The other day I went out to walk my dog around the neighborhood, as I am wont to do. It being early April the signs of incipient spring were very apparent: crocuses, buds, warmer air, the last piles of snow under the shrubberies gone, landscaping trucks dotting the roads, and more people out walking. One of the nice things about walking is not just where the legs take you, but where the mind goes. In this case I was thinking about my college days at a school in a highly urban environment, and the prodigious amount of walking I did. Curious about what more than 30 years, decades of which I have lived in the suburbs with a car have done to my walking habits, and thinking I might like to get some baseline data to possibly try increasing what I suspect is less than ideal, I attached a pedometer to my waistband and took a look at where I was.
I seem to be averaging about 4,000 steps. This does not include time teaching or doing yoga or other classes. It could be worse, but I definitely could be doing more. I used to write papers in my head while walking in and out through the city. I found the exercise seemed to help me focus and understand the material better. (Which was good because Wittgenstein and Kant are challenging to wrap yourself around even at your most highly caffeinated)
However, I was remembering a study about walking and the Amish from the ACSM, some years ago. I looked it up and discovered in this study they found the men averaged over 14,000 and the men over 18,000 steps per day. One of the interesting things about the Amish that the study looked at is that in spite of a diet extremely high in gravy, carbs, meat, and desserts only 4% of the Amish were obese. While I think few people in modern society are going to spend the day ploughing the fields, and shooing our own horses, we clearly have come a long way from how we lived three hundred years ago. I think it unlikely I am going to get near 14,000 steps, for one thing, this does not include the time I am teaching.
Remember the old commercial with the person who slaps the side of their own head and says “I could have had a V8!”. Could it be as simple as this, just tell people to walk more steps, increase activity, and they will all loose weight, get more fit, and have less lifestyle related ailments? Pretty simplistic. And it hasn't worked so far.
The other thing that struck me on rereading this study is to wonder if it is a straightforward question of 'they eat more, but exercise more', but something about the diet that matters. They are eating gravy.... but it is homemade. They are eating pies... but they are not filled with artificial ingredients. I am thinking about the research I was just reading someone is doing on diet and motivation. They were finding that rats fed on junk food were much less motivated to work hard on various tasks. Add that to the growing body of research on the variety of ways eating processed food makes it more likely to gain weight and harder to loose it once it is gained. If it carries with it the bonus of making us less able to fight against it once we've eaten in well, as my mom used to say “good gravy”.
I am thinking about a recent article in the fitness professional journal Idea Today. It was on the association of diet and stress. Clearly in addition to what we eat, and how much activity we do, we need to manage our stress. One answer to that is to do activities like yoga that provide tools to manage stress. But there is something beyond this we need to think about.
People in the fitness industry spend a lot of time thinking about how to make people more fit. One thing, though, is that a lot of the conversations are about using two tools: education and motivation. The thing is, that is like pulling out a hammer and a level and trying to build a bookshelf. Both of those tools are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Yes, we need to address activity, nutrition, and stress management. But we need people to be able to use these tools.
I can provide a student or client with information about walking. I can teach them about target heart rate, about stretching, about warm ups, about how to prepare for different types of weather and physical conditions. I can send them posters with a big eyed dog holding a leash with the caption “Think of him as an exercise machine with legs”, or pictures of sunrises with short statements about believing in yourself. I can take measurements and data, and provide lots of carrots and sticks. But what if that person lives in a place where it is dangerous to walk the streets? What if they are a single parent with two jobs, and an elderly parent with alzheimer's who needs care and attention? What if they cannot afford personal training, or passes for yoga?
I can tell them how wonderful it is to eat organic. To make their own food, and, like the Amish, avoid processed junk. But what if they live in a neighborhood without a grocery, and they are walking to the corner store where the only fruit is very expensive and low quality? What if they cannot afford to pay for organic? What if everyone around them eats fast food?
Education and motivation are important, but equally important are addressing the social barriers to health and fitness. Of course, doing these things take time, and do not tend to bring in much money, so what is wonderful is how many people in the industry serve as well as market. Some outreach is an extension of what we do best: educate and motivate. I have a friend who took a job with social services, to bring yoga to the homes of people who would not otherwise have had it. I know a couple of people who have worked with prison populations. Most of us do something. Most of the yoga studios I know offer 'community' classes for free or small donations. Many of us choose to teach at places that offer financial aid for families that otherwise would never be able to afford these services.
These acts of karma (as we say in yoga) are important, but by themselves are not enough. Imagine a giant hole, with people on one side putting in handfulls of pebbles, and on the other side a flow of mud eroding the hole ever bigger. What we need are both as many people as possible putting in pebbles, but also tools that will make it easier to get a lot of pebbles in at once. We need organizations like the Y, or the JCC opening safe community centers for youth to meet and exercise in urban centers. We need organizations like meals on wheels, and local senior centers to provide opportunity for decent meals, silver sneakers classes, and social engagement. We need physicians like a friend of ours who travels regularly to Guatamala to provide basic medical services to those who would otherwise never have it. We need Habitat for Humanity providing decent housing where the kids can ride their bikes, and play outside. We need grocery stores to serve those neighborhoods where people most need them, and not just those where they make the greatest profits. We need farmers to partner with our schools to build vegetable gardens, to teach the young so they can grow their own healthy foods... even a few herbs in a window box... and supplement the school lunches. We need to fund research that will promote our understanding of health and fitness, and motivation, and addiction and recovery. I read something recently about a company that is creating a coating for walking paths that reflects lights, thus making safer paths and reducing light pollution (http://www.gizmag.com/pathway-sprayon-coating/29468/) We need to spend the time to educate ourselves on how our government works and put people in that government who will spend our tax money and use our resources to promote policies that work to our greater health and fitness. Most of all we need to remember what Marley said in 'A Christmas Carol'; “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
I normally post once a week as I like to mull things over and do not want to post just to increase the total number of words I churn out. However, this is something I really wanted to share. I just watched a segment of the Dave Rubin Report. He was talking about some additives in commercial food, and I was so surprised (and I do not surprise easily about what big food will do) I had to look for some other sources.
