[Mysore dispatch] Rain down on me

I got some rough news really early this morning before my led primary class. I made it to led primary, made it through breakfast, and, back in my room, as I pulled out my bucket to start washing the day’s clothes, I started crying. This happens to everyone who makes this pilgrimage to study ashtanga in Mysore, right? Some variation of being half-naked in your room with tears flowing — maybe for a particular reason, maybe for no reason.

These tears were for a friend who has just taken his own life. I’m guessing the start of a new, dark year was too much to bear.

It was my second friend in as many months who has decided death is the lesser of two evils. (For the depressed, is there a more searingly brutal time than the holiday season?)

I have so many — so many — people I can lean on here in Gokulam, but I wanted most to talk to my husband, who also knew this friend. But it was the middle of the night in Michigan.

Perhaps then . . . a little Radiohead to soothe the soul. Neither Pandora nor Spotify were available with my Indian IP address. I had a split second of panic and thought of last.fm. Only a Radiohead fan would find it comforting to be in India and able to listen to Thom Yorke’s nasaly voice singing, “Rain down, rain down / Come on rain down on me. / From a great height / From a great height…”

No small part of what I hope to do in India is find a way to honor life and sit with loss. Back when I planned this trip, the most salient loss was my miscarriage from this summer. Having two friends take their own life in the past 30 days has amplified the grief.

And . . . as I type this, last.fm has just started The Eraser’s (Thom’s side project) “Harrowdown Hill,” about biological warfare expert David Kelly who was either murdered or committed suicide in 2003.

Life is so fucking hard, and both of these friends sought solace in yoga of different stripes. I remember reading Eddie Stern’s bit on human suffering in the Huffington Post a couple years ago:

. . . everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

Yoga helps. In both of these cases, I am convinced yoga helped either prolong their life or lessen the day-to-day pain somewhat. But yoga alone isn’t necessarily enough to set the train of depression on an entirely new course.

>>More Mysore dispatches:

Plugging my 120V self into this 220V space

When Sharath led my hands to my ankles in assisted dropbacks, I could feel my little 120V self had hit full charge.

#gratitude #possibilities

In my reflections today, I decided to try, in the spirit of noting arisings and passings in all things, to see if I can start each new day this year with the type of intention that I start New Year’s Day with each and every year. Toward that end, I’m quite grateful to get to start each day with the ashtanga yoga practice — that makes such a difference in being able to enter the rough and tumble with some equanimity.

Emptying the cup

‘It’s like water in a cup. If a cup is filled with dirty, stale water, it’s useless. Only when the old water is thrown out can the cup become useful. You must empty your minds of opinions — and then you will learn.’

#235, 8th Cross, an eternity and a blink of eye from my first ashtanga practice

This post is for all the home practitioners out there. Mysore is 10.5 hours off from home (9.5 hours without daylight savings). But that’s not the time that really matters, because the time that really matters is shala time, which is set 15 minutes ahead of local time.

Checked baggage for DTW –> CDG –> BLR

What I figuratively and literally packed, or didn’t, for my first journey to India.

 

“Why is there a tongue scraper in our bathroom?” — and other adventures in trying my first Ayurvedic cleanse

Ghee and tea, oh my

For the past week, my husband has put up with more of my yogi ways than usual around our house. The other night he came out of our downstairs bathroom and asked very matter-of-factly: “What is a tongue scraper?”

I explained that I had bought the tongue scraper now housed in the bathroom because scraping your tongue in the morning is part of the 10-day Ayurvedic fall cleanse I’m participating in.

He didn’t ask me any more questions after that — although I’ve kept him more informed than he probably wants to be about the morning ghee protocol, the evening oil massage, and the castor oil purgation to come.

This is my first-ever cleanse. I’ve always been weary of cleanses, because most of the ones I’ve been told about have instructions that boil down to: Don’t eat, take these supplements and stay close to a bathroom for two days. Thanks, but no thanks.

I was much more intrigued when the opportunity to participate in this cleanse came up, since it’s based on the principles of Ayurveda. Sweetening the pot even more was that I would not be doing this cleanse alone, but rather going through it with a group from Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor.

Ayurveda as a way of life

Kate O’Donnell of Ayurveda Boston, who provides Ayurvedic consultations (remotely if needed) and is leading our cleanse, describes Ayurveda this way on her website:

Ayurveda is not merely a system of medicine, it is a way of life.

Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Ayurveda is the science of nature, largely preventative medicine, enhancing self-awareness to help us make choices that support well-being. This system encourages us to catch imbalance before it begins to create disease.

We had a kickoff meeting last Friday evening, with Kate, who also teaches Ashtanga, joining us from Boston via a Google+ hangout. It was extremely helpful that she started out with the fundamentals. According to the principles of Ayurveda, toxins are stored in the body’s fat, because the fat’s not going anywhere. So the design of this fall cleanse — to de-gunk the body — is to get the body to start burning stored fat. How to do that? Well, start by not feeding the body any fat — which means eating only three non-fat meals a day (no snacking in between!) spaced far enough apart that the body goes into fat-burning mode.

And the cleanse addresses more than what we consume. There’s the morning neti pot and tongue-scraping. (See the Kiki Says video on the practice of scraping the tongue.) There’s also dry brushing and abhyanga, the art of the oil massage.

In short, this is not about weight loss. This is about flushing toxins, regaining an effective digestive system, and maybe even gaining a new lifestyle that’s balanced and supports well-being on the deepest levels.

Three tracks — and don’t be a fundamentalist

This cleanse was billed as one that you could do while still going about your daily routine — the third reason why I decided this was the cleanse I wanted to try. Kate was great about emphasizing that this is not the time to be a fundamentalist, and she offered three different “tracks” depending on how your life is going at the moment. In our cleanse manual, Kate writes:

The largest cause of dis‐ease is stress, so if you are uncomfortable or stressed out, you can always shorten the cleanse. The nervous system must be calm in order for the body to burn fat and remove toxins. There is no reason to force yourself to do anything. Use this time to explore yourself, not to give yourself a hard time.

Our group members all went through three days of a pre-cleanse together, in which we cut out caffeine, soy, dairy and meat. We focused on whole grains such as quinoa and rice, and on cooked greens and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Then, people took different routes for the main cleanse:

  • Some stayed with the pre-cleanse diet for five days.
  • Others changed to a mono-diet of non-fat kitchari, the yogi comfort food of basmati rice, split mung beans, steamed vegetables and spices. Kitchari is very easy to digest.
  • Some opted for the full cleanse, which is the mono-diet but with the added component of taking warm ghee — clarified butter — in the morning. The idea with this version is that the ghee starts to permeate our tissues, dislodging toxins and bringing them down to the colon.

Some, like me, are doing a four-day main cleanse. Others are going for five.

‘Gheetotaler’

Organic gheeSo yeah, the ghee. I was waffling on whether to go the mono-diet route or the full cleanse with ghee, and in the end — thanks to my husband’s encouragement, actually — I went the ghee route. I’m really glad I did, because it turns out that I’ve been able to go about my daily business even with the ghee protocol. And shhh — I didn’t mind the teaspoons of warmed up ghee in the morning. (I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it either.) As my friend Tim (who has decided he is now a “gheetotaler”) described it, “It’s like taking in the essential spirit of the best bucket of popcorn you ever had.” Some in our group decided that the ghee is great with a ginger tea chaser (which is allowed in this cleanse).

Taking the plunge

Tonight, I’ll be taking the castor oil purge (!), which is the end of the main cleanse. That’s another first for me, as you can imagine — I’ve never even tried the castor oil bath that ashtangis are enamored of, much less ever ingested the stuff.

Bathroom counter

Part of the Ayurveda seasonal cleanse toolkit: neti pot, tongue scraper, dry brush (in back), sunflower oil. (Sesame oil is actually recommended for the oil massage, but I am allergic to the stuff.)

After that, it’ll be three days of a post-cleanse that’s similar to the pre-cleanse — and from there, return to what will hopefully be a new normal. I loved the pre-cleanse diet, and hope to start integrating more of those types of meals into my daily life. I already use the neti pot and I’m not adverse to incorporating the daily dry brushing and the tongue-scraping. (Not sure what my in-laws will think about all these new additions to the counter space when they visit next weekend, since they’ll be taking over that bathroom.) The oil massage does feel lovely, but it’s too time-consuming for me to do more than once in a while.

That said, I must admit that I am looking forward to drinking coffee and pomegranate oolong tea lattes again. I was surprised that I wasn’t really hungry during this cleanse — found it quite filling, in fact. Who could guess that I had the discipline to not snack. What it turns out I missed most were my drinks, like cranberry juice and almond-milk-based tea lattes.

Goodbye for now, rajas

Especially since this is my first cleanse, I can’t say enough how important it was to have a skilled cleanse leader in Kate — and to have the support of the group (we stayed connected through a Google group). A cleanse can bring up some intense emotions, and it’s helpful — and more fun — to go through it with friends.

During the pre-cleanse, my body was, as apparently happens to many people, achy. Since starting the ghee protocol, I have definitely felt the need to go slower — way slower — during my day (a very strange feeling for me to have!). Heading into the cleanse, Kate had cautioned us to only practice primary series during the cleanse, but said that some of us may need to do very abbreviated practices. (Turns out I was in the latter group — more than anything, my body has needed time to rest this week).

What’s been so interesting to me is that my mind has seemed quieter somehow during the main cleanse. If my head space were a college town, it feels like the end of the term, when students have all left for the break. While I do miss the rajas a bit — you should see how much I am putting off until next week — I have to admit that this is nice.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Got injuries? Reimagining the Ashtanga practice to help injuries heal

Have you seen this YouTube video posted by Argentina-based OmarYoga of two men practicing primary series, one doing the traditional sequence and one adapting the sequence to accommodate a broken femur? It was posted in 2011, but I didn’t see it until yesterday. I can’t get over how seriously beautiful and brilliant it is in how it reimagines the Ashtanga practice while staying true to the design of the practice.

