When you come into a yoga class it is very typical to spend some time sitting quietly. I will often explain to my students that this time is not some sort of 'before', but is a part of the class. In any 'mind/body' modality it is important to foster the conditions where the connections of the stream of thought and the stream of movement can become seamless. Transitioning away from the world of spilled coffee and flashing screens and traffic and endless tasks can be challenging, and learning to do so is part of the practice we do on the mat.
You will also often hear teachers talk about 'setting an intention'. One of the ways I speak about this is that I ask my students to take a few minutes to be present to their physical state: small aches and pains, residual injuries, aches which always live with them. Based on this I ask them to think about what they need, and how they want to practice their yoga to meet those needs. Then, I ask them to do the same with their emotional state. This is not to let those pains define us, or to judge ourselves, but to become the self that observes the self without judgement (a phrase I adapted from something I read long ago) and to move in a way that helps us get what we need.
Being intentional works on more than one level. The question 'Why did you choose to come to yoga, or to run, or to lift' today or generally can have many answers. How we answer should direct how we practice, or run, or lift more than should what the teacher decided before they even saw you, or more than the person on the other side of a Youtube video decided to film. Subtle changes in body movements and in how we fous on and create that movement and focus can shift the outcome of our practice and allow us to make our results match our intentions. Focusing on how we connect what we want and need with how we practice can also help avoid unwanted outcomes: a little too far and a disc is herneated, or a muscle pulled. But the question also echos the age old question: 'Why am I here', or as Mary Oliver said “...what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Some people are attracted to the practice of yoga because they admire the long lean fluid physique of many yoga models used in media to sell various 'yoga' products and services. Certainly many who run or lift weights want endpoints that are aesthetic (about how one looks). But just as many look for general or specific health benefits or pain reduction, or stress reduction, or injury prevention, or athletic prowess. I would have to say most of the students who find their way into my classes seem to be seeking stress relief and focus and the release of tight muscles. Some goals are for today, some are longer term. But let me step back for a moment.
Benefits of Exercise
Every thing we experience, every choice we make, has an effect on us. Some of those effects are fairly short lived and minor, some catastrophic and major, and some take time to build up. There is a ton of research being done on the effects of exercise generally and on various specific types of exercise, including yoga. Those effects can be measured in terms that have to do with how one feels, or in terms that are measureable physiological endpoints. For instance, if you were doing a study on yoga and depression you might use the Beck Depression Inventory (where the subject signifies how they are feeling), or you might measure morning Cortisol levels (a stress hormone in the blood). Both types of measurements have value, and in fact interrelate.
Some benefits happen more quickly, and some take longer to develop. If you are someone who at one point started lifting weights you can remember that the first adaptations were neuromuscular.... learning form and movement, and that it was a few weeks into a first time program before you started to see a lot of 'sculpting'. That is one reason why it can be hard to stick with a new program. Ads may try to promise quick results but many of the results we want take time.
Yoga has been linked in various studies to a wide variety of healthy endpoints: promoting the health of cartilage and joints, improving chronic back pain, promoting lymphatic drainage, reducing blood pressure, lowering cortisol levels, lowering blood sugar, stimlating the production of oxytocin, easing the symptoms of mild to moderate asthma, and so on. A lot of studies are small in sample size, and many are not as rigidly well designed as one would wish, but taken as a whole the body of research suggests real benefits of mind and of body.
A lot of these benefits do not take a ton of time to see. I have certainly seen a reduction of tension and the symptoms of stress following a single class. And remember, it is in the nature of clinical trials that they are more often going to study results over a shorter period of time: weeks or perhaps months, more than years. Clearly the benefits that have gotten studied the most are those that are quickest to produce.
Your garden has its zinnias, which can sprout in a few days (the feeling of calm and destressing), and its sunflowers, quick to grow, and eye catching in its bloom (the lean strong physique). But the longer you practice the more benefits begin to sprout and grow. Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to something I have noticed about my own functioning, which as I think about it, I suspect has grown out of a very long yoga practice.
A Personal Note
Those of you who follow my blog may have noticed that I have not been writing for a few weeks. My father is 95. He lives with and is helped by one of my brothers. A few months ago my brother developed a very serious medical condition, and at the same time my dad suffered some health issues. One of my other brothers has been doing most of the hard work of helping both of them, but my sister and I (neither of whom live near the rest of the family) have been doing a lot of travelling, connecting, and trying to navigate the rather circuitous world of insurance and elder care. I have been thinking a lot about my last trip. At the time I was mostly present to what I was doing, and not thinking about myself doing it, but since then I have thought about how I might have been present to the experience in past years.
I had flown into town and rented a hotel suite with wheel chair access and took my dad for two and a half days so my brothers could have a break. There are a lot of things that can be said about that experience. First, there is my amazement at how much work it is to care for someone who needs near continual attention. Then there is my respect for my brother and how he has stepped up to do that care. There is my sense of sadness that our culture has such a high level of care and resources available to the elderly.... but not if they do not have the money to afford it. And there is sadness for illness and discomfort in those whom I care about. Because of his arthritis my dad can not move much. Because of his macular degeneration he can not see much. Because of his hearing loss one must speak loudly and clearly to be heard. But I followed him into a place without sight or hearing or movement and found that ahimsa does not require a mat.
I am left with an enormous respect for those who care not just for 2 days but long term. Even after 2 days I could feel my energy level and arthritis both rebelling against the lack of movement.
However, we both really had a wonderful time just sitting and talking together. He told me stories I had not heard before, and a few I had. I made him snacks and got him to roll around the hallway a bit. But afterwards I was thinking about how sometimes when I was younger I would listen to him (or to others) with half of my attention. I think many of us do that sometimes, answering while the mind is wandering in other places. I was struck by how present I had felt. And I started thinking about how the yoga I do now is different than it was decades ago. I think my ability to focus deeply and for longer periods has been growing for some time, but it took sitting with my dad really to feel it deeply, I suppose because it had been a while since I had done that for such a long period, just the two of us. I find myself wondering about the role of yoga in the ability to pay attention, really pay attention, not just for moments, and not just with part of oneself.