One of the additives is L-Cysteine. It is used for a number of things, but in the food industry it is used as a reducing agent: making it easier and faster to mix and proof dough. It is apparently in a lot of things. The source of much of the L-Cysteine used commercially is human hair (mostly from China) and duck feathers.
One is dimethlypolysiloxane. In food it is used as an emulsifier, and an anti foaming and anti caking agent. It allows oil to be used longer for deep fat frying. What is surprising to me is that in addition to things like MacDonald's fries, and Chick Fil a sandwiches it is in things like Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper. It is a silicone and is also used in things like silly putty and breast implants.
The final one he mentioned is castoreum. It is actually not used a lot, but I personally wish it were not used at all unless it were labelled. It can be used to flavor things primarily that are meant to have a vanilla flavor, although also strawberry or raspberry. The interesting thing that I did not know is that it can be labelled as 'natural flavoring', as it is not made in a lab. It is naturally made from an anal scent gland of a beaver. Makes one wonder what other 'natural' flavors are hiding under cover of that general designation.
While in theory I am in favor of using the entirety of an animal if one chooses to eat said animal, I think if one wants a nice vanilla it should not be anal glad juice pretending to be vanilla.
If you go to a doctor you know a few things about their background: they have a college degree, an advanced degree, have passed exams both oral and written to be licensed, have a number of years of training beyond their medical school, (first an internship and then residency... which differ... a surgeon may be a resident seven years, a dermatologist two or three), and that after their training they will be required to re license and take continuing education as long as they practice.
There are quite a number of professionals with whom one may work in fitness, and the scope of practice (what services and information they should be giving you based on their training), as well as the training and licensure differ greatly for different types of fitness professionals.
You can think of fitness as an adjunct of your basic health care. One form of health care is treatment oriented: you get sick, or have a condition, and you see a physician, who either offers treatment or refers you to a specialist (another physician or even a physical therapist, or other health care provider). Another form is preventative: you see your physician regularly and receive information and referrals to maintain health, rather than to cure disease. Some people do not start with a GP (general practitioner physician), but with a nurse practitioner, or a Naturopath, or some other alternative. But whatever it is that person is kind of the person at the door who helps direct you to the path you need. There are quite a lot of professionals involved in the 'health care' (both curative and preventative) to which at one time or another you may go: physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, rehab specialists, psychotherapists, behavioral therapists, addiction specialists.... etc.
Within the area of fitness there are also a ton of different kinds of professionals, and a fair amount of overlap of scope of practice.
I am a yoga teacher. I teach yoga. I do this in groups large and small, and with individuals. I do not have a specialty certification for yoga with kids, so I do not teach those classes. Some yoga teachers have special training with yoga therapy, to work with people with specific injuries or conditions. Most yoga teachers will have a designation on the Yoga Alliance: an ERYT 500 will be highly trained and have taught several thousand hours, an RYT 200 will be registered and have completed a 200 hour training program, for example. There are some very senior teachers who will not have an Alliance status. I know of one teacher who trained with legendary teachers in India decades ago and does not have Alliance status. But for most teachers this is a way to tell you have a teacher with a basic amount of training. Yoga is not regulated in the way that, say, massage therapy is, so this self regulation is very helpful.
Yoga is one of the mind body disciplines. These are disciplines that stress the connections of mental and physical functioning. Those who train in, and teach yoga also often work with yoga based or other meditation techniques, relaxation training, and stress management.
I used to be a personal trainer. The scope of practice for a trainer is all forms of physical exercise. Some trainers have additional training in senior fitness, or children's fitness, or sport conditioning, or post rehab, etc. They can generally do fitness testing and assessment, create fitness programs, and work individually with you on those programs.
For that I carried a special certification which required extensive study. There is a thing like the Alliance that began recently to try to be a clearing house for trainer certifications. It is really necessary. In years gone by a trainer often was someone who worked out at the gym and had a 'good body' and would get hired to help others 'pump up'. These days most trainers have a certification and many have a degree in a fitness related field. But certifications vary, so it is helpful to know which are nationally recognized. There is a big difference between hiring someone who did an online open book test where they could look up the answers, and someone who has had a proctored exam (someone watching and timing the test). And trainers are not really regulated either, so there is an element of caveat emptor. Look for a NCCA accredited certification (I know, I know, before the AFAA people write in, that does not have NCCA but is respected), ACE, ACSM, and NASM are some of the best known.
What I am not is a nutritionist. A nutritionist has a degree in nutrition, and is licensed. A nutritionist can assess diet, provide meal plans, and so on. This is similar to stress management and yoga. I am not a therapist. I do not do therapy. I do however, understand the principles and practices of the discipline of yoga as they relate to stress release, and mindfulness.
Nutritional counselling is a hot topic right now. As fitness professionals of all types, and personal trainers in particular, have become more educated, and research driven, there has come the realization that exercise is only part of the equation. Without addressing the 'what goes in' part of the equation the 'what gets used' part of the equation will not lead fully to a healthful or fit place. This could have led personal trainers to go back to school en masse for degrees in nutrition, or could have led to trainers and nutritionists creating webs of aligned services. Some of this has happened. But what has also happened is that some trainers are pushing the boundaries of their scope of practice in some cases. A trainer generally has to have some familiarity with fitness nutrition to be certified. However, while a trainer can provide basic information of the place of food in the equation, they may not make meal plans for you. And selling supplements without a nutritional or medical background is not ideal.