The video has about 9,785 views at the time I’m seeing it — kind of a shame, especially when compared with what has been reported as the Ashtanga YouTube video with the most page views (nearly 2.7 million views).

On the subject of injuries, here’s another one in which Kino MacGregor demos one way for someone with wrist injuries to practice Ashtanga and still maintain heat:

Paul Gold recently wrote a blog post about healing injuries with Ashtanga:

If one gets injured practicing yoga, the yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. Also, if one gets injured doing some other activity, yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. Finally, if one begins yoga practice with a preexisting injury, the yoga practice is the best way to heal and rehabilitate. From my experience, yoga practice is an amazing healer.

Healing an injury with Ashtanga Yoga is possible and requires daily practice. Taking days off regardless of how one’s feeling is ultimately detrimental to the healing process. Unlike working out, the effects of yoga practice are cumulative. The body’s natural reaction to injury is to contract and armour. Yoga encourages the afflicted area to move when it wants to petrify. Taking days off between practices just makes the body stiffer under normal circumstances, but even more so with an injury or chronic condition.

Students often wait until their aches and pains are gone before returning to class. They’ll disappear and return saying they needed to rest their injury. The truth, however, is that the pain is not gone and the injury hasn’t healed. The problem simply went underground while they were resting and was patiently waiting to return. Whatever imbalance or bad habit caused the pain or injury hasn’t been addressed or corrected. The pains and injury return as soon as the student is back on the mat.

It is a shame that some students who aren’t willing to follow the prescription for daily practice end up quitting and saying that “ashtanga yoga doesn’t work” or “yoga made my pain worse.” This just isn’t true.

The first thing a student must do when using the practice to heal and rehabilitate is adapt. It is necessary when injured to scale back practice so that it’s appropriate as therapy. That very often means having a very basic and short practice for awhile where the level of sensation to the injured area is deliberately kept at zero.

The comments section of the post show dissenting views on the idea of practicing through injury — to a point where the Paul Gold devoted a second post to the one particular comment.

Richard Freeman has also recently addressed injuries on his blog:

If you’re practicing a series other than primary and you end up injuring yourself due to problematic alignment or technique, do you recommend going back to primary until the injury heals? Or should you stick to the same series you were practicing when you were injured, adding modifications necessary to work around the injury?
– Erica

 

That would depend on the exact nature of the injury or of the problem. Sometimes the primary series can cause problems—even those that crop up in more advanced series. It’s helpful to learn the anatomy and biomechanics associated with the problem area.

Working carefully and intelligently with injury is an important part of any yoga practice. Yoga should make the body healthier rather than harming it. Though one has to be intelligent rather than fanatical and mechanical. Having a good teacher to give guidance and feedback, and listening carefully to the internal cues that your body is giving you is very important.

I think Richard ends with what is the key point for me, at least: Having a good teacher is important.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Flushing away bad eating habits (my TMI post on acid reflux)

Garden hose

Before I get to how excited I was to see today’s Acid Reflux and Ayurveda: Pitta Party post on the most excellent Heavy Metta blog, I have to tell you about last night, one of those times when life throws a big fat wrench into your plans.

Around 12:30 a.m., about an hour after I had gone to bed, I found myself hunkered down in the bathroom, throwing up my diner. It would take two more rounds over the next couple of hours for my body to be content that enough had been ousted. It didn’t feel like food poisoning to me, because the expulsion lacked a certain . . .violence. It was quite matter-of-fact, very workmanlike: Hello, dinner, welcome! And . . .  oh, you’re leaving so soon? And out the front door nonetheless? Well, OK, goodbye!

Reflecting more on it this afternoon, it occurred to me that it could have been a really, really unfortunate acid reflux reaction. I suppose it could have been something else too, but that’s the theory I’m rolling with for now.

I’ve had acid reflux for years. Doctor’s orders? No coffee, no caffeinated soda, no chocolate. I ignore two of the three (not a big soda drinker). While I had been better about coffee for a few months, I’ve been back on the bandwagon for the past few weeks. And over the course of the day, I realized, I had had many of the most common triggers, in addition to morning coffee: garlic, onion, tomatoes, processed chicken (funny, because I rarely ever eat chicken anymore), potato salad (I never eat this stuff, but I did yesterday as part of my lunch — didn’t even enjoy it), high acid fruits and cranberry juice. Add the typical low-grade levels of workday stress and it was probably a perfect storm.

Some thoughts:

  • Can the yoga asana practice do anything about acid reflux? Friends have told me the control of stress alone is helpful. What about the digestive juices themselves?
  • Eating ginger before a meal has helped me in the past, but I’ve let that slip because I thought things were under control. I’ll have to start again.
  • I’ve found Nexium to be the only thing that has really helped me, but it’s so expensive under my current health insurance plan that I’ve stopped filling the prescription in the past few months. (It costs me $90 a month, because my infinitely wise insurance company refuses to believe the other stuff truly doesn’t work for me. After last night, though, I’m back on Nexium too, expenses be damned.

Very helpfully, Maria over at Heavy Metta posted a whole post earlier today about acid reflux, Ayurveda and pitta-types. Me, pitta? Had she read my mind? 😉 Check out her blog, even if you don’t care about acid reflux, because you get choice lines like this one, found in the section on Mastic Gum:

. . .I’m just a very curious layperson who loves Ayurveda and who happens to do a lot of nutrition-related research for a living at my day job. I don’t advocate any particular kind of treatment, but information is always helpful. And where else will you get Ayurveda, health and heavy metal in the same blog? Freaking nowhere, man!

Screenshot of Heavy Metta blog

Screenshot of the Heavy Metta blog post “Acid Reflux and Ayurveda: Pitta Party”

By the way, my dinner tonight was much improved. I prepared a remix of a great little recipe for Fagioli all Uccelletto with cavolo nero from SmarterFitter, one of my favorite food blogs. My visit to Tuscany last year instilled an appreciation in me for those oh-so-simple-and-plain cannellini beans, and I’ve been looking forward to trying this SmarterFitter recipe. Rebooting the way I eat — I don’t want to spend my nights last last night ever again — seemed like the perfect time.

Fagioli all Uccelletto with cavolo nero

Do you live with acid reflux? What do you do?

(Photo credit: Don’t Breathe by JenSmith826 via Flickr Creative Commons. The actual photo is pretty cool — an experiment in narrative structure. Head over to see.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Good day, moon

Goodnight Moon by brilianthues Flickr

I live in the ‘burbs now (how did this happen again?), and one thing I’ve noticed lately about this Midwestern subdivision is that while there are definite rhythms, all of them are based on human-directed events. On Labor Day, like clockwork, curbsides were empty because trash pick-up was delayed by a day due to the holiday. Post-Labor Day, with the start of school, cars predictably started to clog the main street out of our subdivision, with parents shuttling their kids to elementary school. Except for the light gardening that goes on, the closest the neighborhood seemed to get to being at one with natural cycles this summer was when families, each bemoaning the drought, set their sprinkler system to run.

As I start my second year of trying to maintain a six-day-week Ashtanga home practice, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more and more intrigued by the idea of being more attuned to something other than manmade timetables or manmade inventions — birth control is what I think of first — that impose an artificial rhythm on us. Hitting up farmers’ markets this summer has helped me be less preference-driven (I only love to eat mangos all year long!) and more open to eating fruits actually being harvested locally — currently — rather than shipped in or otherwise artificially brought to us during the wrong time of year.

Tomorrow is a new moon — which in the Ashtanga tradition means we take a day of rest. This month, both moon days happen to fall on Saturdays, which are also the weekly days of rest. Where I look the calendar and see a more challenging month because I have two fewer days off from practice, Insideowl sees cyclical clicking:

For Mysore practice, the moons fall on the calendar’s Saturday free spaces all the way until mid-October. The Gregorian rhythm (Saturday rests) and the Hindu ritual rhythm (moon day rests) are moving in their biannual phase of alignment. Click. I love it when this happens.

On that note, I need to get back to today’s calendar-scheduled rhythm of work and personal to-dos — which has been, until now, the only rhythm I truly allowed to determine my groove.


By the way, if the whole moon day thing is new to you, here is how Tim Miller explains it:

Both full and new moon days are observed as yoga holidays in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition. What is the reasoning behind this?

Like all things of a watery nature (human beings are about 70% water), we are affected by the phases of the moon. The phases of the moon are determined by the moon’s relative position to the sun. Full moons occur when they are in opposition and new moons when they are in conjunction. Both sun and moon exert a gravitational pull on the earth. Their relative positions create different energetic experiences that can be compared to the breath cycle. The full moon energy corresponds to the end of inhalation when the force of prana is greatest. This is an expansive, upward moving force that makes us feel energetic and emotional, but not well grounded. The Upanishads state that the main prana lives in the head. During the full moon we tend to be more headstrong.

The new moon energy corresponds to the end of exhalation when the force of apana is greatest. Apana is a contracting, downward moving force that makes us feel calm and grounded, but dense and disinclined towards physical exertion.

The Farmers Almanac recommends planting seeds at the new moon when the rooting force is strongest and transplanting at the full moon when the flowering force is strongest.

Practicing Ashtanga Yoga over time makes us more attuned to natural cycles. Observing moon days is one way to recognize and honor the rhythms of nature so we can live in greater harmony with it.

(Photo credit: Goodnight Moon by Brillianthues’ Flickr photostream)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

An elevator pitch for a steady, consistent yoga practice? (Or, thank neuroplasticity for what happens when your brain is on yoga.)