I started looking at some research on yoga and attention. What I found is a review of studies on yoga for a variety of psychiatric disorders, including ADHD (Yoga on Our Minds: A Systematic Review of Yoga for Neuropsychiatric Disorders, Front Psychiatry. 2012; 3: 117) There is quite a lot of work on yoga with kids with ADHD, and some good evidence for benefit. What I had a harder time finding is yoga for ADD. It kind of makes sense that a discipline that is about mind body connections would show effect for something that includes issues of both the inability to sit still and the inability to focus the mind. But I am really interested in how the really long term practice of yoga affects the ability to be focused and attentive.
You know that metaphoric garden with its sunflowers and zinnias? Well, to me presence is the agave americana in the garden. It takes 10 years to bloom, but is both beautiful and useful in its own way.
I am left with 3 thoughts:
First, if you know anyone who is caring for someone who requires full time care, please offer to sit so they can take a walk or go to their yoga practice. They are doing the work of compassion and love in our world.
Second, please look beyond the simply physical effects of your exercise and of your yoga, and develop in yourslef all the multidimensions of your being.
And last, please consider that the greatest gift you can give to someone is your presence, in all its fullness and beauty. This is how we create beloved community. Love cannot grow out of inattention. Love cannot be simply directed inward. Love is a muscle that must be worked and stretched as well, or it will atrophy.
We have had a rather snowy and cold winter in New England, but we can see the beginnings of spring. I actually felt happy the other day as the snow melted and I could see the mud underneath. This also means that the cold and snowy walks my dog and I have been taking will slowly be morphing into longer, less bundled, strolls in the woods. I would like to share today my recipe for granola. This is not a low calorie, low fat snack. This is something lightweight, needing no refrigeration, and packed with protein and fiber. I also think it is very tasty, and a small bag in the pocket, with a bottle of water in the other and you are set for the afternoon.
Preheat oven to about 250 degrees. Spray olive oil on 2 large cookie sheets. Put the following ingredients in a very large bowl: 6 cups whole oats, ½ cup Hubs salted virginia peanuts, ½ cup Wonderful whole salted roasted almonds, ½ cup organic pepitas (pumpkin seeds), ½ cup blanched slivered almonds, ½ cup organic agave nectar, ½ cup oil, ½ cuporganic brown sugar, a ½ tsp or so of Penzy's cinnamon. Mix. Spread on pan. Cook for an hour or so, moving the mixture around every 20 minutes or so. It should start to look a bit golder, but not dark. Remove from oven. Place on cooling rack. Add ½ cup Manukka raisens. When the mix is not hot, but still slightly warm add ½ cup of semi sweet chocolate or dark chocolate chips. The warmth will slightly melt the chocolate. Give it a quick stir and pour into tupperware.
A few notes: If you are avoiding salt just buy the unsalted versions of the nuts. If you want to use a different brand go for it. I just really like these. Regarding the oil: I think peanut and canola oil work well, and I think olive can give it too strong of a flavor, but I know people have definite opinions on oils, so I say use what works for you. You can add more sugar, or less to taste. You can certainly add more and/or different varieties of dried fruit. The raisens I use are unusually large, and my family likes them. I personally also like dried tart cherries.
You can also make 2 varieties out of 1 batch by adding everything you want in both before separating them onto the 2 sheets and adding other stuff into each batch. You can see I did that here: only 1 batch had the whole almonds, and the other had the raisens. Just remember that the dried fruit and chocolate must be added after cooking.
I do not have software to carefully compute nutritional information. If someone wants to do the math and add more precise values in the comments I welcome it. I am not a nutritionist.
I do know what you do not get in this is a lot of excess packaging that is bad for the planet, or a lot of preservatives and additives that are bad for our bodies. One could eat a small snickers bar and get 1 gram of protein and 250 kcals, and partially hydrogenated oil, and artificial flavor. One could buy a little bag of some organic natural snack... but a lot of such things have a lot of packaging for a small amount of content, which is bad for the planet, and expensive in the long run. This will last you for quite a while. And if you add it to a bag with some fruit and maybe a yoghurt you have a pretty filling healthy vegetarian lunch.
Enjoy the rebirth of spring my friends.
Setting up a home gym, whether a spot on the floor for a mat and a couple of weights, or a dedicated room with a selection of equipment, is like setting up a business: it is generally better to have a plan in place than to approach it piecemeal. One wastes a lot less time, money, and energy. This doesn't mean one should buy or do everything at once. It is a way of spending wisely based on needs and resources.
'Fitness' is a very broad concept. It includes various components: cardiorespiratory, strength, flexibility, mind/body or relaxation, balance, speed, and so on. The first 4 of these are really basic for all around health and fitness. You may or may not include equipment for each need, but you do need to have an idea of how each need will be met within your home gym, or outside of it. The last 2 are examples of components that relate to more specific medical conditions or sport conditioning. For example, one of the primary health risks for someone who is older is falling, and balance gets harder as one gets older, so balance work is very helpful for someone in this group. Someone who plays soccer might want to include things to help with agility and speed.
Once you have an idea of the components you want to work category by category to see how best to incorporate those elements. There is always a balance between what research shows are the most effective methods, what suits your own needs temperament (and therefore you will do), what your finances will allow, and what will fit in your house. If you set a budget first it will help you allocate to the items you most want. For instance, if you spend a ton on putting in mirrors and climate control and expensive and large home gym weight equipment you might get to the cardio equipment and not be able to put in what you really want.
One important caveat: if you are a beginner you will be better served by with professional guidance at first (not in setting up the gym, but in learning to exercise). There are good training videos out there, but personal assistence is really really helpful to learn form and safety. You could join a gym, hire a trainer, or take classes. The money spent even for a few months at a gym or with a trainer will pay off with good form, a good sense of how to progress, and less chance of injuring yourself.
The first question is about available space. What equipment can you fit into the space? That will help you make choices before you start buying. You want to clear the floor. You do not want to trip over piles of books or step on legos. Pay attention to lighting and ventilation. A damp basement may not be very inviting. If you have weights think about what you are over and above. If you are in an apartment that is a particular issue. I teach in a yoga room that is below the weight room in one place, and we can definitely hear a barbell when it is dropped.