We are also seeing a new category of fitness professional: the life coach. The life coach should have a broader mission than the trainer, and in addition to a trainers background, additional training in nutrition, motivation, stress management, and so on. This is a way to recognize how helpful it is to work with one person who has an understanding of a multiplicity of aspects of wellness. If you hire a life coach do be aware that it is a relatively new category, and as usual, look for a nationally recognized organization for certification, and also for whatever other trainings, skills, and certifications the person may have.
There are a lot of other types of professionals one may work with in fitness/health. My favorite is the massage therapist. But you might work with a person trained in Ayurveda, or Pilates, or Zumba, or other types of group exercise, or MELT (myofascial release), or a coach for a particular sport..... When you work with someone in the field the basic questions you would ask remain the same: what certification do you have? Is it nationally recognized and/or NCCA accredited? How long have you been teaching/training? Do you have a degree that relates to your field? If the field requires are you properly licensed? What services do you offer (and do they fall into their appropriate scope of practice).
The range of what members of the community of fitness professionals have to offer is as varied as is the community they serve. Even within categories there is a huge range of background and training. One trainer to another, one nutritionist to another, one yoga teacher to another, can be as different in their approach as a trainer to a yoga teacher, or a massage therapist to an occupational therapist. Every time I get to work with someone new I feel like I learn so much. But I always try to work with those whose commitment to their field and to their clients is expressed in their commitment to their training and study.
Leg Series is a set of postures I developed as a very gentle way to stretch the legs and hips. I particularly like to use it myself after I have been travelling and sitting a lot, or at the end of a long day. It is gentle enough that it works for most students.
Those for whom this would not be appropriate would include anyone who should not lie on their back for an extended time or anyone who should not do deep stretching for any reason. There are some cases where one should not do yoga, or not do forward bends.... It is important to check with your physician or other health care provider to make sure your practice nourishes you, rather than making an underlying problem worse.
Anyone who is beginning a new form of exercise, or is beginning to exercise generally should consult their health care professional before starting. Our bodies are a combination of a uniuqe life history and unique genetics. Understanding our injuries, limitations, strengths, and structural nuances can make our exercise (and our yoga practice) both more effective and safer.
I generally recommend holding each posture for about 6 breaths, though it will not be a problem if you prefer to do it as a flow, with a single breath for each place, or hold it even double that many breaths. Allow your body's needs and kinesthetic feedback to guide you.
I generally count a breath as about a slow 4 count in, and a slow 5 count out. However it can be a bit less or a bit more. The inhale should not be so deep it is uncomfortable, and the exhale (for this series) should be slightly longer than the inhale.
A strap can be very helpful. If you can bind the foot, by holding it you will have more control in the posture, and your body will be less inclined to tense up as a self protective measure against going too far into the stretch. I recommend not looping it too tightly around the foot, not pulling on the strap too tightly, or holding too tightly. You want to feel a good stretch, but not go to pain (pain is your friend and will tell you where not to walk), and not go to where you start to hold your breath with effort. I also suggest placing the strap over the ball of the foot, and not over the instep.
Other props are equally useful. A folded blanket, or bolster, or block can support a body part that is too tight to go fully into a position.
I strongly suggest not seeing these postures as necessary to reach endpoints, but as a signal fo the direction into which one is to stretch. How far you go is less important that what you feel as you move in that direction.
I believe the BEST way to begin to practice is with a teacher. The interaction of their feedback with your movement can really help you begin to understand, and find a path that works for you. But for those who cannot always get to a class, or who have developed a strong personal practice these sort of suggested sequences can sometimes offer new ways of thinking about how to do things. I tend to do this a lot in the winter when people are going to go on vacation, or get very busy, and I am hopeful my students will remember enough of it that they can do a bit at the end of a long day and at least be able to keep their practice going that way. A teacher of mine once said 'a posture is a practice'. I really like that. It reminds me that even when busy I can slow my breath, put my awareness into the lift of my breastbone, and the release of my shoulders, and in that moment I am back on my mat.
This is a bit of an experiment: I am not great with technology, so I am attempting to add a scan. I hope you can all read it, and if not I apologize, and just send me an email and I will send you the series that way.
With any posture in yoga there are two questions: How to do it safely and effectively, but also Why to do it at all. When I was very young and trying out yoga poses I saw on Lilias, or in books and so on, I would see a cool looking pose and try to mimic it. It was all about the pose. But when you do that you start to realize that some poses feel good, and that they might feel good at particular times of the day, or after other activities. That is why I tell my students “Think of the posture as a tool, rather than as a goal”. You would not use a hammer when you need to saw wood. Of course once you identify what you want to do and what tool you need to do it, you need to know how to use the tool effectively and safely. Effectively means that you will be able to hammer in the nail you want in the place you want it, and safely means not banging your thumb.
However, just having a list of problems and projects and tools is not going to be enough. Because (I believe) in its essence yoga is about balancing opposite pulls. So the tool analogy is not enough. Sometimes I talk about the squishy toys (my kids used to love those): push hard enough on one part and the fluid bulges into another part. Push really hard and the toy will break. This is why in all physical disciplines you hear about the kinetic chain. That is the old “the shin bone is connected to the knee bone” thing. What you do in one area will flow outward into other parts of the system, and without working with synergistic pulls you can create imbalance. For instance if you do half an hour of bench pressing 3 days a week for a year, and never do any sort of back work you will have a muscular chest, but a very rounded back.