Elevator via Zero-X's photostream

I spent four hours yesterday listening to a replay of Yoga Injuries: Facts and Fiction, a telesummit organized by Yoga U, a platform for high-profile yoga teachers to host webinars. Not multitasking is not my strong suit, so while I posted a bit about it on the YogaRose.net Facebook page, I mainly used this span of time to listen to the interviews with eight speakers while cleaning out my home office space — the last room of our new house to receive a cleaning-out-the-closets treatment.

The cleaning-out was great. So was the telesummit — particularly the first two speakers. Roger Cole rocked out a refutation of the infamous New York Times article by William Broad that triggered the telesummit (I think paying for the full pass for the event would probably be worth it for this segment alone), and Timothy McCall, M.D., the medical editor for Yoga Journal, provided some juicy elevator pitches for the benefits of yoga.

I say “elevator pitch” probably because I enjoy teaching beginning yoga students and find myself thinking about how to quickly explain the benefits of yoga, and because I work in the public relations arena, in which you frequently need to assess whether your clients have a clear sense of their goals and objectives. What message are they trying to get across? Can they distill it into a pitch short enough to make during an elevator ride? If they can’t, maybe the overarching message is too muddled.

Anyway, based on his presentation, I looked up some of McCall’s past work and found a little gem. Unless you’re in an elevator ride gone awry, McCall’s 2009 piece titled “Your Brain on Yoga” is a tad too long to qualify as an elevator pitch, but at a brisk 332 words, it’s still a short, breezy and extremely accessible read. I’m sure there are excellent distillations out there, but this is one of the best I’ve stumbled over that supports, from a scientific and holistic point of view, why we should practice yoga consistently:

When I was in medical school in the 1980s, we were taught that after a certain stage of childhood development, the architecture of the brain was fixed. Brain cells, or neurons, couldn’t be replaced; at best, we could slow the rate of their loss by cutting down on alcohol and other damaging habits.

But now, due to the growing sophistication of neuroimaging technology like PET scanners and functional MRIs, we understand that brain structure can change over time based on what we do. Recent research shows that even aging brains can add new neurons.

Scientists coined the term neuroplasticity to refer to the brain’s ability to reshape itself, confirming what the yogis have been teaching for millennia—the more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again. With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more a behavior is repeated, the stronger those neural links become. As neuroscientists like to say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers a recipe for success in yoga: steady and enthusiastic practice without interruption over a long period of time. This ideal formula takes advantage of neuroplasticity to rewire the brain. Swami Vivekananda once said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter habits.” As your yoga practice deepens over time, it becomes a strong new habit that can compete with old patterns.

In yoga, you are systematically awakening your ability to feel what’s happening in your body, heart, and mind. As your awareness becomes more refined, it can guide you in all areas of your life. You begin to observe which foods make you feel best, which work you find most fulfilling, which people bring you joy—and which ones have the opposite effects.

The key is steady practice—whether it’s asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, visualization, service, or all of the above. Just a little bit every day is enough to steer you step-by-step toward true transformation.

 

Establishing new habits to compete with old ones . . . in the telesummit, McCall talked about how that is a weakness of the medical system — when people are told to quit smoking or eat healthier or whatever the case may be, but aren’t given any tools to create new habits. I know nothing except for yoga has ever truly worked for me when it comes to trying to be a less reactive person, to eat better, etc. etc. — so where would I be right now if I didn’t have these tools?

I’ve been writing quite a bit lately about how redirecting my practice pattern — practicing at least a little bit six mornings a week versus only a few evenings a week — has totally !!! my world. (By the way, I do promise to blog about something else soon! :-) ) I wondered if I could distill the neuroplasticity idea even further — into the 140 characters of a tweet — and ashtanga-fy it a bit (not because other methods don’t work, but because this is the only method I can personally attest to) while alluding to the concepts of a conditioned mind and illusions that arise from the Yoga Sutras. I came up with:

Using the body to get beyond the body, a 6-day-a-week Ashtanga practice rewires us to experience life without filters created by illusion.

What do you think?

What would your elevator pitch be?

Pain relief?

So what is it that happens when we are capable of practicing detachment?

Bringing this up reminds me of workshop I attended last year with orthopedic surgeon, yoga practitioner and author Ray Long, M.D. I loved how he brought up painkillers in an analogy for how yoga helps decrease human suffering. I am paraphrasing big time here, but basically, he discussed how local anesthesia works to numb an area, while morphine works on the central nervous system. What people have recounted about being on morphine is that they are still aware of the pain, but it doesn’t bother them.

I’ve heard Tim Miller use a line he got from a Vedic astrologer in India: Yoga makes us human shock absorbers. And I just found this interview with David Swenson in which he responds to a question about finding peace (definitely not an elevator pitch, but good stuff):

I think that peace just means, that even though I may die today, I’m living my purpose. And that’s the peace. It doesn’t mean that there’s no stress in life. It doesn’t mean that we just float along and there’s never any problem. Peace just means that we feel like we’re living the life that we should be living. And many times we have to live a lot of lives that we realise we shouldn’t be, in order to find out what we should be doing. It’s an ongoing journey. To find balance, sometimes we have to understand imbalance by moving through extremes. In my life there have been different extremes… to swing like a pendulum. And the balance or the peace comes from the middle road. As humans we find it easier to live in extremes, “I’ll only do this. I’ll never do that.” That’s where religion plays a part, where you’re just told to do this and that and you follow. But peace comes from some sort of inner feeling that the life we’re living is a life that we should be living. And it doesn’t have to be that you’re in a monastery, or that you’re doing some grandiose thing. It could be aligned with raising your children, getting them to soccer games on time, being at peace with the life that we have chosen, or the life that has chosen us, but finding our place within that. Certainly I can’t say that every moment at the day I’m walking around in some bliss bubble. Certainly I have problems, I have stresses, or I get upset. But underneath all that, as a yogi, we learn to observe our emotions, these ups and downs, and we try not to become too attached to one of them. Great joy or great sadness, both of those are going to change. Instead of this rollercoaster ride, we can become the observer, but it doesn’t mean that we’re some emotionless robot.

Shanti.

(Photo credit: Elevator photo via Zero-X’s Flickr photostream.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

52 weeks x 6 days a week* = !!!

Abacus via Generation X-Ray's Flickr

One year ago this week — as my Mt. Shasta yoga and hiking retreat wrapped up — I fully made my commitment to practicing six days a week. Has it been easy? Absolutely not. But the hardest part was starting, and I have to admit that since that initial establishment period, it’s not been as bad as I thought it might be. At this point, it’s simply part of my logistical calculus for each day.

I finally committed because I had reached a sort of practice purgatory in which the alternative seemed just as bad, if not worse: Wanting so badly to have a consistent practice but hitting daily walls of disappointments and bursts of frustration as evenings wore on and I realized that, once again, I would not be practicing. An hour to 90 minutes of practice a day six days a week seemed impossible when I wasn’t doing it, but equally impossible was living with the friction of wanting to practice and not being able to, day after day after day.

So I did it. Read more about my changes in perspective in my six-months-in status update. The post I wrote the last day of July, the night before this month’s first (of two) full moon, serves as, more or less, a one-year update.

It’s safe to say that getting on the mat to practice Ashtanga six days a week has been as big a game changer as discovering Ashtanga yoga in the first place.

2 a.m. – 3 hours = Not enough

The next level of my practice commitment, which started at the beginning of this week, is to start waking up at the brutal — for me — hour of 5:30 a.m. so that I can have at least 75 minutes to practice every morning. It’s been a rocky (read: total failure of a) start. I haven’t been able to get up at 5:30 a.m. even once this week, but I’m not giving up. Week 2 of attempts begins on Monday.

In case you’re concerned I’m beating up on myself, do know that I give myself loads of credit for, over the course of one year, turning back my typical bedtime by about two or three hours (1 a.m. or 2 a.m. –> 11 p.m. or so). I’ve been a night owl since childhood, so this has not been an easy pattern to reprogram. The progress isn’t enough for me to wake up before the sun rises, however; I’ve tried out various schedules, and about 7.5 hours of sleep seems to be my current minimum. One problem is that I get home so late that an earlier bedtime would mean very little — 30 minutes, in some cases — down time between getting home and going to bed.

We’ll see how it goes. I will, of course, keep you posted.

104 weeks x 6 days a week = ?

Exactly one year ago today, I was blogging from McCloud, Calif., about my struggles with food. I eat better these days, but now I’ve hit a sort of consumption purgatory. My tastes have changed dramatically, but my access to the types of food I want to eat has not kept pace. Living in the middle of the Mitten State, if I want, say, pesto quinoa, I have to make it myself or call up my friend Lissy and sweet talk her into whipping up her special dish. While Lissy is a doll and would totally do this for me, I can’t exactly bug her weekly.

Now that we have left apartment life behind and are living in a house with a welcoming kitchen, my husband and I have committed to learning, together, how to cook. We have a weekly weekend date night in which we prepare our own food, and on weeknights, I prepare our lunchtime bento boxes for the next day. I’ve also enjoyed geeking it out over learning more about ayurvedic concepts, even though sometimes I am bummed about what I find out.

For the past year, I’ve been trying — so that I feel better — to rid my body of toxins and less-than-healthy patterns. As of this month, I am still trying for myself, but also as a way to prepare my body to be eventually fit as a vehicle for another’s. As I start to think about what I put into my body, my mind and my spirit with this added intention, I’m beginning to see a subtle but important emphasis. I’m starting to realize that this practice isn’t just a practice designed to fit into a householder’s life — it’s a practice that can help you become more fit not just as a human being, but particularly as a householder.