Strength is probably one of the simplest components to bring into a home gym. For the average person a set of dumbells of various weights, with a rack to hold them is a great option. When my mom's physician wanted her to begin some strength work I purchased her some 1 lb weights. My son is using 10, 15, and 20 now. You can get really nice equipment with weight stacks if you have the room and money, and are really sure you will use them, and have the sort of work where your time is so short it works better to have them at home than to go to the gym, but that is a personal decision. When I was at the IdeaWorld convention last August my colleague Karin showed me a wonderful product that
I believe are called sandbells. They are a weight with sand inside. If I still had my business and were training I would buy a set, just for people with balance or other issues: drop it on your foot and no problem. I also really like a barbell and a bench in addition to free weights, if one has space. And I use the Pilates ring a lot. For about 35 dollars you get a small light device that works for the core, as well as other strength activities. However, for me I do not want bells and whistles, I am not training for a specific sport, and I don't currently have a ton of space and money. I want the simplest thing that will best meet my needs. Your needs will certainly be different than mine, or you neighbor's.
Setting up for yoga or meditation or simple stretching, or pilates is also pretty simple and inexpensive and does not require a ton of space. I did a whole blog on picking a yoga mat, so you can look at that if you like. Just like with strength training I do recommend beginning with classes with an actual person if at all possible. Alignment and form are central to yoga, as is the connection between teacher and student and the way one begins to learn the central principles. If you are a yoga only sort of person you could do classes at a yoga studio, but if you belong to a gym you will find many offer yoga as part of their package. Aside from the mat it can be helpful to have a block and strap. These are also inexpensive, and have many uses, even outside of yoga. The strap is quite helpful in creating a bind to more effectively stretch the hamstrings when they are tight, for instance. It is also nice to have a cushion for meditation and to lift the hips to take stress off the low back in certain seated stretches. I also like a place where the light can be controlled. Laying on the floor with the face looks up into a bright ceiling light (I have taught in professional spaces where the designers clearly had not done yoga) is not highly conducive to relaxation. Some people enjoy SMR techniques, and myofascial equipment is lightweight, small, and not very expensive. I really love a softer roller, and gel balls. But there are a lot of options, and no one thing works for all people
Cardio equipment is probably the thorniest issue for the home gym. I remember years ago Consumer Reports looking at the percentage of people buying cardio equipment and not using it as they had planned. Those numbers are pretty staggering. It tends to be big and it tends to be expensive. I think this is the the part of the equation that needs the most thought. Do you have safe access to outside cardio options? Walking trails, public pools, local parks, bike paths are all options. But if you cannot access them, or they will not be safe for you for any reason, or you just hate that kind of exercise then you have to think of options. Do you have the option to do cardio in a class or gym? For example, I used to teach for a company that sent people to various sites (I even taught for people who worked at a zoo) to do classes. If your work has a program you might want to priortize cardio there and save buying weight equipment for home. Before you buy, definitely join a gym, at least short term to try out various types of equipment. And try them more than once to see whether when the first sheen of newness is worn off you still enjoy it. And once you decide to buy measure your space. When I bought my son's heavy bag (which he uses and loves) I mismeasured the space and had to reorder the frame.
The last thing I want to suggest has to do with what advice to take as you work through listing your needs, your budget, and your options. I think it can be helpful to ask friends and neighbors. Just keep in mind that what works for one does not work for everyone.... don't just ask what they like, but why they like it. I think Amazon reviews are also really helpful. I regularly check scam sites and bbb data. Looking at equipment at the store is helpful, but they are interested in selling product, and I find that just as the person at the makeup counter is not generally an esthetician but a sales person, the person in the sports store is not generally a trainer, but a sales person. I ALWAYS want to know whether someone has a financial stake in any product they are recommending. They may be selling it precisely because they believe in it, but I still deserve to know their financial stake in convincing me to buy it. And I also want to know if they recommend the same thing to every person. Because no one piece of equipment or device or class or trainer is the best thing for every person. It just isn't. I've had people come to me to pay me to take my classes or do training with me and I have sent them elsewhere because I was not going to be able to give them what they needed. I did not try to go outside my scope of practice or convince them that what I was offering was the best thing for them. We as consumers must take the time to understand and buy in a way that reflects our needs, our budget, our values, and not through the manipulation of our emotions and impulses.
What a person typically looks for from a personal trainer when they seek one out is typically different from what they look for from a yoga teacher. Just so the usual image of that a trainer looks and acts like tends to be different. Less so today, when there is so much overlap, with trainers starting to teach yoga, and yoga teachers offering individualized services that are more westernized than they used to be. If I talk about my personal trainer to my friend they may visualize someone with low body fat, lots of visable muscles, and a generally forceful and no nonsense personality. It used to be I would add 'male' to that list, but I think that is a truth and a stereotype that is becoming less and less common. If I talk about my yoga teacher I suspect they will visualize someone (usually a female) with leggings, and flowing scarves, and dangly earrings, with a crystal or a silver 'om' (always silver of course) who is very calm or very effusive, but MUCH more emotive than the trainer.
Of course, the reality is that there are a lot of differet types of people in both fields. It is also true that how good one is at what one does is not in direct relationship to looking like what someone else sees as 'typical' for that job. And it is true some people go out of their way to adopt a stereotypical look in order to do better in their career. Not all good trainers have huge biceps; not all good yoga teachers wear their 'om's on their sleeves.
The other thing I find interesting is what is similar in how a good trainer and a good yoga instructor engage with a new student. If a new student/client enters the door the first thing the teacher/trainer wants is understanding and connection. The trainer generally will have the advantage of a first meeting that will specifically elicit specific information. The teacher, unless they are also an owner of a single business who has the opportunity to interview each new student, will tend to get it more slowly. But what we both need to know is basically the same:
We want to get to know the person before us within their multidimensional truth.
We want to help them set goals both long and short term for where they want to go.
Where have they been?