To see what you need to create balance you need connection. And I prefer the word connection to control (apologies to Joseph Pilates), as to me the word control suggests that the thing controlling is somehow outside of the system. We connect the understanding with the tools and implement their use in a balanced way.
To see what benefits might accrue from backbends (and particularly cobra), as well as to see how it must be balanced, and how to do it safely and effectively it is important first to think about some anatomy. (Is she finally going to talk about cobra? My goodness, how much context do you need?)
I did a whole blog a while back on the spine and spinal twists, so I will suggest reading that if you want more depth.
The spine sits between the shoulders and the hips. There are 33 vertebrae, with 5 sections. The sections are defined by, among other things, a set of balanced curves. The first curve is inward at the neck (cervical). The second is outward at the upper back (thoracic), the third is inward at the low back (lunbar), and the last two follow the lumbar curve, but have little movement (sacral and coccygeal). Each vertebrae is shaped and sized differently, with each of the 5 areas being similar (and yes, the top two are quite different... they are shaped to help rotate the head, so put them aside for the moment). Generally (except at the top and bottom) the vertebrae look like misshapen doughnuts. On the back half of the doughnut are various bony projections that allow complex attachments to each other, and to supporting muscles. The front half is more smooth, and above and below attaches to the next vertebrae in line with a soft disc between. In the center of the doughnut is a hole, each of the holes stack over the next, and the spinal column runs down through this hole. In front and behind the spine there are ligaments, holding the system together, and lots and lots of muscles that contract to provide multiplicity of movement: from belly dancing to building sand castles to rock climbing.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when tackling back bends:
It is important to lengthen and create space before actually bending.
Gravity and body weight push down on the spine. This pressure is greater in the lower vertebrae than the higher. That is one reason the lower vertebrae are bigger and heavier. (And certain positions will put more pressure on the lumbar area. Sitting puts more pressure than does standing, and sitting and bending forward puts the most. Back bends actually help balance the strain of such forward bends)
Interestingly, with age the blood vessels no longer directly provide nourishment to the discs. So backbending and twisting become extremely important in pushing fluid around and hydrating the discs. When the discs are hydrated they keep the bones from sitting too close together and so promote movement. And help avoid the loss of height you see so much with age. Something like 25% of the length of the spine is in the discs.
It is important to balance strength with flexibility; in particular it is important to engage the core.
While the rib cage helps keep the thoracic spine stable, the lumbar spine has no such help. It is the strength of the core muscles that helps stabilize this part of the spine. That ligament on the front of the spine will help keep the vertebrae from sliding on each other, but intra abdominal contraction helps to avoid over stretching at that area.
Do not forget to think about the shoulders and hips in any back bend.
The spine may be flexible or not, but it is attached at top to shoulders and at bottom to pelvis and if those areas are tight or unbalanced the spine will tend to go out of balance to try to compensate (like a functional scoliosis developing in response to one hip being pushed up.
It is also helpful to do range of motion exercises to prepare for deeper holds. Vinyasa can be very helpful here, as is the viniyoga technique of coming into a held position and moving in and out of a range of motion to create fluidity in tight spaces
More is not always better.
I always ask my students: Do you want to be on the cover of a yoga magazine, or an olympic gymnist, or do you want to enhance your OWN health and well being?
While the sternum and ribs stabalize the vertebrae if you push too far here the vertebrae can rotate slightly, and as they are attached to the ribs the ribs will also and that will be rather uncomfortable, and possibly not healthy, given that in front the ribs are protecting the heart and other internal organs.
Certain areas of the spine have more movement (such as T11 and 12, or L5 S1 where most of the lumber bend is generated). Too much lift will tend to go to those areas where the movement is greatest, and too much movement can overstretch the ligament, or push the disc place. Getting the soft center of the disc herniated or pushed into the nerves running down the back is not something you want to do.
Use the whole system.
The natural range of motion may be different in different parts of the spine, but if you engage a small amount at each place you will open the whole system more, and avoid over stressing the more fluid places.
Be aware of the neck.
Doing jalandhara bandha is helpful to take pressure from C7 T1 where the spinal curve shifts. Flex the neck slightly first, and then draw the chin slightly up.
Beware of tingling and numbness.
These are signs of nerve compression. If you feel these remember that pain is your friend, and it is warning you not to take this road farther. Please do contact a health care provider if you experience either of these things.
So why do we practice back bends?
To balance our forward bends
To stretch the spinal flexors
To hydrate the spinal discs and promote fluidity of movement through life
To strengthen the muscles of the back, shoulders and seat
And one last thing of note: while forward bends are associated more with parasympathetic nervous excitation (i.e. they promote relaxation), back bends are associated with sympathetic excitation. When feeling sluggish and tired and unfocused, backbends can be very helpful. BKS Iyanger actually recommended them to fight depression. While I think we need a lot more research to delineate and quantify such an association, there is a good bit of research out there to suggest the strong benefits for mood and quality of life from yoga practice. And, if done safely the side effects are pretty much all positive.
There is a lot of specialization in exercise classes. Sometimes the specialization is in what effect one wants: cardio for strengthening the heart, weight training for strengthening the musculoskeletal system, core for, well, the core, and so on. Sometimes it is in style: zumba and spin both are cardiovascular (though of course with strengthening and sculpting effects), but quite different in style. Sometimes it is in target population: zumba gold targets an older exerciser, as does fit for life, though the music and movements will be different. And lots of classes are based on specific needs of a target audience: children, teens, developmentally disabled, breast cancer survivors, those in wheel chairs, etc. Teachers are always stretching their creativity, and offering 'branded' workouts with unique slants.
