my mind had been going to that were causing me stress weren’t an option. With so much space, I just felt so sad, spacey and tired. Not in my power. Could be from so much travel, my body’s hormone changes, a new environment. Why do I feel threatened even when I am perfectly safe?

My dreams have been startlingly vivid and revealing.

An excerpt from a letter to a friend tonight:

Hello, sweetheart. I haven’t wanted to speak these last days as it’s been quite an experience over here. I’m doing well and learning a lot. Holding the role of student and learning teacher AND kitchen assistant is not ideal. But, it’s beautiful and rich in all the ways you can imagine. Had a melt down today and asked for support (from our wonderful yoga instructor/life coach, Kate). Gosh, that is so hard for me. Learning a lot about my self-critical part/perfectionist who wants to, and usually can, do it all, then gets overwhelmed and keeps it to myself because I don’t want to let anyone down or appear the failure. All stuff we are working on my brain with. It’s actually deeply engrained neuro-firings that create this behavior and by calming down areas of the brain, the volume of the self critic turns down. Removing obstacles to true perception. Intriguing stuff. I’ve been told that I’m extremely sensitive and so they are taking my therapy slowly. I’ll do something like 12 sessions over 4 weeks time.

So, it’s quite amazing that I’ve become the person I’ve become. It takes so much courage to want to change ourselves. It’s quite easier to stay the same and comfortable, even though it ultimately creates more discomfort.

Day 3 of 7: Neuro-Feedback/Yoga Retreat

“It’s obvious you’re a mediator,” I was told by Sarah upon viewing my brain “map.”

This is good because apparently, my “fight or flight”/sensory motor area of the brain is overactive. This can be from life-long patterns stemming from childhood trauma. AND I’m low on dopamine (a neuro-chemical that creates feelings of well-being). No wonder I’ve felt whacked!!!

I had my second Neuro/Bio Feedback treatment today. We are working to calm down that fight/flight area and the area that is the self-critic. Yes, please. To shift from Delta brainwaves to Alpha and Beta waves, move the activity around and make space for clearer thinking. Uh, yeah, that will be wonderful.

With my brain make up, it is no wonder that my body and mind love and gravitate toward yoga and meditation. It gives me solace and relief. Alpha waves are prevalent during meditative states. Alpha brainwaves are slightly faster. This is the state of mind when we are “in the now.” Some call it “open focus.” For practiced meditators, Alpha is always present.