What are their previous exercise habits? (that is often apparent when I watch someone in class) What injuries have they had? (sometimes you can tell that as well, if it is not too long ago) How much experience with exercise or yoga have they had? As a yoga teacher I am interested in riding the lines of stretch and movement, and I believe understanding what has brought you to where you are can help you move past it. Not that I have any interest in doing therapy with my students. That is outside of my scope of practice. But as they learn to be present they do it with themselves.... “I was injured here and even though it is healed I hold it tight as I fear the possibility of pain”, or “I do not easily breath through my entire breath because I have been hurt by being called 'fat' and learned to hold in that energy without even thinking about it'. It is not that we want to relive old experiences, it is that we want to find the places we have closed and create a path that is safe to open them. The trainer wants to find a way to allow the client to shift habits to allow change and growth. Again, it is not by walking through the past, but by understanding it.
Who are they now?
What are their current health habits (smoking, diet, but also social engagement within a healthful or unhealthful community, .... a big predictor of ease of establishing new habits). Both the trainer and the instructor will be interested in the student/client's current level of ability, as well as their liabilities. This tells us how we can best communicate (I will explain something in two different ways in the same class if I know I have a PT there working beside someone relatively new). And it also tells us where on the path we should start.
The trainer has the ability to begin with a series of tests to understand the baseline. This can be very helpful, particularly if the trainer starts with tests for form and alignment before they do tests for strength and flexibility and cardiorespiratory endurance. When I first worked in gyms we often went straight to testing number of pushups, or sit ups. Today I think many trainers understand the value of assessing form and mobility before the push up thing. The yoga teacher is not typically set up to do such testing, but rest assured we are watching as you move to try to understand, and to try to help you see where you are not as a sign of weakness, but as an understanding of where you are beginning. This new beginning happens every time we step on the mat.
Where do they want to go?
In yoga we pretty much start every class by stopping to be present to that question. Every class, like every day is a new opportunity. Like the trainer goals are important, though we may not be as organized in setting long and short term ones. However, if I know someone wants to work toward ski season, or wants to release the stress of too much snow shovelling my practice with them will shift toward these goals. The work the trainer does in helping the client set such goals is absolutely as important as teaching him or her to lift a dumbell.
The principles we use in working with a new student are quite similar:
Understand the client/student
Set goals and tailor the practice toword those goals
Begin where the student/client is (generally and specifically)
Start simple and work from there (get the form first before making the weight greater, the number of joints increased, or the pose more complex, warm up before working more intensely or deeper)
Balance the work: front and back of body, opposing actions or muscle groups, work not to the point of collapse or muscle damage, but work enough for progress and growth, rest enough for the body (or mind or spirit) to heal and regain homeostasis and be ready to come to the mat (or the gym) again.
Most people who have enough resources to eat out from time to time have gone to a restaurant where the complexity and display of the food is more pronounced than its ability to nourish (or sometimes its flavor). This is a cultural dichotomy: simple comfort food, and food as art. My favorite meal is a cup of assam, an orange, some almonds, and a piece of bread. But I also enjoy paella and cassoulet. I just know I've been served food where breading and gravy and garnish is hiding a base that is dry and tasteless. I think this duality plays out in a lot of different places. Think about going to the spa to have a beauty treatment....
The thing is, complexity is not the opposite of good: complexity is the oppostie of simplicity. But if complexity is achieved without each part being well done, and without the parts being arranged well in relationship to eachother. One dancer kicking out of step is quite noticable in a line of 20. And at the spa you may get 20 different preperations and treatments, each of which have different benefits. However, if you have not done the simple daily care of staying hydrated, moisturizing, and cleaning off the daily grime the effects of these extras will be lessened.
I think people tend to try for complexity for a variety of reasons. For one thing if you are selling a product or service you need to stand out. And if you are advertising and using a visual the more eye popping the image the more attention you will command. Also, there is what the Buddhists call 'monkey mind'. People tend to get bored. It is true the other side of that dichotomy is that we crave the familiar …. I can remember after being in Rome for almost a week my husband going in search of a familiar American style dinner. But again, if one is trying to get people to try something you are offering it is easier to get them in the door with something really different.
This plays out in the world of fitness and yoga as well. Gyms will try to get people in the door with the newest, hottest thing. And the more that thing plays to the edges the more it can stand out. It was true decades ago in aerobic dance. I blogged about this a while ago. I found a cache of old tapes and looked at the beats per minute. It was particularly true with step. There was a speed at which it was done, but over time those beats started to edge up.... because people wanted to be continued to be stimulated, and because teachers also wanted to be stimulated, as well as to stand out. The choreography as well got so complex that a lot of people couldn't follow it.
There are a few themes at play here: The pull between simple and complex, the pull between what is known and comfortable and what is new and exciting, and the need to have a strong base before you build complexity.
Part of what has me thinking about this is a brief conversation I had with a woman in line to buy lunch when I recently attended the annual convention of fitness professionals in Anaheim. (That was, by the way, an experience I would recommend to any fitness professional who can afford to go. I certainly cannot do so regularly, and generally prefer to spend my training funds on yoga, but it is worth doing. Almost all of the presenters I had represented the absolute best the industry has to offer.) We were chatting and she told me she did yoga, so I asked about it, as I am always interested in what other people are doing. She told me about a 'new' form she was planning to 'launch' and start to offer training to other teachers. In her description she used the word 'cute'.
Here is the thing. There are lots of ways to understand and practice yoga. Its adaptability and fluidity is one of the things that keeps it fresh and interesting. But (and this is a big but) are you building your creative interpretation on a depth of understanding of the basic bedrock of the practice? And are you building your interpretation in order to be able to get notice and sell it? Does your interpretation offer something that will enhance health benefits, or self understanding? As with that plate of dinner placed in front of you at the restaurant.... if the ingredients are not top notch, and if the chef is not a master at putting them together you can end up with something flashy but not much else. Remember that simple is not necessarily inelegant, and lack of quality can be hidden under the gilding. (Or as my mom used to say when I first learned to bake a cake.... frosting can hide a lot of sins).