David Robson of the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto has a blog post about the householder life — aka Ashtanga’s seventh series:

The Bhagavad Gita states, ‘One who outwardly performs his social duties but inwardly stays free is a yogi.’ We cannot practice detachment by avoiding life. If we haven’t made any real connections, what is there to detach from? Healthy relationships require a lot of work. If we can devote ourselves wholly to the work, without attachment to outcomes, we manifest our higher nature in the service of others.

If I didn’t practice Ashtanga, I don’t think I would ever be able to believe someone who told me that so much can change by simply stepping on a yoga mat more days than not, and connecting breath to movement during the time you’re on that mat.

Ekam FTW!

*The asterisk is in this post’s title is there for those who don’t practice six days a week and might not know how the traditional Ashtanga method works. Yes, it’s six days a week, with one day (traditionally Saturday) taken as rest, for, pretty much, your whole life. But take into account:

  • You also get moon days off (usually two a month, although this month, for example, it’s three — woo-hoo!).
  • Women can take up to the first three days of their menstrual cycle off (the “ladies’ holiday“).

For most of us, that’s still a tremendously daunting formula. But I now think of it this way: Getting up five days a week to go to an office job is just as daunting, if not more so. (And given how the American social safety net seems to be tattered, working five days a week seems as if it could be as much “for the rest of your life” as Ashtanga does.) Those of us who work in corporate America or environments close to it don’t get the option to only go to work when we feel like it — it’s five days a week, except for paid time off, sick days and the occasional professional development trip. For people with children or others who depend on them, it can become a 24/7 enterprise, with no built-in vacation time.

(Photo credit: Abacus via Generation X-Ray’s Flickr. Flickr Creative Commons FTW!) 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Unpacking my patterns of excess

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Packing up -- so many boxes

I know I’m in good company when I say that I don’t enjoy the moving process. Packing up belongings is hardest — the unpleasant surprises you unearth, the reminders of challenging people or periods in your life, the discomfort of tossing crap you want to shed but that you’re not quite ready to let go of quite yet. Unpacking at least allows for new beginnings of sorts — old item, new place.

This weekend, I listened to an old Yoga Peeps podcast with James Bailey on the science of ayurveda while tackling the emotionally toughest section of the apartment for me — stacks of old personal and professional documents that should have been recycled or shredded years ago.

In any case, the part of the podcast that struck me most was when the interviewer asked Bailey about whether he sees recurring patterns. Yes, he said — the vast majority of tendencies you’ll see in Western cultures are patterns of excess:

We tend to see an overnourishment of the body, overnourishment of the tissues. There were times in our ancestors’ histories and their lives where deficiencies were the threat to society. . . . But these days, these nutrients are available in mass quantities and overmanufuactured, basically. So we have proteins and fats and sugars and carbohydrates that are available and cheap — really cheap. Anybody can afford to get access to these nutrients, and in ungodly amounts, lending towards severe diseases of excess. . . . Obesity is one, diabetes is one, cancers and some growths and tumors are others — hypertension and so on. These are the diseases of our day — chronic because they are lifestyle-based. They come down to choices. (This section stars roughly around 17:45 in the podcast.)

A pack rat by nature, and surrounded by stacks of slips of paper I should have slipped out of my life long ago, that observation deeply resonated. At least moving forces you to go through piles and open boxes and make decisions about how many physical mementos linked to emotional baggage you want to carry on with you to the next space you occupy.

And I started to wonder whether one of the more potent — and therefore emotionally difficult — aspects of maintaining a consistent Ashtanga practice is that you are confronted each day by some manifestation of excess in your life. Yes, you have to face areas of depletion as well — for starters, there’s lack of sleep, lack of hydration, lack of will, lack of time and lack of space.

But areas of excess require decisions to let go. In the beginning, there’s the typical realization of too much fat on the body (or, to put it more politely, adipose tissue), too much food in the belly, too much stress absorbed into muscles. Looking back, I think I had worked marichyasana D as far as I could (given the proportions of my arms to the rest of the my body) when Tim Miller basically looked and me and suggested I consider shedding a few kilos (this reminds of a blog post title that made me laugh: “Marichyasana D — ‘D’ is for diet“). Looking back, I think he was right — but it would be some time before I was motivated to make any real lifestyle changes.

Every day, month after month, year after year, you can choose to face your areas of physical, mental and emotional excesses and not change anything about your life off the mat — it seems to me that the practice doesn’t judge. On a personal level, what I have found after nine months of a consistent practice is that the desire to continue habits of excess starts to diminish on its own. And thank god, because I still don’t have the willpower to totally avoid, for instance, cheesy breadsticks even though I know there is nothing to gain, from a nutritional point. (Literally as I’ve been writing this paragraph, my husband offered me a bite of his breadstick and I totally took one, because it looked pretty damn good.) The difference now is that I’m pretty satisfied with, say, one bite, whereas a couple years ago, I would have probably eaten two or three breadsticks.

Diet-wise, I feel that my body’s intelligence about what I consume has been dusted off and is slowly but surely gaining authority in this mind-body system of mine. I am quite certain I have to credit practice for this — I don’t see other factors in my lifestyle that could have triggered the change. These days, I don’t feel like I have to consult labels or more gastronomically yogic friends — for the most part, I have a sense of what will feel good after I eat it and what won’t. Last week, for instance, I was stuck in a six-hour-long website writing and editing session. When I was asked what I wanted to order for lunch, I got my sandwich, but I insisted on one of those ginormous cookies as well. I knew, going in, that I would enjoy it then, but feel it a couple hours later. But the trade-off was worth it to me. (If you’ve ever been stuck in  marathon sessions related to building websites, you probably know what I mean.) So I still have patterns of excess — don’t even get me started on the criminally delicious ice cream cake my colleagues got me last week for a belated birthday gathering — but at least I am being present when those decisions are made.

Well, I suppose I should get back to packing up my stuff so we can finishing moving out of this little one-bedroom apartment into a house. I am really hoping and determined to check my pattern of excess — as it relates to useless and no longer necessary stuff, anyway — at the door of this new home. Wish me luck — and the good instincts that seem to develop from continued practice.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

[BOOK REVIEW] Yoga kills! No, it cures! Kills! Cures! (Can we take a hiatus from reading popular yoga books? Please?)

I was sent a review copy of Yoga Cures, Tara Stiles’ new book ($17.99 softcover; currently No. 3 in Amazon.com’s yoga category). Yes, that Tara Stiles — the former model and “yoga rebel” (as anointed by The New York Times) who counts Deepak Chopra among her students, and the “new face of fitness” (as anointed by Jane Fonda) who has so elevated the yoga discussion with Slim Calm Sexy Yoga. If you missed the release of Slim Calm Sexy Yoga, you can make up for lost time by reading YogaDork’s predictably snarky take on it.

Stiles is hardly the first yogi to go after some of the weight-loss industry market share. To pick one random example, remember Bryan Kest’s Power Yoga for Weight Loss VHS? (I’m not going to lie — I owned one, maybe even two, Bryan Kest videos back in the day.)

But I digress. In yoga, we have poses and counter-poses that balance them out. In that same vein, Yoga Cures reads like the counter-pose to William J. Broad’s The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (currently No. 8 in Amazon.com’s yoga category). I read the much-discussed excerpt of his book in the New York Times Magazine but have not yet read the book. That said, I also watched this lengthy interview with Slate. Shoulderstand? Plow? Stay away! “It can send you to the emergency room, or it can send you to the morgue,” Broad tells the interviewer (start around 2:30).

Yoga Cures is all lollipops, cupcakes and balloons by comparison:

Yoga can cure your body, settle your mind, and skyrocket your energy back to kindergarten levels! And if you’re lifting an eyebrow and asking ‘Really?’ just keep reading. How about being a ridiculously happy person with a super-healthy body and calm, focused mind? Yoga can cure everything from depression to anxiety; from old sports injuries and back pain to allergies, PMS, and even hangovers. I can’t think of any reason why someone shouldn’t at least try it, considering all of the incredible and practice benefits that come along with its regular practice. And that’s what this book means to encompass: easy, fun cures using yoga in a fresh way to help alleviate or cure common complaints.

Here is what Stiles says in an interview on Blistree:

Helping people heal themselves through yoga shouldn’t be controversial. Critics of mine want yoga to be exclusive, tightly knit, and for a special club reserved for a select few. Of course they feel threatened because I am simply pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. Yoga is inside everyone, attainable by everyone, without a guru.

Of course, yoga should be accessible — to everyone. Really, everyone. David Swenson has stories about watching Pattabhi Jois help paralyzed students practice yoga. But Stiles would no doubt peg me as a purist, elitist yogi because I think Yoga Cures is a breezy book with photos of an attractive woman taking interesting shapes — nothing too complicated, though! It’s all about being easy! She’s unbearably hip in giving you the low-down on “The Chill the *&@# Out Yoga Cure” and “The Saggy Booty Yoga Cure.” In addition to a saggy booty, the book covers ADD/ADHD, broken heart and even diabetes — more than 50 ailments total.

Elsewhere in the book, Stiles talks about the bigger picture — the eight limbs of yoga, for instance. That’s great. And if she wants to put out a book trying to help people temporarily relieve symptoms, go for it. But to promise cures with just a few simple poses crosses the line, in my mind — and by doing so, puts this book in the same category as late-night infomercials that tease the desperate (hey, I’ve been there) with “cures” in the form of juices and pills.

Quick-fixes of every sort are ubiquitous in our society (5-hour energy shots, anyone?), and this book adds to the cacophony of generic inspiration mixed in with over-the-top promises and a “what have you got to lose” attitude.