In yoga you see the same thing. Of course, in yoga 'brands' are 'lineages', many of which have stood the test of decades: think Iyengar, or Kripalu. There are choices of heated or non heated, vinyasa or non vinyasa, yin or non yin. Chair yoga is popular, as is yoga specifically designed for children, or teens, or any of the same categories you might make any physical movement class to reach. After all, the shared variable is the human form, and a shared variety of human experiences.
Is it better to take a specialized class, or to take a general one?
My students will laugh now, as my answer will be, as it usually is, 'It depends'. Generally speaking, I would say that they are not mutually exclusive, and that you will get something out of both.
Why take a specialized class?
If one is generally health and of reasonable fitness, and lives in an area with many available classes, and is financially able to take classes without hardship, specialized classes can offer depth and variety. Some people will find they gravitate toward a super hot environment, or a flow class, or lots of inversions, or whatever it is. I would suggest if possible take some time to try different styles and studios and teachers. Remember there is as much variation between teachers as there is between styles. And if in the end it is clear a particular style is right, one will have chosen with the knowledge that they have tried other paths and this one works. For this person the specialized class offers the opportunity to dig deep within a particular lineage or style.
In terms of classes developed for people of a certain age or condition, there are also benefits. I trained in a style called 'Mega Yoga' developed for larger bodied people. There are some specific techniques for moving flesh folds to allow depth of movement without loss of breath, or ways of supporting the body to alleviate stress on knee joints, for example. In a general class these specific techniqes are difficult to present in depth for one or tow people. And there is the camraderie is see in the senior center classes I sometimes teach. To be with a group of people who have shared experiences, and who may have similar needs (like too loud music makes it hard to pay attention to the teacher speaking) can both increase the sense of belonging, and enhance the learning experience. The same is true with pregnancy classes. There are issues that can be discussed at length in a class with a group for whom those issues are currently relevant and interesting.
Actually, just as much as a group class, I think a person can learn a lot by doing some individual work with a teacher or trainer. This is again, not instead of, but in addition to. Even if there are no injuries, or conditions, or needs.... every person is like a blank book in which a unique story is being written. Having someone read it with you can sometimes provide insight that can deepen your own understanding of what you will be writing your whole life.
So what is the point of the general class? Is it just for the reasonably fit person in middle life, with no other needs? Actually I think everyone in a multi level class benefits when the class level varies.
First, for the person who does not have special concerns, having others in the class who do offers the opportunity to try the 'path less travelled'. If I as a teacher show someone a different way to hold the shoulders, or a new way to take a spinal twist because a student has a limitation or condition making the way I would usually teach it difficult, everyone in the class can see and try it. This happened last week, and I found half the class using the modification, and could see them looking at each other with 'wow, this is really great' all over their faces. Without the person with the need, we probably would not have gone in that direction.
Second, for all of us it offers the opportunity to learn about, support, and connect to those who are not mirrors of ourselves. I see no reason why the only people who would be expected to be supportive of someone who is in some specific group. Karma yoga teaches us that, as Marley's ghost said in A Christmas Carol “Mankind was my business”. The lines of energy in yoga run deep into self understanding and self study, but equally far out into our world.
Third, for those with a specific need, it can be a great way to practice self study. When I was a couple of weeks post partum from first son, a yoga event occurred for which I had waited over a year. Beryl Birch came to our area for a workshop. I knew I would not be doing all that I could at my prime. Being able to be with a group and not do everything, and listen and modify, and pull back when necessary is not always easy. The breathtaking beauty of her practice made me want to fly. But it provided a chance to practice something even more difficult for an (then, more so) athletic person surrounded by her peers.... letting go of fear of judgement, letting go of self judgement, and being in the moment.
Every time I step on the mat to teach I have such a sense of gratitude for my students. I know there are those with scars on their hearts, and scars on their knees, everyone so different, and each so interesting, and wonderful. In the end, what practice you choose matters, in that it provides a path, but also does not matter, as it is the accepting of the practice that makes the difference. If Krishnamurti is right that truth is a pathless land, what really matters is getting up and going, not the how you do it.
Today you can download apps with yoga postures, or whole flows. You can subscribe to videotaped practices that teachers create with iphones and upload to their personal web pages. You can scroll through thousands of you tube clips, or subscribe to whole channels. You can get podcasts. You can get it on facebook. You can get yoga on your laptop, your ipod, your ipad, your smartphone, or your game console (think wii). And yes, you can still buy yoga DVDs, and books (and decks of practice cards, and calendars, etc...)
Forty years ago you would have had choices if you were not able to make the trip to India to spend months or years with one of the master teachers. There was yoga on TV; but you would have to watch it when it was actually being broadcast. And it was a few teachers, rather than thousands. I can remember doing yoga watching Lilias on a tiny fuzzy black and white TV. Now you can get her on you tube and facebook, and lots of other ways.
I think you know where this is likely to go. I am going to say that all these ways to commoditize and share yoga are fine, but that they do not replace fully the experience of working directly with a teacher. And, yes, that is true. Just as reading a wikipedia entry on intestinal parasites does not stand in for a diagnosis with a doctor actually examining you, a teacher can see where your form is off, and help you align, can see where you are holding tension, and help you learn to release. I find I may have an idea of how a class might go, but that always flows the second I step to my mat and feel the energy of those in front of me; see what they need. More than that, yoga done alone in front of a screen closes off the human interaction piece, and therefore sacrifices one of the dimensions of our human condition. And yoga at its core is about binding together those parts.
I do not mean that a solitary practice is bad. I would hope many of my students practice on their own. There is a lot to be learned there, including the focus to make such a practice happen, and the ability to flow without external direction. But it is like climbing to one level of an observation tower. You may see a great distance more than from the ground, but without climbing the next level it is hard to realize how much more there is to see.