I am not against complexity in any of the physical disciplines I practice. We are back to Aristotle here (all my students groan). It is not that simplicity is your savior and complexity the enemy. They complement eachother.
How does this play out in our daily yoga practice?
The first principle is to start by knowing what we want and need. If the postures are (as I've said before) tools to open and explore the multidimensional self, we need to figure out what sort of tools are likely to be helpful. Sometimes there are specific things: I am tight in my hamstrings because I run, I had a shoulder injury and my PT wanted me to do yoga to help with range of motion. Sometimes they are more general: I am very anxious and want to learn some self calming techniques, I exercise a lot and want general flexibility. Specific areas of interest will lead you to add specific postures and sequences into the mix. And specific injuries or conditions will lead you to put aside some tools. A fancy expensive treadmill is sometimes very helpful, but not for everyone in every case. (And when you are figuring out what tools you need always look for advice first from those who will not profit from upselling you).
The second principle is to start simple and work to complex. When I create or adapt or explore a vinyasa I begin with a base and add layers. I am always hopeful that each student will get the base before exploring the adaptations, and that each student will add only those adaptations that are safe and helpful to them, and move into the layers only so far and only when it is safe and helpful to them.
The third principle is that just because a posture can get into more and more complex variations it doesn't mean that you need to do them all. Complexity for the sake of complexity is about ego and not about progress. The photo of the slim and well muscled model oiled and half naked balancing on their hands with their toes on their forehead may get your attention but the truth of yoga is in its principles and the daily practice and not in pretty pictures of difficult postures. The day may come when you find yourself lifing into parsva bakasana.... or not. Self understanding, self compassion, and love, understanding and compassion that flow outward, improved health, range of motion, strength, fluidity, balance, mental focus and clarity are not equivalent to fancy postures. The line of practice of yoga can lead to those places but it is not those places. If your practice leads there that is fine. Or not.
The final principle is one I have blogged about a lot, because it is really central. The physical dimension is only one aspect of the self. If the benefits of yoga are to extend toward our whole self its practice must open into more than the physical postures. If you are going to engage in complex and difficult vinyasas and postures that practice should not be undertaken at the expense of, or before exploring the mental, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, creative, social/communal self.
The exact number of asanas recognized in yoga is not universally recognized. This is partly because there are lots of variations on certain basic postures, and a there is always the question of where you draw the line of recognizing small shifts as individual postures. Those small shifts can make enormous differences in how moving through and holding the posture effects the body, but it is possible to draw the line so fine that it becomes impossible to speak about the postures efficiently. And I always feel (as I've blogged about before) that the spaces between the postures, and the way we ride those spaces are as important as the places we choose to name.
Different styles and different schools of yoga give pride of place to different asanas and different sequences of asanas and different ways of moving between those asanas. As well asanas shift in their popularity over time. Lotus (padmanasana) was at one time one of the most recognized yoga postures; one people would think of if they thought of yoga. It is not widely practiced these days. Downward facing dog (adho mukta svanasana) is one of the most recognized yoga poses today. It is central to the practice of vinyasa yoga as we receive it through the lineage of Sri. K Patthabi Jois. Part of what makes it so common is its simplicity. The simplest postures tend to be those that ride the lines of stretch/energy most directly. They form the bases from which variations can spring: Mountain pose (Tadasana), Corpse pose (Shavasana), Tree (Vriksasana), Easy Seated posture (Supasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana) and a few others. We could argue about which to include here, but these are some.
There is a cooking magazine called Cooks Illustrated. It differs from a cook book, or recipe site, because it although it does give recipes and amounts, it also talks about how they thought out the issue of how to use the ingredients and the processes to create certain effects. I would like to share some of my thoughts on down dog, but I hope you will use it more like those Cooks Illustrated articles. Remember (as I say ad nauseum) that the postures are tools. Think about what you want to do and why, and then find the best tool for that use, and adapt how you use it to get closer to what you want.
Downward Facing Dog
Typically when one breaks down a posture there are certain things one talks about.
Contraindications: i.e. Why someone should not do it.
There are usually a few absolute contraindications, as for instance late stage pregnancy is not a good time for a posture like this. Some wrist and arm injuries can make it problematic, as can rotator cuff injury. Any condition where you do not want the head lower than the chest. My general rule is to use the golden triangle: speak to your doctor or medical provider, listen to your own body without ego and judgement, but with compassion and self understanding, and ask your yoga instructor for feedback. These 3 parts each offer a different perspective and together they help us to find our path. The medical provider understands the specifics of your health conditions, the yoga instructor understands the intricacies of the postures and the ways their effects, and you live in your own body and can feel from within.
Benefits: i.e. Why someone should do it.
One sees a lot of lists of benefits from postures. I think it is really helpful to have a mix of an open mind and a bit of scepticism. I always like to see the research.... does some site say there is a benefit because they saw it on a bunch of other sites? Are they referencing medical guidelines (like the ACOG guidelines for exercise and pregnancy) that are based on a large quantity of generally well designed research? Not everything is going to have research, and research gives general answers that may not be the same for everyone.... so I think we look for the middle ground. If it isn't contraindicated and it doesn't hurt try it out and see how it feels. Enter slowly enough to avoid getting into a place that is harmful.
Generally speaking down dog has the capacity to stretch the back of the legs and the chest and shoulders. It can also be strengthening to the body as a whole. It works very well with other poses in a vinyasa to create fluidity of movement. It gives a deeper stretch to the lower legs than a lot of other postures. And it can, with a few adaptations, form a base for a lot of other stretching and strengthening movements.
Preperation: i.e. How to get into it
I am not going to give you a step by step guide for entering the pose, or a long list of postures to do before you tackle dog. If you have done much yoga you have already done so, and if you haven't you will do better to start with an actual class with a teacher, or if this is absolutely not available to you (and if you are physically cleared to try yoga) to see if you can find a safe and appropriate DVD. In any case there are a lot of postural explanations on the internet to be googled, with nice photos or drawings better than what I can explain with words.
Alignment:i.e. How to Be in it
These are some of the general things I focus on when I have people in my class tackle dog.