Yoga doesn’t have to be complicated — it shouldn’t be out of reach. But it does take effort. Doing three poses (specifically, “standing arm reach,” “tree pose,” and “warrior 3”) won’t magically cure someone with clinical depression, as the book would like you to believe. Feeling down one afternoon? Absolutely, do some yoga and you’ll probably be set. But depression? On the topic of “The Depression Yoga Cure,” Stiles writes:

The yoga cure for depression is simply to practice regularly, even when you don’t feel like it. A little bit of yoga is a better than nothing. The more you practice, the better you’ll feel.

Curing depression is just so simple! Get up! Keep a regular practice! Voila! It’s too bad no one else has ever thought to put together these three poses to cure it.

(I’m thumbing through this book again, desperate now for a cure for reading-induced nausea.)

For a more helpful look at how yoga can help alleviate depression and anxiety — and a glimpse into what a long journey it is — see “Yoga for depression and anxiety.”)

Stiles will call me even more of an elitist now, but here’s the yoga book whose publication I am looking forward to:

While there are countless yoga books out there, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice is the first to critically examine yoga as it actually exists in North America today. Written by experienced practitioners who are also teachers, therapists, activists, scholars, studio owners, and/or interfaith ministers, this unique set of essays provides a fresh take on the promise and pitfalls of contemporary yoga, exploring its relevance for issues including feminism, body image, psychology, activism, ethics, and spirituality.

This book is being self-published, and there are still a few days left to donate, if you happen to be so inclined. So put down your copy of The Science of Yoga or Yoga Cures and go here to support the project.

21st Century Yoga won’t help the average Joe shed pounds through yoga, but I’m pretty sure Yoga Cures won’t either — so your saggy booty is yours to keep, even if you return the book!

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Workshop dispatch: Primary series (Yoga Chikitsa)

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice.

This is the next in a “Workshop dispatch” series based on the workshops I took with Tim Miller at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio from Friday, April 13, 2012 through Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Tim has taught annually in Columbus for 14 years. This year, he held his traditional weekend (Friday through Sunday) program, but debuted a new intensive program (Monday through Wednesday). Each day of the three-day intensive focused on a different series of the practice. In the mornings, we chatted a little bit and then did a practice that could run up to 2.5 hours (to allow time to do several research, or prep, poses, during the second and third series). In the afternoon, we could ask questions, go over problem spots and generally discuss the practice. (Full workshop description here.) What follows are notes and thoughts from Day 1 of the intensive, which examined the primary series.  

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“You guys are the guinea pigs,” Tim Miller told us on Day 1 of the One-Day Yoga Intensives portion of his annual Yoga on High program. Pretty cool place to be for the roughly 40 of us in the room. Some of us had traveled from out of state, others were Yoga on High teachers, and several in the room were enrolled in Yoga on High’s  teacher training program. (As a side note, I think it’s very cool that Ashtanga students enrolled in YOHI’s teacher training are required to take Tim Miller’s workshops.)

Gunas

Over the course of the three-day intensive, Tim talked about the qualities of each of the series as they relate to the gunas and the pancha kosas (five sheaths). In The Heart of YogaT.K.V. Desikachar describes gunas simply as “qualities of the mind; qualities of the universe). In a nutshell, there are three gunas:

  • Sattva, which possesses the quality of harmony
  • Rajas, which possesses the quality of activity
  • Tamas, which possesses the quality of inertia.

Tim was careful to note during the workshops that while we often think of the quality of being sattvic as being the most desirable of the gunas, we need all three for balance. “It’s easy to say tamas is bad, sattvic is good and rajas is mixed,” Tim said. “But you need all three. We are always trying to find balance between these qualities.”

Since we’re on the topic, here is what B.K.S. Iyengar says about the gunas in Light on Life:

As I said, the guna is made up for three complementary forces. They are: tamas (mass or inertia), rajas (vibrancy or dynamism), and sattva (luminosity or the quality of light).

Let us look at a practice example. In asana, we are trying to broach the mass of our gross body, to break up the molecules and divide them into atoms that will allow our vision to penetrate within. Our body resists us. It is muleish. It will not budge. Why? Because in body tamas predominates. It has to. Body needs mass, bones need density, and sinew and muscle need solidity and firmness….

With regard to asana practice, this means that initially we need to exert ourselve more as resistance is greater. Of the two aspects of asana, exertion of our body and penetration of our mind, the latter is eventually more important. Penetration of our mind is the goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.

But once there is movement and then momentum, penetration can start. When effort becomes effortless, asana is at its highest level. Inevitably this is a slow process, and if we break off our practice, inertia reasserts itself. What we are really doing is infusing dense matter with vibrant energy. That is why good practice brings a feeling of lightness and vitality. Though the mass of our body is heavy, we are meant to tread lightly on this earth. (pp. 45-46)

The overarching quality of the primary series, relative to the other series, would be tamasic. Second series: rajastic. Third series, sattvic.

Pancha koshas

In general, the sheaths go from the grossest (most physical) to more subtle manifestations.

  • Annamaya kosa: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosa: Energy body. This is the body of chakras.
  • Manomaya kosa: Body of mental (and emotional) impressions. You find samskaras (habits, conditioning) here.
  • Vijnanamaya kosa: The body of the buddhi (intellect).
  • Anandamaya kosa: Blissful body. The place of the soul. The place of unconditioned awareness. (Iyengar refers to this sheath as the divine body.)

It was very helpful for me that Tim discussed the sheaths as one of those nesting Russian dolls.

Primary series

Whew. That’s a lot of necessary lead in. Let’s get to the primary series itself. Primary series — Yoga Chitiksa (“Yoga Therapy,”) works most on the outer doll. The physical sheath. Tim noted that if we work on one doll, it does affect the other dolls.

The first series has a slew of health benefits, as anyone who has practiced the series consistently understands. It is designed to:

  • Restore the body
  • Detox us
  • Restore natural range of motion to our joints
  • Restore sensitivity to our sense organs

The practice also helps to reduce excess adipose tissue (yep, that’s body fat).

Think of all the forward folds and twists in the first series (if you’re new to the series, you can see the poses here). Primary works quite a bit on:

  • The gastrointestinal system
  • Digestion
  • Assimilation
  • Elimination

If the concept of the pancha kosas — the five sheaths — is new to you, I recommend reading Light on Life. And, of course, try to find time to study with Tim Miller. I’m sure he’ll be doing more of these one-day intensives now that he’s had the chance to test it out on our group.

Tim said this about the Ashtanga method as we were discussing the primary series: “It’s very scientific. It’s very sophisticated. And best of all, it works.” Seeing these notes again remind me that Steve of The Confluence Countdown recently posted an interview with Eddie Stern about a new yoga study that includes what is essentially a distillation of part of the primary series. Interesting stuff.

My relationship with the practice

On a personal level, the primary series has been an incredibly positive influence for me — for years the metronomic quality of the practice was about the only calm consistency in my life that I could point to — but the process has been as slow as molasses. Some people fly through primary. Not me.

I spent years and years without an Ashtanga teacher, and cobbled together a practice based on a couple of weekend workshops with David Swenson and some practice cards. I was lucky enough to be in a led class taught by Pattabhi Jois when he paid a visit to Montreal during one of his North American tours, but I still didn’t understand the series well enough by that time to even get into the marichyasana twists without assistance.

During those lonely years without a teacher, I had enough internal drive to know this was good for me, but not enough tapas to practice daily and fully wring out the benefits of the practice. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had met Tim Miller or Angela Jamison all those years ago. Despite knowing that the past is what it is and there’s no point dwelling on it, I admit to still having twinges of regret now and then — less so for what my practice could be now that I am on the cusp of turning 36 (though I would be lying if I didn’t say that is part of it), and more so for what better choices I could have made in my life had I had a consistent daily practice in my 20s.

The silver lining for all this is that I have a deep well of patience for teaching primary series, and I invest as much as I can to trying to help students who seem to need someone to put them in closer touch with their practice. As I told one of my students once, every single one of your challenges with the practice becomes a gift you have for your students. And my god, have I had an abundance of challenges — from my unforgiving work schedules to the far-from-any-shala locations I have lived to the less-than-ideal body proportions that makes poses like supta kurmasana and pasasana a steep uphill journey.

Ah, pasasana — the gateway pose to second series. We’ll get to that in the next blog post.

(Photo: My friend Jen René in supta kurmasana, which is the most extreme of the forward folds in the Ashtanga primary series practice. Jen teaches Ashtanga and vinyasa yoga and Pilates in Washington, D.C. If you’re in D.C., check her out — she’s excellent.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lowering the ugh factor: 7 things I’ve done for my digestive system

Photo of ginger via london_lime's Flickr photostreamToday’s mail brought the regular round of advertising circulars. Ponderosa Steakhouse’s unlimited sirloin steak and shrimp offer on weekends. Applebee’s new — NEW! — blackened chicken penne and Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp. Jet’s Pizza.

Eh, eh and eh. None of it is at all appetizing.

(OK, full disclosure: the pizza is still kind of appealing.) The larger point is, the longer I practice Ashtanga consistently, the harder it is for me to eat out. Like many teenagers, I developed a taste for awful fast food in high school — the Mexican pizza at Taco Bell, the fish sandwich at McDonald’s, the curly fries at Arby’s. While my eating habits have improved — slowly — over the years, I have terrible proclivities compared with the yogis I know. I don’t like juicing. I have zero desire to eat raw food. And so on.

Over the past year or so, however, what’s been exciting for me is that I’ve been craving better food, even if I haven’t necessarily been eating better food.

Is it possible that I’ve been retraining my cravings? I hope so (pizza cravings notwithstanding).

