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.

 

Know thyself (bones, muscles, Golgi tendon organ and all)

Via BandhaYoga.com

I spent the weekend in a yoga anatomy workshop that was led by University of Michigan-trained orthopedic surgeon and hatha yoga practitioner Ray Long, MD, and assisted by 3D graphic designer/illustrator Chris Macivor.

It rocked.

In this blog post, I’m going to share a couple nuggets about how yoga students and teachers can approach learning and applying anatomy, and then I’m going to send you over to additional resources from this doctor-designer team.

The more I learn about anatomy, the more I think that one of the most sorely lacking aspects of the American educational system is what we don’t teach our kids about their own bodies. You can’t really fault a society that turns to quick-fixes — pills, surgeries and questionable products hocked on infomercials — if people aren’t taught how to assess the source of their pain and how to further investigate potential fixes.

I’m lucky I found yoga, because I’d probably be in that category of quick-fix seeker. I’ve never so much as taken an anatomy class, and I never did much in my teen and adult years that required truly connecting with my body — I exercised only grudgingly, didn’t do any type of dancing, didn’t play sports, didn’t ski. It wasn’t until I started my yoga teacher training in 2009 that I started to delve into the human form. I got a sweet taste of anatomy during my 200- and 500-hour yoga teacher training programs at Hilltop Yoga, and I deepened my understanding from studying with Tim Miller.

Proprio….neuro…what?

I first heard about the concept of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), or facilitated stretching, in one of Tim’s “Asana Doctor” workshops. (Read about the history of PNF.) PNF, used by physical therapists and other clinicians, can be applied to yoga. Dr. Long’s website describes it this way:

Stretching applies tension to the muscle and its tendon. There is a nerve receptor (the Golgi tendon organ) that is located at the muscle-tendon junction. This receptor senses tension and relays a signal to the spinal cord. The spinal cord then signals the stretching muscle to relax. This reflex arc acts as a protective circuit breaker to prevent the tendon from tearing at its attachment to the bone. Because all skeletal muscles have Golgi tendon organs, this powerful technique can be applied to gain length and dissolve blockages throughout the body in yoga poses. Use it with caution and care.

So basically, PNF uses a primal response — protecting the health of the body — to essentially trick the spinal cord into sending out a “call off the guard dogs” order. Genius.

Here’s more from BandhaYoga.com:

Facilitated stretching involves contracting a muscle that you are lengthening. This increases the tension at the muscle-tendon junction and recruits more Golgi tendon organs than does stretching a muscle alone. Facilitated stretching causes the spinal cord to signal the muscle to relax, in essence, creating ‘slack’ in the muscle. You can then take up the slack to move deeper into the pose.

I’ve seen yoga students who had little mobility in a pose such as utthita hasta padangustasana deepen to an amazing degree using this technique, which essentially involves the student resisting (in this case of utthita hasta padangustasana, the student would have a little pressure applied to the lifted leg) against the instructor for a short amount of time, then release. This would be done a couple more times before the instructor asks the student to try going into the full expression of the posture. 

Over the weekend, Dr. Long used PNF on my supta kurmasana, and it helped me get farther into this pose than I have ever been able to get before — which is especially cool because I find this pose rather frustrating. Finding a way to better connect with the pose is helpful not just for my body, but my mind.

You can apply PNF yourself, by resisting against your own body — so the technique doesn’t depend on you being in a class or a workshop (though I can tell you from experience it is, of course, better with an experienced teacher).

Connecting with your inner anatomist

Both Ray Long and Tim Miller adhere to the principle that it’s more of a service to teach people how to sleuth rather than give them a long list of facts to memorize. Yoga students and teachers need to be able to look at a postural challenge and work backward, then forward again. What is causing this pain/tweak/limitation? How can this be relieved now? How can this be further refined going forward?

Ultimately, though, I think it’s useful for anyone to have a basic understanding of this stuff. After hundreds of hours of studying yoga over the past two years, I still think that sitting — plain old sitting — is one of the hardest poses to maintain. If we all knew just a little bit more about muscle groups and sources of strain and tension, we might be able to make minor adjustments in our daily lives to relieve pain and perhaps even avoid it in the first place.

Some of the nuggets I took away this weekend:

Know what affects mobility
Three factors affect mobility: the shape of the bones involved, the ligaments involved and the muscles involved. You can’t do anything about shape of bone once you’re an adult, and you don’t want to change ligaments. That’s why we focus on muscles.

