A beginner’s mind

Last night, I took a class in the viniyoga tradition for the first time. Tonight, I taught the first session of my new three-session introductory workshop to Ashtanga yoga. Both were absolutely lovely experiences for me, and the juxtaposition of the two evenings has me thinking about the beginner’s mind.

The student side

Since discovering Ashtanga yoga a dozen years or so ago, this style of yoga has been my first and true love. It still is — I mean, every time I attend an Ashtanga workshop that allows for deeply exploring the practice from a slightly different angle than I do day to day, I feel almost giddy all over again at what a brilliantly designed method this is and how much I simply love it. But a Yoga International article by Gary Kraftsow that I read over the Thanksgiving holiday last year had me intrigued by viniyoga — in particular its potential as a healing modality — and I learned that someone here in the greater Lansing area has extensive training with Kraftsow. I normally can’t make the time of Kathy Ornish‘s class (that’s what you get for teaching so many yoga classes), but the time happens to work for the next three weeks, so I asked if I could drop in to the series. Happily, she said yes.

It takes a lot of letting go to put aside what you know (or at least what you think you know) and try to fully experience a new style of yoga. What I try to do is listen to a teacher’s instructors and bring in as little of my own experience as possible. It’s impossible to not bring in anything, of course, but I try to stay focused on the very specific instruction and take the words at face value, to the extent that’s possible. So if I’m in a class and I’m asked to feel my spinal movements in cakravakasana, I try to stay within my breath, bones, flesh and joints, focusing on feeling just the effects of the specific instructions rather than channel what years of yoga has taught me about how to breathe, move and hold.

The teaching side

When I teach introductory classes — something I am always grateful for the opportunity to do — I try to work backwards. In these instances, I channel all the amazing teachers I’ve had over the years — I’ve been very lucky that way and have had outstanding instructors — and try to distill the lessons I’ve taken from them. I then construct a set of modules — maybe it’s a set of breathing techniques — that builds, and, I hope, takes someone from square one to that insight that has done so much for me.

Are you getting through? Is it working? It can be hard to tell at first. You have to really try to read the room, stay flexible so that you can change course on a dime if it’s not, and have faith that the power of the method will ultimately radiate out and seep into the consciousness of the students who are in that room in the first place because they are open-minded enough to want to be there.

I’ve long had such deep respect for what language teachers know about what their students know — from straight-up vocabulary words to how much of the structure of the language their students have a handle on. I figure you need at least a few key things to be able to do this effectively — you need to be able to start where the student is and build from there, you need to truly love the subject you’re trying to convey, and you need the humility to carry out the task. That combination of passion and humility provides some important motivation to make second-by-second calculations on what you need to say and do next to even begin to do justice to such an impossibly brilliant system.

I’d write more, but it’s late — past midnight, which means the practice in the morning will be a bit rough (more on how the six-day-a-week practice is going in an upcoming blog post, but the short answer is, thankfully, pretty good!). In any case, I’m really looking forward to being a student again next Tuesday evening with K.O. of Good Space Yoga (located at the Center for Yoga in East Lansing), followed the next evening by the chance to share the second session of this three-week introductory workshop at Sanctuary Yoga in Okemos.

I guess it boils down to this: I’m a student in both cases, a student when I’m learning, and a student even — especially — when I’m occupying the role of an instructor.

I would love to hear your thoughts on attaining/re-attaining/maintaining (however you view it) a beginner’s mind.

(Graphic credit: The Quote Series: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few (Shunryu Suzuki) via VeRoNiK@ GR‘s Flickr.)

© 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.

 

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.