In down dog there is an acute angle between the foot and the shin. The tighter the hamstrings or calf muscles the harder this is to achieve. So people will often enter compensations: heels hanging in the air, hands moving toward the feet so that the angle becomes closer to a right angle, back rounding, knees bending. I think the heels need to be rooted. If they are left hanging in the air the legs will maintain a high level of tension as they protect themselves from being over stretched. This will get in the way of the muscle relaxation that will help the area to stretch, and will make it harder to get the mind and body to the place by the end of class where true relaxation and meditation can occur. My preference is to put something under the heels so that they can stretch and the body can release into the pose AND where the pressure can be taken off the upper body and back so they can release their tension. I prefer a rolled mat to a block. The problem with the block is the edge can push into the plantar fascia, which I think is not desirable. Also the rolled mat gives a bit, so it allows for transfer of force between the floor and the leg. I do sometimes use the wall. In other words I position the mat with the short end touching the wall, and walk the heel back to touch the wall as far up the wall from the floor as each person needs to keep the upper body in aligned position. This is also a great position to do tail on the dog, and to walk up the wall into standing split (or as close to it as is comfortable).
I would rather see someone put the pad under the heel than let the heel dangle. I would also rather them do that then bend the knees. The knees are the second place we need to focus. To see what I mean here we need to think about the musculoskeletal anatomy of the back of the leg. The achilles tendon attaches to the heel. Out of the achilles tendon run two muscles. The gastrocnemicus attaches above the knee, and the soleus attaches below. So when the foot is planted and the lower leg moves forward the achilles tendon stretches. If the knee is straight the muscle above the knee stretches, and if it is bent the other stretches. So when I hold dog I will often release one knee at a time for a few breaths to work into both of these areas. And then I will bend both knees very slightly, and press down a bit on the heels to move into that lower muscle by releasing the other. However, if the knees are always bent the hamstrings, which are attached below the knee will not be as fully engaged.
Does that mean one should always be pushing to straighten the legs? No. If there is pain in the low back, or the knees, or anywhere, or if there is an injury or a recent surgery, or a knee replacement... well, there are a lot of reasons why someone would not fully extend. How does each person judge? Go back to strong triangle.
The hip is the fulcrum of the posture. The tilt of the hip helps to keep the spine long, and the legs aligned. But I tend to cue the pelvic tilt from the low back and belly. They work together. I have blogged elsewhere about the bandhas, and mulha bandha in particular, so I will suggest you read that if you are not sure of how to engage that. I think it is essential to avoiding strain on the low back, as well as to keep form. One of my favorite cues here is to imagine one is wearing Max's wolf suit from Where the Wild Things Are, and then to imagine lifting the tail high. I also like to suggest imagining bringing the navel to the thigh. The more rounded the upper and mid back are the less acute the angle between the legs and the core. Lifting the seat and allowing natural lumbar curve will allow opening in the legs, as well as a stable base to stretch the back and shoulders.
I would also suggest the value of a side lift or twist here. If this posture is taken as only involving the frontal plane (a 2 dimensional movement) it will effect less well those muscles that act on a rotational or side moving plane. Here is an example of what I mean. Come into down dog. Lift one leg into tail on the dog. This is movement in one plane. Draw the right knee toward the chest and then lengthen the leg up into tail on the dog. This is still all movement in one plane, but by pushing in your pushing out is often deeper, and the range of motion around that hip joint is fuller. Now with the leg lifted externally rotate the femur of the leg in the air. As you do that the whole body tips sideways. Inner thigh muscles stretch, (and if you bend the knee the gracilis gets an even deeper stretch), the psoas stretch deepens, and above the hips the obliques become more involved. Now, as you hold this slightly lift the elbow and look under the arm. This really helps to engage the rmid back and open the chest. I find that tail on the dog and then coming back to dog makes dog deeper.
This same opening of the chest by external rotation of the humerus can be done in down dog by a slight movement of the hands. I will cue to imagine the shape between the hands as a rectangle or square, and to imagine you want to make a triangle, or heart. It really is only a few degrees of internal rotation of the hand and a lift of the elbow, that then opens into the arm pit, and into that space we lift the rib cage.
Clearly not everyone will be comfortable creating a straight line from hand to tailbone. In fact I think I've blogged a few times about how much more shoulder tightness and upper back rounding I've seen in the last 10 or 15 years. I actually for some years have included daily opening work for my own shoulders: we all spend too much time in front of key boards and I think some work to balance this is essential (see my blogs on desk and travel yoga). If the shoulders are so tight that the angle at the wrist is not wide enough it may be preferable to do dolphin, or do dog on the wall, or to stay away from dog and do shoulder openers that do not involve putting the weight on the hands. At the very least it will be important to shorten the time holding the posture. This is another one of those golden triangle moments.... each person making some decisions about what works best for them. We definitely want to work toward at least a right angle at the wrist, and preferably past a right angle in the opposite direction to the ankles. I've tried various pads for tight wrists and have not been fully satisfied with any. The best I like is a 2 inch gel ball under the palm. The problem is that if the wrist is not open enough I think it is usually because the shoulders are tight, and it may be better to stay off the wrist and use other shoulder openers until that problem is addressed.
I especially like strengthening postures taken out of dog, such as dolphin, or dolphin with one leg extended. And I like to do a yoga push up from dolphin, bringing the breast bone toward the knuckles and back. I really like those sorts of movements that explore range of motion around a joint, while building strength further along the chain. In this strength and flexibility work together.
Every posture can be pulled apart in this way. It is kind of like disection in that it gives us a better idea of how things hang together. But the best way to explore dog, or any posture is to approach it as a living organism.... find how it opens into the breath, and how the breath opens into it.... do it in conjunction with other postures, and explore those sequences.
A bicep curl is a movement where a muscle called the biceps brachii shortens to pull the forearm up into flexion.
This is something that gets done a lot in fitness. We break down specific movements of specific muscles to work and 'sculpt' them either to look or to function in particular ways. But just as you can break apart a poem to discuss the meanings of particular words or phrases, but the meaning is more to be found and understood in putting it back together and reading it as a whole, so too we understand the ways the body moves when we step back and see it as a whole, and as a whole in context.