You don’t have to enroll in med school to get a handle on anatomy
You only need to know about 20 muscle groups. They’re all interrelated and it’s not as complicated as it looks.

Wash, rinse, dry, repeat
When presented with a postural challenge, approach it logically. As an example:

  • Analyze the pose and isolate what’s involved. (What are the joints doing? What the agonist and antagonist muscles doing?)
  • Gain length where you need to gain length and engage the muscle stabilizers.
  • Assess the effects.

Learn more

My suggestion? Check out the “Scientific Keys” section on BandhaYoga.com, pick up Ray Long’s books (available at BandhaYoga.com and through the YogaRose.net Amazon affiliate store) and get to one of these yoga anatomy workshops if you can.

You can learn about anatomy from a book, but I don’t think it will really resonate if you don’t get the chance to devote time during a class or workshop to sleuthing real-live anatomy puzzles. Plus, Ray takes you through a lovely standing posture sequence to awaken the psoas and you get to enjoy a hypnotic savasana. (I can’t help but note that while I was doing the psoas series this weekend — see the sequence here — I thought it was yet another beautiful example of the benefits of the Ashtanga yoga sequence of standing postures.)

If you’re into social media, you can follow Bandha Yoga:

Whether you’re a yogi or not, happy sleuthing!

© 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.

Ashtanga, NY/USA/World on this 9/11 anniversary

I spent the weekend at Seva Yoga in Grand Rapids, Mich., at a yoga anatomy workshop with Dr. Ray Long and Chris Macivor (blog post coming on this outstanding workshop), and then I had to jet back here to Lansing to teach my Ashtanga primary series class, so I missed today’s 9/11 remembrances — from “real-time tweets” to The New York Times’ special The Reckoning edition.

I did manage to catch this blog post by The Confluence Countdown about Ashtanga, NY, a 2003 documentary that was screened at Ashtanga Yoga New York today  in honor of the 10th anniversary of this terrifying and traumatic attack of global citizens on American soil.

That reminded me that I have this DVD, still wrapped, on my shelf. It’s part of a large stack of Ashtanga-related DVDs that I bought earlier this year and have still not yet watched. It features several celebrities — actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Willem Dafoe and Mike D. of the Beatie Boys (shout-out for the latest Beasties album, which is excellent, in my humble opinion) — and author Stefanie Syman, who wrote The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

So, after a late dinner, I remedied this. The 60-minute documentary just ended, and I thought it was very powerful — especially the scene in which, on his last day during his September 2001 visit to New York City, Pattabhi Jois wore an FDNY shirt with his standard teaching shorts.

Steve over at The Confluence Countdown writes this about the documentary:

My understanding of the documentary is that it was intended to follow Guruji’s time spent at the shala; however, as fate would have it, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened during Guruji’s visit. His time in New York, and the documentary, obviously changed.

From my ‘critical’ perspective, that probably compromised the quality of the film as a documentary about Ashtanga and Guruji. But it captured something else and provides one view on New York in the days and weeks immediately after the attacks.

I’ve never met Steve, but I know we agree on a lot of things — starting with the awesomeness of both Tim Miller and the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence. We seem to disagree on this, though. I think the quality of the film as a documentary about Ashtanga and Guruji is strengthened by looking at how 9/11 helped the yoga practitioners who are interviewed realize the impact of the practice on their perspective in life.

If anything, I thought there wasn’t enough about 9/11 in this documentary. What I have been told, for example, is that Pattabhi Jois made what is now considered the traditional closing prayer part of the practice after the 9/11 attacks. Is this true? I’d certainly like to know. If it is, I think it speaks to how Ashtanga — often viewed as an unchanging practice — changes in important ways to reflect collective human events. If it’s not true — well, the fact that this is the story I’ve heard could reflect how much people need to find meaning in changes to the Ashtanga yoga system.

More than anything, though, I think the 9/11 inclusion in this documentary speaks to how this practice goes beyond one man or one family. It goes beyond being a deeply personal practice for celebrities who live in a particular city and millions of people around the world. This practice is ultimately about healing — whether it’s on an individual or community level.