However. And there is a however. Not to use the new and exciting ways of exploring yoga is to cut yourself off from a lot of the view as well. As though you had new areas of that observation deck built, but you boarded them up and said “this is a great view, so I will keep climbing only on this side, rather than walk around and explore”. All these digitized bits of yoga allow you to experience great teachers without making those long travels. As a youth with few economic resources my understanding of yoga would not have been able to grow without Lilias and my public library. Imagine someone living in a rural area without the corner yoga studio. Imagine the person for whom buying a class pass is an economic hardship, or who works so many hours it is hard to get to one when they are open, or has no good transportation. Modern technology offers a chance for the love, and compassion, and physical well being that are at the heart of a yoga practice.
All of this digital matter is very new, but the road to open access to such ideas and options was paved a long time ago. Today we can compare a time when we looked up phone numbers in the yellow pages, got news from a couple of papers, and three news stations, and bought books from a book store. The changes brought through the explosion of technology and the ways in which we connect has truly rewritten the methods of culture. But before the internet even a not very well off youth could go to the library and borrow a book for free, and read the newspaper while there. In the mid 1400s in Europe a middle class German from Mainz invented something that would shift the way people get and share information in ways that shifted the course of culture as profoundly as the invention of the internet. Gutenberg and his movable type paved the way for information and learning to be mass produced and shared among more than just the wealthy. Hand illuminated bound volumes found in museums today are often breathtakingly beautiful. They also could take years of work, that ended up asa single book in the hands of one person rich enough to pay for it. The printing press meant knowledge, and therefore power, could be for all.
This transition is apparent in the world of yoga. Once the great works of the masters could be printed and read widely, those ideas could spread beyond the few who were able to sit at their feet, even beyond the lands of their beginning. The publication of “Autobiography of a Yogi” was as important as the author's tours abroad. This explosion of shared information includes everything from very arcane texts, to the kind of thing both western and Indian youth might order from the back of a magazine picturing a well defined physique, and giving instructions for transforming oneself from the '90 pound weakling'.
“Well”, you might counter to me, “All very interesting”, but how do I use this explosion to further my yoga?” I think, generally I would suggest you pay more attention to the message than the medium. Pick a teacher who really speaks to you in a way that works for you, or a school of yoga whose principles and practices are meaningful to you. You could start with reading some good books (on your kindle, or on paper). Then, if you are someone who carries your cell phone or ipod everywhere, you might look for an app, or a podcast from that person or that school. If you prefer a big screen and no ads, go for a DVD. If you do not have a particular school or teacher you really like, there are a lot of generic aps and videos out there, and some will work just fine to help some people integrate some yoga into your life outside of going to class. I personally have two or three yoga posture aps, none of which I have opened since I got them. But I am not you, and each person needs to see what works for them. But I would encourage you to see those options as the sides, rather than the main course, and to try to get to even a few classes, if you at all can.
A Little Background
In October of 1995 I gave a workshop to introduce local teachers involved in the Mid Atlantic Yoga Association with White Lotus flow yoga. This was the flow series developed by Ganga White and Tracy Rich of the White Lotus Foundation. Ganga White was a very experienced teacher who had spent many years with the Sivananda organization, before branching off. He had worked with and hosted at his center both BKS Iyangar and Sri K Patthabi Jois.
At this time there were American teachers who had been studying the vinyasa style, but it was not yet widely known. 1995 was the year Beryl Birch published 'Power Yoga', but she points out in her introduction that she had been working on the book since the early 1980s, and that her teacher had gone to India and stumbled upon the teachings of Patthabi Jois a decade before that, and had talked him into taking him as a student. But the power/flow/vinyasa style so prevalent today was not as widely practiced (at least in my part of the world) as was other forms, like Iyangar. And yoga was only beginning to be a normal part of the offerings of the corner Health Club. Of course today vinyasa style is one of the most common styles taught in the U.S. In addition to classical Ashtanga Vinyasa, there are quite a number of flow style schools, and many teachers who teach their own varients of that style.
Patthabi Jois is given the rightful place as father of modern vinyasa yoga. He called his form 'Ashtanga Vinyasa'. But it is important to remember his teacher (and it is part of yoga training to remember and honor your lineage, and your teachers), who also taught Desikachar, and Iyangar, and Indra Devi, was Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was probably the most seminal teacher of the early 20th century. One of the things I find interesting is that if you attended his classes at the Palace at Mysore (he was under the protection of the Maharaja) you might also be working out in weight training classes, or doing European style gymnastics, or going to sun salutation practice. In some ways we think of the Indian practice of yoga coming to the west and new fusions being created here, but before it got here Indian teachers were both rediscovering the roots of their tradition, and creating new forms themselves. And the western students who went to study with Patthabi Jois, and their students who continue to teach the forms that have evolved from that form, continue a fluid, creative process whose roots are hundreds of years old.
What Makes the Practice Different?
Flow, or vinyasa yoga is marked by having held postures bound together by a repeated series of postures which are not held. Typically the breath moves in sequence with the postures. So, for example: plank would be an exhale, followed by cobra with an inhale, followed by down dog with an exhale, and so on. The repeating of the range of motion about the joints, the use of breath, and the building of heat all help deepen the postures which are held. The original six series of Patthabi Jois have been joined by hundreds of variants and new flows. For example, the one time guru of Kripalu, Amrit Desai actually did a kind of flow where instead of having a preset series, you would move with breath and a meditative state allowing the postures to arise naturally out of what felt right at that moment. Hot yoga, like the Baptiste style, is another example. The flow style is so popular that Yoga Journal publishes new ones as a regular feature. One can link whatever postures one likes, though there are some principles which help make the flow work more effectively. For example, rather than doing two backbends in a row you might move from a back bend to a forward bend. The basic principles of sequencing tend to follow in flow, as in much of yoga, though I think as long as the practice is done in a way that does not harm it speaks to the human quality of curiosity and play not to see the guidelines as written in stone.