The way the body moves is not chaotic. Movement has both coherence and context. It is complex, and intricate, but it does follow the same rules of the physical universe as everything else. I think this is some of what Einstein meant when he said that he did not think that God plays dice with the universe. This is also why science works, how we are able to have language, and why philosophers have been able for thousands of years to look around them and attempt to organize their understanding of people and the world with concepts like 'synthetic a priori'. Science is a tool for understanding the world and ourselves, and math is the language of that tool, and philosophy, at its best is about finding connections within this web of knowledge and expressing those connections. Yoga is a physical discipline, but one that seeks not just to create complex physical movement, but to be self aware of the dimensions of that movement, both spiritual and scientific.
When we enter a posture in yoga we are either stretching or contracting a series of muscles. Generally each muscle has an origin and an insertion on a bone. When I contract that biceps brachii it shortens and pulls the lower arm up, but that only works if the other part of the lever is attached at the shoulder. And the shoulder is not floating in space... it is also attached to the ribs and spine, and the ribs and spine to the hips and legs, and the legs balanced on the feet, and the feet standing on the earth. I have blogged about balance, and how balance work presupposes that we exist within a multidimensional space time frame of reference.... that we balance not just each part of the self against other parts of the self, but the self in relationship to the world around it (and gravity is one of the biggest actors in this relationsip).
I blogged recently about the fascia and the web of connective tissue that envelopes the body, and helps to support the body. Bones and muscles create joints where distinct movements occur. Joints work with eachother to create complex movement patterns. Connective tissue binds together the whole to create a tensile integrity to the system, and the whole works in balance with the world around it.
Any movement, however simple, has a relationship to the whole body, and the whole body has a relationship to the earth, to gravity, and to the other forces that relate to the physical world. Running, for example propels one forward by the relationship of the forces and energy as we push into the ground.
If I stand in tall mountain, bring my hands together, and move my arms sideways into moon, my hip tends to move naturally to the other side. If it did not I would loose balance and fall over.
The production of human movement is both functional and elegant. I see people all the time laugh at or judge themselves in yoga class. They feel and describe themselves as awkward. Yet, what I see is beautiful and profound, even where someone is exploring new territory, or working with a movement pattern that is new.... think how complex are the forces and mechanics in play. Neurons fire, messages are sent through a neuromuscular junction, sensory organs within the connective tissues are stimulated, fibers within the extracellular matrix realign, one or more muscles contract in relationship with eachother to produce a very specific movement, other muscles contract to stabalize the movement desired, the whole system adjusts itself to the effects of the force of gravity, the diaphragm contracts, breath rushes in, oxygen crosses the barrier of the alvioli in the lungs and rides a red blood cell, like a person white water rafting, through the heart and down to the working muscles, finally joining with stored energy from the food we take in (yet another complex and beautiful aspect of human function), energy bonds are broken, and energy released that allows the arm to lift, within the joints themselves smooth linings allow the bones to move with fluidity rather than grinding..... How can the movement we often take in our yoga from prayer posture into tall mountain, and into moon not be anything other than beautiful and profound, and elegant?
At the beginning of class I often invite people to put their stress and anxieties into an imaginary backpack and to store it in the back of the class. It is not just stress and anxiety that we need to put away, but also that self critical voice that so much of our culture has fostered in us. If we can step back from the personal and look at the way that the personal interconnects with and participates within an intricate web of being and time, of matter and energy, of forces, and structure and all of it breathing and pulsating, and all of it intertwined we can come back to the personal and see it in a new way. Rather than describing ourselves as tight, or dumpy, or whatever term of surface level critique we are want to use, we can look beneath to the absolute joy and beauty of the movement, and the way that it connects us to the entirety of what is.
“The entire objective world is merely the primitive, as yet unconscious, poetry of the spirit.” Schleiermacher
If you were hunting or gathering in the forest a couple of thousand years ago you would need to adopt a practice of taking great care of the plants that were poisenous, and the animals that considered you as a potential meal. While a bear or a lion is unlikely to jump on you from behind the bakery counter there are plenty of traps and poisens. The same self protective way of being is helpful when you food shop today.
In our society there are those that grow food and raise animals for food. Then there are those that process and package and sell that food. And there are the consumers. But that middle tier also includes a lot of people who are hired to figure out how best to show the wares. Some of the ways this is done are honest, some simply are incomplete (why tell people what won't make them buy the product), some are mildly misleading, and some are quite unethical. Bottom line is that you need to do more than just buy what is pretty, or believe everything you are told.
Before You Shop
Figure out what is important to you: Controlling hypertension? Weight control? Supporting sustainable farming practices? Not eating animals that have been treated inhumanely? Buying local? Eating as healthfully as possible on a tight budget? I know people who avoid red meat because it has a huge carbon footprint and they are deeply concerned about world hunger. I know people who try to buy organic because they are concerned about pesticide run off in the water. I know people who are vegan because they cannot support the treatment of animals in the current system. Your choices should reflect both your practical economic conditions and your values.
As a yoga teacher I will ask you to direct your compassion inward and outward. You cannot solve all the world's problems. You are unlikely in this world without huge resources to be able to eat perfectly healthfully. But, to borrow a quote, just because you cannot do everything do not fail to do what you can. Be compassionate to yourself. If you end up at Subway or Wendy's no beating yourself up.... just keep trying to live your values.
Do some research. Once you know your main areas of concern you can more easily figure out what you need to know to shop your needs and values. If you are doing research online the best rule of thumb is before you read and trust a site ask what the agenda is of the people who are providing the information. If they are selling something, or promoting an industry they may still tell the truth (or part of it) but it is really good to double check with sites that have no profit motive. In terms of basic food information I like some of the USDA sites www.choosemyplate.gov for example. And of course www.consumerreports.org , If you can work back to original research and data it is always better.
Some Practical Ideas
I've read that it is better to choose a cart over a hand basket if you want to avoid highly processed, higher fat items, as there seems to be some association with buying more of those if you take a hand basket.