Now the big challenge is making it happen: Craving better food and then converting that craving into action by actually eating better food. This is hard because it would require that I spend more time acquiring and preparing food. In my current kitchen calculus, if it takes four steps, it’s on the time-consuming side. And I consider tearing off the packaging to be one step. I know, I know  . . .

It’s not just a matter of principle for me. I really need to eat better, because it’s been affecting how I feel. This past December, after my tests for celiac problems came back negative, I devoted a blog post discussing that ugh feeling plaguing my digestive system. A follow-up blog post listed some great suggestions shared with me.

I’m cautiously happy to report that I’ve been feeling better over the past few months. Here are some steps I’ve taken — thanks the advice of a range of people and, in one ironic case, a fast-food delivery joint — since December:

  • Practiced nauli more consistently in the morning.
  • Started taking probiotics (one capsule daily).
  • Dramatically reduced my coffee intake — down to about one or two cups a week at this point. (I’ve substituted this habit with a pomegranate oolong tea latte from Biggby in the mornings. While this is an improvement, it’s also expensive to do this several times a week, so I have to wean myself off this soon too.)
  • When possible, switching from cow’s milk and soy milk to almond milk. (Looking back, soy milk never sat all that well with me. But I had this idea that it was healthier. Almond milk rocks! Who knew.)
  • Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch (hello, sandwiches held together with large Romaine lettuce leaves!).
  • Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.
  • Started eating smaller dinners.

I’ll elaborate on three of these.

Nauli

Here is what Lisa Walford has written about nauli:

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that Nauli stimulates the digestive fire, thereby removing toxins, indigestion, and constipation. It is considered a Shat Karma, which is an internal cleansing to aid with excess phlegm, mucus, or fat.

If you don’t practice yoga, I know nauli looks crazy. But trust me — it’s not painful. I think it feels pretty good when you’re done — it’s hard to explain, but I sort of feel as if I’ve stirred the pot and prevented stagnation.

Started ditching bread and wraps as much as possible for lunch

This has made a huge difference to how I feel during all afternoon on a workday — and I’m as surprised as anyone to say that I got the idea from a fast food place. A freaky fast fast food place, in fact — Jimmy John’s Unwich. It’s a regular sandwich, except it’s got leaves of lettuce holding it together rather than a wrap or bread. I’ve been packing my own lunches with my own lettuce-wrapped creations, including breakfast sandwiches. They’re delicious, and I don’t feel heavy or bloated afterward.

Began to eat a little bit of shaved ginger sprinkled with cayenne before dinner.

This is an Ayurvedic thing. I don’t know anything about Ayurveda, but this is what the California College of Ayurveda says about poor digestion:

The symptoms of poor digestion include excessive gas, constipation, diarrhea, burping, burning, vomiting, indigestion, bloating and pain. In various forms, Western medicine has given them names such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, colitis and pancreatitis among many others. Through the eyes of Ayurveda, the practitioner comes to an understanding of the cause through examining one’s lifestyle. Faulty eating practices are the number one culprit, poor food choices and poor food combing are next in line. Together they make up the major causes of digestive disease.

Why ginger and cayenne? According to this same site:

Kledaka Kapha [subdosha governing the protective secretions which line mucous membranes] can also be too high. When this occurs it suppresses the agni resulting in slow digestion and possible nausea. This condition results from too many heavy, sweet foods and is best treated with the category of herbs called dipanas which increase agni and diminish kledaka. This includes the Indian herbs chitrak and the Ayurvedic formula trikatu as well as common pungents such as ginger and cayenne pepper.

Interested in learning more? I am too. You can start by following the Jangalikayamane blog and reading “How Jedi Knights Should Eat” from the AY:A2 blog. Here’s a juicy excerpt from that blog post, which several yogis I know have welcomed not only for its ideas, but for its perfect timing in their lives:

In any case, those years of “research” and strict food rules did teach me a lot, and did render my digestive fire extremely strong and healthy. Luckily, I kept coming to my mat every day without a break, so gradually I started understanding surrender. Now that I’m more interested in radical acceptance of my own social, temporal, and environmental contexts, and of my own desires, it is easier to nest my eating habits not only my body’s energy economy, but also in the context of personal and environmental relationships.

Had I been more in contact with my own wisdom in those days, my relationship with food would have balanced discipline with contemplation. Turns out that the Ayurvedic approach to eating does just this. The way I’ve been learning it, Ayurveda is not a set of fixes or healing strategies. It’s a holographic map of the whole web of manifest reality. The Ayurvedic approach to eating isn’t an arcane prescription for fixing one’s doshas; it’s a set of practices for becoming conscious of the inner and outer webs of our being.

You don’t even have to study it. Just imagine. What if you showed up to your hunger, and your food, the way you show up to our yoga room and to your physical practice? So… you’d put time and awareness in to getting the conditions right. Do a gratitude ritual. Care about where the recipe and the ingredients come from. Practice in silence, and in excellent company. Breathe. Act with clear, loving attention. Regard strong thought and emotional patterns with a bit of cool skepticism. Take a long finishing sequence to absorb the benefits.

Quick fix? Yeah right. Not in ashtanga and not in eating. This practice teaches us that our bodies are vehicles for past and future choices. Love the rough spots into fluidity, day by day, and let the painful stuff get easier. Recognize that especially deep patterns got there as a result of grasping and repetition, and we don’t get out of them for free.

The yoga thing is about action and observation, and finding that these two are not separate. Action can be luminously conscious. Takes practice.

So, how about applying that “99 percent practice, 1 percent theory” concept to food?

(Photo credit: “Ginger” via london_lime’s Flickr photostream.) 

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Yoga for depression and anxiety

I was happy to be able to snag the last available spot for a two-hour workshop called Yoga for Depression and Anxiety, held this afternoon at the beautiful, community-focused Just B Yoga in Lansing. It was taught by a good friend of mine, South London native Kim Lewis.

Just B Yoga website screenshot

Although I won’t try to document the breathing and moving techniques that Kim went through — I believe these types of things are best learned and digested in context — I do want to say it was very moving when Kim started out the workshop by telling her own story. Here is her bio:

I first experienced a yoga class about 20 years ago, but I began to practice consistently in 2002 in my late 30s. I’d never been comfortable doing sport or “physical” activity, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed this unfamiliar form of exercise. Since then, I’ve learned that yoga has much more to offer than simply physical movement.

Before getting more serious about yoga, I was suffering with backaches, headaches, and neck aches – probably all because of stress. I’ve also had trouble with depression and anxiety that has sometimes thrown me completely off balance. Yoga has helped me to build better physical and mental health, so I’m able to function well in my daily life – and really live life.

At 46, I’m in much better physical and emotional shape than I was at 26. The combination of yoga poses, breathing and meditative practices simply makes me feel good. I’m so fortunate that I found yoga and I want to share it with others.

I trained with Hilaire Lockwood at Hilltop Yoga. I am also certified by Amy Weintraub, author of Yoga for Depression, as a LifeForce Yoga Practitioner.

Kim was diagnosed as bipolar in her 20s, and strongly advises anyone trying to come off medications to do so with the help of a physician — rather than trying to do so on their own. Kim told the group today that she is living proof that while yoga can’t take away all the challenges, it can change someone’s life:

It can change your brain.

Kim told us that yoga gives you the tools to take care of yourself. These tools can be summarized by three words: “Breathe, Move, Watch,” based on breathing techniques (pranayama), physical postures (asana) and looking at how yoga philosophy views the Self.

You can use breathing and movement to:

  • Balance the body and mind
  • Calm the body/mind when anxious
  • Energize the body and mind when depressed — but on this point, Kim emphasized how mindfulness is needed because this can also aggravate anxiety or set off a manic state.

She said everyone needs to cultivate self-awareness and check in with themselves. If you feel lethargic and depressed, start slowly and warm up to a more energetic practice. If you feel jumpy and anxious, start with more active movement and then slow down to a more calming practice.

As a yoga instructor, I appreciated Kim’s pointers for those with depression or anxiety when taking group yoga classes — that you have to cultivate this same self-awareness and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

On this point, I think yoga teachers would be wise to try to learn more about depressed and anxious students. You won’t be able to tell that modifications are needed the way you would if a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy walks into your class, but even being aware of different needs might make you more intuitive about students who may quietly be suffering through major depression and need a different energy from you.

I found these points particularly interesting:

  • For someone with major depression, it may be too much to turn in internally, so don’t allow yourself to go there.
  • For someone with major depression, it might be uncomfortable to close the eyes, so just soften the gaze.

On that point, as an Ashtanga devotee, it made me all the more aware of the importance of dristi — the gaze — of the practice. Dristi is one of the three tools that the Ashtanga vinyasa yoga system gives us (together, the three are referred to as the tristana). There’s not a whole lot of eye-closing in Ashtanga — you are always asked to set a soft gaze on one of nine points (tip of nose, hand, to the side, etc.). I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that, to keep us present on the mat in a way that allows us to boomerang our awareness inward with true clarity, rather than in a way that allows us either to escape to another place or get sucked into a place we don’t want to go to.

I’m writing about this workshop to, generally, help share the resources that Kim shared. I also noticed that the workshop had sold out at 20 slots — but I only counted about 14 in the room, and wondered if some folks were too anxious to be in a group setting where the focus was on yoga therapy for depression and anxiety.

For anyone with depression or anxiety reading this blog post at home, know that there are people who get it, and that yoga therapy may be able to help. If reaching out seems impossible, maybe make a few clicks to buy some of these resources listed below, to help you get to a point where you can seek out a professional who can work with you on some basic yoga techniques that — while they will hardly fix everything — might be able to help.