What is it that makes the Practice Appealing?
I believe flow echoes, or perhaps participates in, a fundamental commonality of human physiology and of the multidimensional space and time we inhabit, and it is that synergy that gives the practice its pull.
The living human body a large number of processes each of which has a pattern or flow. The most obvious is the heart beat. You can scan and record the heart beat and mark recurring points (the QRS complex, for example), like recurring postures with flow between. The release of certain hormones, peristalsis, ….. there are numerous flows going on inside our bodies all the times. Think of the shift between sympathetic system (when we are angry, or excited, or otherwise aroused. I blogged on this before) and parasympathetic (when the markers of arousal, such as increases in cortisol level, heart rate, sweating, respiration, decrease). We flow at need (hopefully) between arousal and release, just as in our flow we reach up, and bend over, or open the chest, and then curl inward. The most central of these flows, or perhaps, the most outwardly obvious one is breath. Inhale flowing to exhale is the rhythm of life. Physiologically it is both simple and complex: breath dominance shifting at regular intervals (about 1 to 6 hours in most people, though it can fade with age) from left to right, rate of breath increasing with mental or physical arousal, and decreasing as the arousal fades....
These flows, these waves define the human condition. It is sitting still that goes against the grain. They also show our commonality with the world in which we live. The seasons we experience are a repeating flow that follows the flow of the planet we inhabit. The regular pulsation of an atom, the flow of light... That which is too small to see, that which is too large to grasp, and us in the middle... we are all part of a continuously pulsing dance. Flow is the essence of what is. It is the synthetic a priori. It is the pattern of life. It is the wave upon which our boat moves. And our yoga, in finding and using the flows of pranayama and/or asana give us a window to understand, as well as a tool to steer our boats.
When I was 14 my mom went back to work. Since she was working in a department store, and sometimes working evenings I began to cook meals sometimes. My mom did not love to share her kitchen, so I had not done much cooking before that ( Though I think it is better to teach kids cooking early, I can understand that; she had five kids, and not a large amount of money so she worked extremely hard and kids can make a lot of mess in the kitchen. ) The other thing that happened is that I went to a high school on the other side of town, and the bus ride was significantly longer. It could be as much as an hour and a half with a transfer and wait for a second bus downtown, and a walk after that. So sometimes I would go to the downtown library when I got there and wait for a ride with my dad when he finished working. In addition to studying and doing homework there I began to read cookbooks, (as well as other do it yourself books), and started to try to cook occasional meals of food from other cultures. This was the seventies, so fI wasn't lucking onto books on, or ingredients for things so common today as Vietnamese spring rolls, or Ethiopian injira, but I tried my hand at Irish, and German, and French food. I also used to stop for an orange, or honey candy from a tiny whole foods shop on the corner near my mom's store (also downtown) and get their free magazine. It was my first foray into the idea of food's connection to health. I can remember big containers of brewer's yeast, and carob candy. I tried some recipes from the magazine also, though I had less success with them. I suspect some of my siblings may still remember the fiasco of the ground peanut burgers.
But though French food from a novice fourteen year old is probably about what one would expect, some things were more successful. I baked bread for the first time that year. We had no bread machine, or cuisinart, so I beat and kneaded by hand. I did not have bread pans, so I baked round blobs on cookie sheets. The first time I ended up with about eight loaves. They were wonderful. Crisp on the outside, warm and with a slight yeast scent, and a bit of chew.
Here is a revelation. Baking bread by hand provides something so beautiful and rich to the senses. It does not need artificial enhancement , or colorful packaging, or expensive advertising to make us want to eat it. And in the process of kneading I found my first experience of meditation. You push, and roll, and dust with flour, and the mind flows with the roll of the dough. To smell the air as you enter the house, to bite into the newly baked loaf that has been made with love for you by someone you know.... this is to open the heart.
I also think making foods from scratch, even if you only try it once or twice, is really important. When you go to the grocery today so much is pre made and processed. We look at the box and see the outer, surface layer. We open the box and see it as an object already whole, but we do not see (and the companies who make premade food often do not want us to lift the veil and see) under that surface. It is like seeing ourselves by looking in a mirror. In my yoga practice I try to encourage people to see themselves beyond the skin..... to feel the movement of muscle and joint, to understand the action of the organs, to find the connections between brain and body, to understand the cognitive, intellectual, and emotive part of themselves, and to see how those things move together. Through understanding we can find change, we can not just drift but steer our selves. Baking bread gives you the power of understanding.... when you reach for a loaf and turn it over and read the ingredients you can know what is in the original thing, and what is being added to be able to give you a surface illusion of that thing.
It is not just bread either. I tried my hand at pickles, and bagles, and English muffins, and fruit cake, and jam, and even cheese. I grew my own mint and made mint jelly from it. Growing something and making something from it is really wonderful. I never made it as far as growing wheat, but we did go to a local mill once and buy stone ground corn meal. (Actually my interest in understanding from scratch how things are made, and tracing those roots for myself go beyond food. I have made candles, and took a course on book making. To this day I have a beautiful little book I made: I sewed the binding, glued the end pages, built and fit the cover, and stamped the outside with gold letters saying “Fait a la Main”. Every time I open a book I feel more connected to it because I have made one. It is kind of like how a doctor learns the human form more deeply through dissection.)