Have you seen it? What do you think? I’m sure Steve and I would like a tiebreaker here. :) Haven’t seen it? If you have Netflix, you can watch it without buying it. You can also buy it. Watch it, then share your thoughts.

(P.S. — If you watch it, check out the outtakes special feature. It’s pretty funny if you’re an Ashtanga geek (think Mike D. answering a question about what Guruji would say about shouting into a microphone without doing ujjayi breath). It’s also a great reminder that ashtangis are pretty good about poking a little fun at themselves — it’s an important part of keeping what is literally for some practitioners a life-saving practice fun and light when it needs to be.)

© 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 human body as a metro-styled map (aka, one way to imagine the chakra system)

Check out this world map that’s been brilliantly reenvisioned by Spanish artist Michael Tompsett as a metro-style map. I first saw this image yesterday on Melaz Cosmo’s Tumblr, and fell in love immediately. You can purchase this print as a canvas, as shown above, or as a print. Subway maps are some of my favorite things to collect when I travel, and my boyfriend and I recently picked up this gorgeous book called Transit Maps of the World that gives us all these amazing maps in one place. We only half joke when we say we’re going to start choosing our next vacations based on how inspired a city’s metro map looks. (The single craziest metro map I’ve seen so far, by the way, is Tokyo’s. Wow.)

This reimagining of a world map sparked a thought about the process of reimagination in general — a thought that ultimately led to how the practice of yoga can help us reimagine our body, mind and spirit. In the same way that a typical world map gives us continent outlines and maybe some topography, we as human beings tend to view our body the way we see it in a photograph: made up of the outlines created by the architecture that is our skeleton, flesh, skin.

But a yoga practice is designed to send our awareness inward — inward even to the level of energy centers called chakras that we can’t see, touch or even really scientifically prove exist. The current Wikipedia entry on chakras offers a decent overview:

Chakra is a concept referring to wheel-like vortices which, according to traditional Indian medicine, are believed to exist in the surface of the etheric double of man. The Chakras are said to be “force centers” or whorls of energy permeating, from a point on the physical body, the layers of the subtle bodies in an ever-increasing fan-shaped formation. Rotating vortices of subtlematter, they are considered the focal points for the reception and transmission of energies.Different systems posit a varying number of chakras; the most well known system in the West is that of seven chakras.

Chakras aren’t something you will ever find during a cadaver dissection. If you find the whole concept of chakras to be foreign and undigestible, it’s not my intention in this blog to bring you around on chakras (although I feel compelled to say I know scientists who practice yoga who find the chakra system to be a very useful way of imagining and experiencing their own body and spirit).

What I wanted to share in this blog post is my feeling that putting the metro-style world map above next to a more traditional world map could be one way to try to understand — if you’re open to the idea — how chakras can be imagined next to the more traditional western view of the human body. Rather than look at the external outlines of a body, you can consider the energetic stops along a human being’s route of existence.

The rough idea is that the first chakra, the root chakra located at the base of the spine, is the energy center that grounds us and the seventh one, located at the crown, is our space of liberation through its connection to whatever you want to describe as divine intelligence. In between, you have chakras where emotion, will, love, communication and intuition are based.

I had to read Wheels of Life as part of the 200-hour yoga teacher training I took through Hilltop Yoga in mid-Michigan. There were aspects of this book that were, admittedly, too far into the New Age realm for me to be comfortable. But there were aspects of the book that I really enjoyed exploring — such as the idea that we can try to see which chakra is dominant in our own personality, and in the personality of our signifiant other or love interest. Using the imagery of how chakras interact as a way to map out the dynamics of a relationship is fascinating to me, and I think it can be a helpful way of viewing struggling relationships.

Dr. Ray Long, a University of Michigan-educated orthopedic surgeon whose books include one on my bookshelf that I love referring to — The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Vol. 1 —  offers anatomic breakdowns that show which chakras is most relevant to a particular muscle action and posture. (In case you’re interested, Dr. Long is coming to Michigan twice in 2011 — for more see my one-tank-of-gas workshop page.)

Whether you find any value to thinking about the chakra system, I think it’s safe to say that those willing to commit to a solid yoga practice has a far better map to the body, mind and spirit than they would have ever had if they had never stepped aboard that yoga train.

(Image credits: Map via http://www.imagekind.comChakras via Joelstuff V3’s Flickr photostream, licensed through Flickr Creative Commons.) 

© 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.