Suggested books

Suggested CD

>>Related posts: A different kind of black Friday

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By the way — I know it’s been two weeks since my last blog post, and I have to tell you that it’s killing me that I’ve been too busy to blog. If you’ve been following this blog for the past year or so, you know I fit in blogging whenever I can — so the fact that I haven’t been able to put anything up is a testament to how compressed my schedule has been. I think I literally have about 12 blog posts in my head right now — about the first Bikram class I took about what being a Radiohead concert made me think about injuries, about one excellent tool for home practice and how I lost my voice nearly completely but taught a led class anyway — and on and on. I hope to catch up on some of these. We shall see.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Links on the benefits of yoga + add your favorite benefit for a chance to win a relaxing eye pillow

A recently posted Elephant Journal piece featuring Kino MacGregor discussing agni and samskaras has been making the rounds in my Facebook and Twitter social sharing spaces this weekend. It’s not a new concept for anyone steeped in a yogic practice, such as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, that has an emphasis on tapas — a burning away, a purification. Given the video’s level of sharing — nearly 1,500 Facebook shares alone since its posting yesterday — it has clearly struck a chord.

There was also some sharing among my friends this weekend of a Forbes.com piece from this summer. The article, “Penetrating Postures: The Science of Yoga,” talks about how yoga brings about:

…measurable changes in the body’s sympathetic nervous system – the one charged with propelling us into action during the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress. However, because our lives today include business emails at 10 o’clock at night and loud cell conversations at the next table, our stress response often lingers in the ‘on’ position at times it shouldn’t. Yoga helps dampen the body’s stress response by reducing levels of the hormone cortisol, which not only fuels our split-second stress reactions, but it can wreak havoc on the body when one is chronically stressed. So reducing the body’s cortisol level is generally considered a good thing.

Yoga also boosts levels of the feel-good brain chemicals like GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, which are responsible for feelings of relaxation and contentedness, and the way the brain processes rewards. All three neurotransmitters are the targets of various mood medications like antidepressants (e.g., SSRIs) and anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs.

The article also touches on how yoga can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and positively affect the immune system.

I’m noting these two links for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s always interesting to think about the Western science behind why yoga makes us feel the way it makes us feel, and the more Eastern yogic science of how this practice helps bring clarity to the question of how best to live our lives.

The other reason I’m noting them here is that it’s time for the second of two YogaRose.net holiday giveaways. The first round of the holiday giveaway was open to blog subscribers. This round  is open to anyone who responds in the comments section in answer to the question:

Name one totally unexpected, absolutely surprising or simply wonderful benefit that yoga has brought to your life.

The fine print:

  • The last giveaway was open internationally (and, indeed, earlier this week, I shipped one of the gifts to Scotland). This one is open only to those living in the continental United States. (Sorry! But the envelope is already stamped and ready to be dropped in the mail, so I have to be more restrictive on this one.)
  • I will randomly draw the winner at 11 p.m. (EST) on Monday, Dec. 19. Check your email that evening or the next morning, because the winner will have until 11 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 20 to get back to me with an address. If that winner doesn’t, I’ll draw again and announce the new draw time.
  • Subscribers are encouraged to participate. (The only subscribers who can’t win are the ones who won in the first round — you guys can certainly throw down a response, though!)

The prize for this round — especially fitting when we’re thinking about some of yoga’s relaxation-related benefits — is this gorgeously blue, herbal eye pillow made by my multitalented friend Jade Sims.

Brand spanking new, handmade herbal eye pillow by Jade Sims

>>Update 12/22/11 On Tuesday, the morning after the random drawing, I mailed out the eye pillow to winner Christina D. Congrats, Christina, and enjoy! Many thanks to everyone for sharing your responses.  

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

A different kind of black Friday: How yoga therapy can be used to help treat depression

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Enjoying the post-Thanksgiving food high, I’m with my family in San Jose. And I see that the Mercury News ran a story the other day saying that here in Santa Clara county, someone commits suicide on average every three days. Think about that — every 72 hours.

Black Friday officially kicks off the winter holiday season — a time of year designed to be full of family, friends and celebration. For those who live with clinical depression, though, it can be one of the toughest times to go through.

In high school, I worked on a teen hotline where, in theory, anyone contemplating suicide could call (gratefully, I was never on the other end of one of those calls). Depression has profoundly affected the life course of people I care deeply about. If there’s one societal change I have long wanted to contributed to, it is that, in my own way, one conversation at a time, I want people to understand that depression is not simply being sad. Or feeling really, really down. It is chemical. Deeply physiological. You don’t just buck up to get yourself out of depression. You don’t just will yourself out. Would you tell someone living with a heart condition to just get over it? True clinical depression should be considered with the same social regard as other serious threats to health.

Which brings me to yoga, and what yoga can do. The new issue of Yoga International has a wonderful piece by Gary Kraftsow:

Depression tends to hit us on every level of our being, often all at once, which makes yoga the perfect antidote for the physical ramifications, mood swings, thoughts, and behaviors that it engenders. From a physiological perspective, depression affects the entire body, including the digestive, respiratory, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems. Yoga therapy’s main impact on our physiology is via the sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of the ANS. Depression creates a state of sympathetic/parasympathetic disregulation, which further impacts how we feel, what we think about, and how we behave.

The sympathetic nervous system governs the functions involved in the fight-flight-or-freeze response and is activated when we perceive danger. The parasympathetic nervous system governs the functions involved in the rest-and-digest or rest-and-repose response and is activated when we are at rest.

Although some types of depression include sympathetic activation (feelings of agitation or anxiety), when people become depressed, they most often experience a state of sympathetic suppression. They may have physiological symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal distress, and/or decreased libido or sense of pleasure.

Practicing asanas with adapted breathing, pranayama techniques, and guided relaxation will help to balance the nervous system. For example, doing standing postures and backbends with an emphasis on movement—during which you progressively lengthen the inhalation and the exhalation and gently hold the breath at the end of the inhalation—will activate the sympathetic response and energize the system.

Even if you don’t know anyone right now with depression, I highly recommend reading the entire article to get a better sense of how yoga can work with depression. Kraftsow also offers a unique practice sequence. And because I’m a writer by trade, I will also say–better even than consuming online, buy the winter 2011-2012 issue of Yoga International and support this kind of quality yoga content (versus so much of the vacuous, fluffy and celebrity-driven stuff you can find these days).

(Photo credit: gogoloopie’s Flickr stream)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tapas before turkey. Tristana before tryptophan! And watch out for Rahu.

I’m pretty excited that Thanksgiving falls on a new moon day, which means it’s a day of rest. But let’s face it, even if it wasn’t a rest day, there are so many distractions and so many logistical inconveniences (like, traveling) that can make getting to the mat a challenge.

I think practicing the day before a holiday is critical. Tapas before turkey, I told my students today. Tristana before tryptophan! Hilaire Lockwood, the owner of Hilltop Yoga, will tell her students to get to the studio just before July Fourth or New Year’s Eve by simply saying, “Detox before you retox.”

Tim Miller of the Ashtanga Yoga Center of course offers an astrological perspective to the holiday in his most recent blog post. He talks about Rahu, the North Node of the Moon, known as the mighty and naughty child of Maya, Goddess of Illusion, who does his best to plunge any area of life he controls into chaos by taking us off our dharmic path and tempting us to veer off into self-destruction and insatiable desire to taste, achieve, and conquer.”

Tim continues:

When we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, Rahu will be center stage, stimulating our desires for food and drink and possibly to dominate the conversation. Typically, Rahu teaches us through our excesses. After we eat or drink or talk too much we don’t feel so good. We realize that this is not the path to fulfillment, although, at the time, it may have been quite enjoyable. We find the edge by going over the edge. If you find that you get gobbled up by Rahu on Thanksgiving, don’t be too hard on yourself—there’s always yoga class on Friday.

I guess what all this means is that bookending your holidays with yoga might help you enjoy the celebrations a little more — either because you had enough self-control to find the edge without going over, or because you did go over the edge and need to climb back up to the ledge.

My youngest sister and my brother-in-law have already started cooking our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. I can’t wait to take that first bite. By this time tomorrow night, if I’m thinking, “Rahu: 1. Rose: 0” — well, I’ll be giving thanks for my next yoga practice. And if the win-loss is flipped, then I’ll have to give thanks for my last practice.

(Photo credit: “Thai demon god Rahu snacking on the moon” via kk+’s Flickr stream.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The New York Times Magazine wants to help you become a morning person

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been soaking up advice on how to become a morning person, even though, as you may remember from a recent blog post written from a hotel room, my feeling on mornings dovetails with Neil Gaiman‘s line:

Right. I was up at 6:00am this morning, and I have to be up at 5:00am tomorrow, and I am not a morning person (in much the same way that the stars are not fruit-bats) so I think it best if I simply stop writing just like

(yep, Gaiman’s 2004 blot post just ends there).

But I seeing as how it’s nearly 11 p.m. as I start this post, I better start getting to the point. Today’s New York Times Magazine features an article in the “Well” column called “So you think you can be a morning person?”

Like most creatures on earth, humans come equipped with a circadian clock, a roughly 24-hour internal timer that keeps our sleep patterns in sync with our planet. At least until genetics, age and our personal habits get in the way. Even though the average adult needs eight hours of sleep per night, there are ‘shortsleepers,’ who need far less, and morning people, who, research shows, often come from families of other morning people. Then there’s the rest of us, who rely on alarm clocks.

For those who fantasize about greeting the dawn, there is hope. Sleep experts say that with a little discipline (well, actually, a lot of discipline), most people can reset their circadian clocks. But it’s not as simple as forcing yourself to go to bed earlier (you can’t make a wide-awake brain sleep). It requires inducing a sort of jet lag without leaving your time zone. And sticking it out until your body clock resets itself. And then not resetting it again.