So if you are a practitioner of yoga, looking for self understanding, or health, or strength, or peace of mind, remember that in its original form yoga does not begin and end with movements done on the yoga mat. It is about the whole person, and the whole of our interactions with our world and the others in it. If you are a person who loves to run, or lift, or do other exercises, remember that the health and strength you seek is a factor of not just your physical movement, but of what you choose to eat, and more broadly of all the life choices you make. It is important to look past the surface, to turn over the package in the store and read the label, to learn what each ingredient you are putting in your mouth actually is. It is important to try to make what you eat actually healthful. But we must all be willing to learn and look, before we can understand and see. To make that food by hand is to learn that lesson deeply. To eat that food you have made by hand is to take that lesson home, and to nourish your body truly. To share that food with those you love is to share that lesson, and nourish your heart as well as your body.
All people get older. That is a baseline of the human condition. But although the effects of age, broadly speaking, are part of the life cycle, how quickly and how much they develop is variable. We cannot change our DNA (yet). Some people have greater risks for heart disease, or cancer, for instance. But lifestyle choices can have an enormous impact across our lives on how we age, and even the way genes are expressed can be affected by those lifestyle choices.
One of the most useful tools for holding back the effects of aging is exercise. The effects of exercise are almost directly opposite to the effects of age, though less strong. Exercise cannot stop the body from aging, but it can slow many of its effects. Doing a variety of exercises is particularly helpful as each will have varied benefits.
There is a gradual loss of bone mineral density from a peak (around 25 or 30, usually). In women this is retarded until menopause, but increased after that. Weight bearing exercise can protect bone density, or even increase it.
Musculoskeletal strength also diminishes over time: but weight bearing exercise increases it. A person at 80 will not be as strong as they were at 25 (on average there can be a loss of 50% of muscle mass by 80), even if they have a lifelong habit of lifting weights, BUT they will be stronger than a lot of younger people who do not lift weights, and they will be way stronger than others in their age range.
Cardiovascular exercise helps push back decrease in cardiovascular function (as well as aid in musculoskeletal strength). Though there is an age effect in the loss of elasticity in the blood vessels, high blood pressure, plaque in the arteries, and all sorts of detriments to cardiovascular functioning can be lessened through exercise. Again, you cannot stop aging, but there are a lot of ways you can balance against age related loss.
Flexibility, particularly with respect to the spine, is enhanced through stretching exercises. With age the intervertebral discs dry and shrink. The bending and twisting of yoga works like squeezing one of those jell filled toys, moving fluid and helping to hydrate the discs. It also generally helps promote range of motion through all the joints of the body. The increase of range of motion of the joints is particularly helpful to those with arthritis whose range of motion is decreased or painful.
Balance can become difficult with age. A number of factors contribute to this: loss of flexibility and a resultant difficulty in maintaining posture, loss of core conditioning, decrease in visual and auditory sensitivity. Many trainers and group exercise teachers incorporate balance work, and in many mind body exercise like yoga and tai chi it is central.
Urinary incontinence can be an issue for some older people. Core exercises, like Pilates, as an example can be very helpful.
There are many areas where I think yoga is particularly excellent for allowing the body to age gracefully and with strength and health. The flexibility, range of motion, and benefit to the spine are only part of this. Yoga postures are not equivalent to stretches. Many postures build strength: arms, shoulders, hips, legs and back are all strengthened, not by an external weight, but by the body's own weight. The effects of yoga on strength are different than the effects of weight lifting, and I do not see them as mutually exclusive. For those with limited strength it provides opportunity to begin simply and work up slowly. Yoga promotes mental functioning within exercise. Moving slowly and with awareness helps avoid injury. This can be really important for someone with brittle bones. There are core awareness exercises within yoga to promote a reduction in back pain, and help strengthen the pelvic floor. One of the places where yoga shines is with the sensory diminishing that happens with age. Vision, hearing, smell, and taste tend to recede with age. Yoga promotes kinesthetic awareness, extending awareness inward. But it also encourages the practice of menal focus to pay attention to what our senses show us, and how our bodies respond.
Stepping back here, remember that while the fact of age is, well, a fact, how we regard the aging process and older people is a cultural construct. What I mean is this: different cultures value different things.... and I don't just mean that some cultures look down on the consumption of red meat, or some value mustaches on men. Some cultures place a high value on older people, considering them as sources of wisdom and experience. Some value more the energy of youth. Actually, traditional yoga philosophy would say that the way one learns yoga shifts with age, rather than trying to make an older person into a young person. A young person would be expected to work on discipline and respect to the teacher, in the prime of life one would work on strength, and as one ages one uses the practice with more inward focus as one journeys to the next stage. The current western culture comes down pretty much on value for youth. This is especially true for women. There is a definite current in our society that a pretty, thin, young woman is more valued. So for some women age is a frightening place where their sense of self value seems to slip away with every year. The message of yoga is that neither who we are, nor what value we have is about poundage or wrinkles. The flame in us may be clouded by anger and hatred and narcissism, but not by age, or physical limitation.
When we begin a yoga practice the question is always 'why did I come to the mat today?' What is the intention of the practice. I think we should also consider what exercise has to offer us as we age, but also how we view ourselves in that process. Are we exercising to continue to enjoy, and participate in all that life has to offer us, for as long and as healthily as we can? Or are we fighting against age as a monster and an enemy that seeks to take any value we once held? Do we want to make ourselves look as much as possible as a sixteen year old, or take joy in being a healthy how ever year old? Loosing weight, building muscle, developing endurance and balance can enhance the enjoyment of our life. One individual cannot change a whole culture (well, usually, anyway), but we can seek to promote respect for the continuum of human existence. If we come to the mat running away from something, or in fear, how will we ever allow ourselves to be fully open? Here is the truth in the yoga adage, the process is more important than the endpoint, and every day, every practice is to be enjoyed to its fullest for whatever it brings.