Read Ingredients. I do not one hundred percent do the... over a certain number of ingredients don't buy it, but I do compare my choices and consider that whatever I am buying is going into my and my children's bodies.
Don't Read the Big Print. A lot of stuff on labels falls into that slightly misleading or incomplete category. 'Natural'? They think that word will make you buy it as most people want to be healthier and natural sounds healthy. The government does not regulate the use or meaning of that word. Turn the package over and actually read the nutrition information and the ingredients.
If you can shop with a friend do so, but try to choose the friend who is not an oreo junkie. I've seen a lot of studies that suggest having a circle supportive of your health goals is one of the best predictors of success there is. And it is less tedious.
If you have the time to do so try to do menus for the week, and/or a regular shopping list. Sometimes you do have to think on your feet. If avocados are on sale it might be a night for omlettes with salsa and avocado, rather than baked chicken. But it can be helpful to know what you want in advance..... every time you have to make a quick trip to get a bottle of rice vinegar or butter you are more likely to fall to the lure of the unhealthy packaged stuff. I print off recipes and leave them on my desk in a pile for the week. I can carry them with me to the store, and quickly access them on the next day , or scan tomorrows to see if I can do some quick prep the night before.
Remember that as a general rule the profit is MUCH higher the more packaging, so they are really going to want to sell you those things. However the store wanting to sell you something doesn't mean you need to buy it.
Organic is good, but not all organics are equal. When I was young you didn't have highly processed organic products... you went to the local co op, and the people selling it were selling it not to make a huge profit, but because they believed in it. I shopped at GLUT co op in Maryland, and I do so miss that place. These days organic means bigger profits, and a lot of people on the bandwagon are looking for the closest they can sail to the wind and still get that label. So find one of those ubiquitous lists of which fruits and vegetables make the most sense to buy organic and focus on those if you need to be careful of budget. Read about the different agencies who certify organic and learn which are the most trustworthy. And remember that a highly processed and packaged product is still not great for the environment, very expensive, and likely pretty caloric by weight. If you have the time try baking some cookies.
Don't shop on an empty stomach (duh)
Don't shop when exhausted (if at all possible, and I know neither 8 or 9 is always possible)
Beyond the Market
I would suggest looking into CSA packages, and local co ops, and Farmer's markets. These can be good sources to get specific items.
And while most of us are not going to be able to do the Little House on the Prarie thing, we can all try to do more food production ourselves. As a yoga practitioner I find the making of food to be a spiritual and meditative process. When I make bread I love to smell the yeast, and to feel the dough beneath my hands. I love the smell as it bakes, and I love to share it with my family and friends. Baking is one of the simplest ways to take back from big business some of our own nourishment. But there are lots of things to try, and so much to learn about ourselves in doing so. We can grow herbs, or vegetables, we can pot jam, or make yoghurt, or make pickles (I've done all of those at one time or another). I have friends who keep bees and get their own honey, or tap their trees and make maple syrup. I have friends who keep chickens for eggs. What we learn when we learn to turn a seed into a plant, and a plant into a salad is one of the deepest and most valuable things we will learn. What we gain when we share food made with our own hands is a human connection more fundimental than any facebook meme you can post. And when such things are eaten fresh the sensory pleasure will be beyond anything any of the prepackaged varieties can offer.
Every once in a while in yoga class I will find myself saying “And there we are back to Aristotle.” When I say that it doesn't mean that I want to reference Aristotle's entire philosophical work, or even his entire ethics, but that I think yoga plays out his contention that the good is to be found in a balanced state between lack and excess. To give a really oversimplified example: self starvation is bad, and gluttony is bad, but healthy eating is good. This concept that Aristotle talks about in the discussion of virtue and human behavior is also a vital concept to understand in how the living form generally, and the human form specifically functions.
In exercise science we talk about homeostasis. Almost every system or structure within the human body is balanced against others. Think about what I just wrote recently about the tensile integrity of the connective tissues and how the muscles and bones create balance against gravity. (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/massage-fascia-yoga-and-foam-rollers-yes-they-really-do-connect ) Think about the flight or fight responses and how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balance eachother. In yoga we work to create balance between these systems. (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/stress-reduction-and-meditation-in-the-practice-of-yoga ) The same balance works out within the physiology of energy intake and use. Think about how the catacholamines and insulin balance eachother in the use of fat.
I could teach someone the names of some of the major balance postures of yoga, and how to align them, and even how to teach how to get into and hold the poses within a few hours. But the major point here is that that person would not then really be teaching yoga because what you are learning when you stand on one foot in yoga is about a lot more than just being able to stand on one leg, or even stand on one let and pull the other one up behind you while artfully sticking the other one in front of you. (Yes, the picture on my facebook yoga page has me in that exact posture). Balance is about physically standing on one leg in the same way that cooking is about being able to cut an onion into small neat pieces.
As a yoga teacher I am not going to make dietary plans for my students. I am not a trained nutritionist. But yoga does have a lot to say about the context of food within our lives. Yoga has a lot to say about how we are mindful about how, and when, and what we choose to eat.... and about why those choices are made. I wrote about this in the context of the question of vegetarianism ( blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/so-what-does-vegetarianism-have-to-do-with-yoga )
But there is something else that is even more important than the idea of balance. The basic principle that drives yoga is ahimsa. You can understand this as non violence. I prefer to think of it as compassion, or kindness. A person can be non violent, but still cold and uncaring.... and I think more truly yoga only works because it acnowledges and seeks to fan the flame in each of us and collectively to see the value in all life. Another thing I say a lot is that truth and compassion are the two balanced guiding lights to our process on the mat. We seek to find our truth, but to accept it with kindness and understanding, and not judgement and anger.
Yoga has a lot to offer to anyone who wants to eat more mindfully, or more healthfully, or even to fight unhealthful levels of weight gain. But it is not in how many calories are burned by doing the postures as fast as possible. (This is not to say that there may not be good to be had in playing with how quickly postures are done, just that if you are doing it to burn calories you might be better to go out on your bike).