Shortsleeper, huh? In my book, that’s someone who can get by on seven hours of sleep — maybe six and a half. Left to my own devices — as in, how long I will sleep if I don’t have to be up for anything — I will get up after nine or 10 hours of sleep. I am not kidding. (I might average something like six or seven hours of sleep a night during non-crazy periods of my life, less if my schedule is seriously jammed.)

 

The article even comes with a quiz. Here’s the sixth question:

 

If there is a specific time at which you have to get up in the morning, to what extent are you dependent on being woken up by an alarm clock?

 

Again, I kid you not, I set three alarms to get up any given morning. Three. I think that makes me “very dependent.”

Perhaps the part I found most interesting was the part about light:

…you can facilitate the transition [of getting up incrementally earlier every day] by avoiding extra light exposure from computers or televisions as you near bedtime. (The light from a computer screen or an iPad has roughly the same effect as the sun.) ‘Light has a very privileged relationship with our brain,’ says Dr. Jeffrey M. Ellenbogen, chief of sleep medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. While most sensory information is ‘processed’ by the thalamus before being sent on its way, Ellenbogen says, light goes directly to the circadian system.

It’s still pitch dark outside when I wake up for a morning Ashtanga practice. Does this mean I can stare into my iPad as soon as I slam the alarm clock one last time in order to simulate throwing open the curtains to see the glow of a rising sun? I’m willing to try it.

As I referenced in a recent blog post, this AY:A2 post also has some good advice for getting up, including jumping into a hot shower. In the coldest months of our Michigan winters, I will surely rely on this.

That said, I’ve been managing, for the past few weeks anyway, to stick to a 6:30 a.m. practice on workdays. Ashtanga — the elixir for all ailments, including that genetic one of being born a night owl.

(Photo credit: “World Alarm Clock – Grove Passage, London” via bobaliciouslondon’s Flickr stream.)

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The daily grind (or, how I’m trying to avoid another surgery on my gums)

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Once a year, I have to go see my periodontal surgeon. It’s an appointment I dread, because I’m afraid I’m going to be told that my teeth-grinding has continued to such a degree that I once again need surgery (of the free gingival graft variety — where tissue is taken from the roof of the mouth and grafted to your gum line, which has receded because you grind your teeth so much that the action erodes your gums over time).

Today was my appointment for 2011.

I wrote a blog post a while back about clenching (“‘Rarely do we clench just one thing‘”). Even though I think about clenching pretty frequently, I have to say I really thought about it a lot today, and I also thought about it yesterday, during a daylong Ashtanga yoga retreat hosted by Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor.  There was a point when the discussion got to how the Ashtanga yoga system can affect your daily habits — how it can even make you so present, and so transparent, that you don’t have spaces in the body to hold things — things like tension and negative emotions.

I can’t imagine what that would feel like — to experience tension and let it just slide off you because there aren’t nooks and crannies in your body into which you would squirrel that stuff as a way of packing it away.

Do you know how where you pack your stuff?

I hold most of my tension in my neck and shoulders. There is this one spot in my right upper back in particular that seems to serve as the reservoir for all my stress run-off. Even yoga doesn’t always provide relief, and when it comes to that, I seek refuge in my acupuncturist’s office — so that she can turn the needle in that spot to open the value and release some of the pressure.

Obviously, I take a fair amount of stress into my jaw as well. I bear down, I lock and I grind. Daily.

On a professional and personal level, the amount of stress in my life has decreased substantially since 2008, when I had my gum surgery. Since that time, I’ve also upped the frequency of, and my commitment to, my Ashtanga practice.

Has it helped? I hope so. I figured I would have at least one black-and-white measure depending on what happened today.

The appointment began the same way it does every time. My surgeon, who is not only a sweetheart but is also extremely good at what she does, examines each tooth and rattles off a number to her assistant. “Three, three, three, two one.” I don’t even know how her assistant writes it all down fast enough. “One, one, one, three, three, three…”

Years after my surgery, I still don’t know what the numbers mean — because I don’t want to know. When I’m in the chair and until my surgeon gives the overall prognosis, I hold my breath and tense up all over. Thank goodness she is thoughtful enough to invest in fantastic dental chairs equipped with massagers for the back, because that helps a bit with the tension.

Happily, I survived another appointment. I left with a clean bill of health. I need to continue to wear my mouth guard every night, but I made it another year without the threat of surgery. Is it all due to the mouth guard? Luck? Genes? Yoga? Less overall stress in my life? Probably a combination of all of the above.

I hope, however, that I’ll be less dependent on all of those factors by the time my appointment rolls around next year. I hope I’ll be a little closer to being able to not only conceptualize but to also experience, in my own body, what it means to not have any place to stash stress and hard emotions.

(Photo credit: “Equine Dentistry” via Flickr Creative Commons (photostream of pmarkham))

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

These shoes weren’t made for walking, but what’s a yogi to do

Heels, baby

Let’s get this out of the way: I <3 yoga and I <3 high heels. Not in that $1,900 Manolo Blahnik/Sex in the City way, and not in the fashion-over-function Victoria Beckham way.

For me, it’s a now and then kind of thing, and we’re maybe talking about a pair of $40 brown patent leather shoes for work or a $70 pair of 3.5-inch heels from Aldo for dancing. From Chicago to Miami to London, I’ve done that post-dancing limp — you know the one, where you eventually decide it’s worth the risk to go barefoot on a city sidewalk (there are some nasty things you can step on in those situations) rather than endure that pain any longer.

And those are the reasonable, kind heels that are my correct size. I am guilty of falling for unreasonable, cruel heels that are just a tad too small — because they, well, sort of fit, and my size isn’t available, and they too cute to leave behind on that sales rack. I have a couple of these types of shoes categorized by time and surface: the two-hour-on-a-dancefloor-but-stay-away-from-concrete shoes, the-wear-all-day-as-long-as-I-don’t-have-meetings-to-travel-to shoes.

And if experience isn’t enough, the statistics should be. Consider figures that you can find quoted everywhere online that claim one-inch heels can increase the pressure on your feet by about 22 percent, two-inch heels up to 57 percent, and three-inches heels up to 76 percent.

I thought about this earlier this week, when I made a terrible calculation about the extent of required walking for one of my work meetings. With 3.5-inch heels, I ended up joining a meeting that involved walking around for a site assessment. That evening when I did my Ashtanga primary series practice, I had a little muscle spasm when I crossed my feet for bhujapindasana (arm pressure posture).

My favorite pose for relieving pain from high heels is janu sirsasana C. I am in the minority, as far as I can tell. This cartoon seems to reflect how a great many yogis seems to feel about this pose. But there is no other pose I practice in which I feel this level of relief for my feet.

In his book Ashtanga Yoga: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide to Dynamic Yoga, John Scott describes janu C this way:

Correct placement of the heel in this asana is dependent on the range of hip rotation you have and the length of your Achilles tendon, and so it may take time to achieve. Take care with this asana to protect your knee.

For the most part, though, I try to wear supportive shoes. And when I go salsa dancing these days, I bring a long a pair of ballet-flats-to-go that I wear to and from the dance venue.

Will my will power ever overcome my penchant for high heels? Not any time soon. Thank goodness I have yoga to help with all the things I voluntarily unnecessarily do.

© YogaRose.net and Rose Tantraphol, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to YogaRose.net with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

‘A thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day’

Why do yoga? For the health benefits? To try to achieve a particular physique? To escape our daily stresses?

Eddie Stern, who is an author and the director of Ashtanga Yoga New York, wrote this piece last year in the Huffington Post:

While in America there are certainly are many practicing yoga with profound sincerity, it seems as though they are dwarfed by a multi-billion dollar industry that is largely focused on, well, selling stuff that we don’t really need to practice yoga.

Anyway, let it be. That spirit of commercialism and consumerism has helped to make yoga a household word, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. I believe that increased accessibility to yoga is a positive result of yoga’s modernization.

Why do I believe this? Because everyone experiences suffering. Suffering is undiscriminating and it comes to all who live on this planet. Yoga affirms, though, that there is a way to deal with it: by practicing yoga poses, by breathing consciously for a few minutes each day, and by being attentive, thoughtful human beings, we can mitigate the mental torments we all experience.

What I loved about this post in the Huffington Post — one of the most influential blogs out there right now — is that Stern cuts to the chase about what yoga is about to an audience not necessarily primed for it.

During the week-long training I took with David Swenson in 2009, someone asked him what his elevator pitch for Ashtanga yoga is. I thought then and I still think now that it was a good question — because there are inevitably times when talking to someone who is curious about yoga when you can say the right thing to pique their interest enough that they commit to at least try it once.

Yoga as a system is designed to do nothing less than liberate us. By connecting breaths to movement, yoga helps us to focus on our breath and free us from the relentless invasion of thoughts and worries that invade our mind-space — even if that freedom lasts for a few seconds or for a few minutes while we are practicing on our mat.

Moksha is the Sanskrit word for liberation. The entry for “moksha” in B.K.S. Iyengar’s gorgeous, must-read book Light on Life says, “See freedom.”

I love what Iyengar writes in the chapter “Living in Freedom”:

I have suggested that moksha is a thousand little freedoms that we accomplish each day — the ice cream returned to the freezer or the bitter retort left unsaid.

He also later reiterates that moksha is “training in detaching ourselves from the sufferings of everyday life, in a thousand ways.”

I really like that. Maybe I should make that my elevator pitch for what yoga is and why it’s worth practicing.

I have so much more I would say but I am writing blog post on my iPhone while relaxing at the beach. Moksha indeed.

Hope you find your own little freedom on this Independence Day — and every day.

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(Photo credit: By Evaporation Blues)

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