There was a time when medical wisdom was that bed rest was good care for a heart condition. A lot of thought and research has led us away from that notion. We have come to understand the role of activity in healing, as well as in maintaining health. We also have a better idea of how multifactorial health and wellness are. One of the most interesting early studies to look at this was the lifestyle heart trial of Dr. Ornish. He showed how exercise, diet, and lifestyle support eachother.
Of course, there have always been those ideas in fitness, and in particular in yoga. But it is nice that research backs up both the effects on the physical heart, and the effects on the metaphoric heart. Both yoga and exercise more broadly have been shown to support treatment for anxiety and depression, and a range of other mind/body ailments. Although people do go to the gym looking for the body beautiful, the gym and the yoga studio are both places that exist to facilitate healthy change.
Exercise professionals are always asking eachother: “How do we get people to commit to change?”. I think the answer is that we cannot make someone do this, but we can work together with people who are ready, and support those changes. One thing about the Ornish program was that when people had looked into the face of their own mortality they often were more ready to try to make changes that would have seemed daunting in the normal course of things. Working to support the journey to health and wellness is one of the greatest joys a trainer or exercise or yoga teacher has, and is, I think, its most important gifts.
But what I have been thinking about lately,and what I think we need to notice and bear witness to, is about how it is not just diabetes or heart surgery or joint replacement that brings people to us. Grief and loss are also part of the human condition, and require as much healing as the blocked artery and frayed tendons.
Most fitness and yoga people are not trained for this. Well, we are not on the front lines. It would be inappropriate for us to work outside of our scope of practice. First responders, ER staff, and even doctors and therapists, religious leaders and hospice workers all deal directly with trauma and loss and the first blast of the storm.
However, I think there comes a point when people want to try to find their way back from a place of grief, and here, I think we have a role to play. Grief can be like sitting in darkness. We are positioned to be beacons, to point the way. Trying to eat and nourish the body, trying to exercise and heal the body, and trying to engage with life: all of these are about healing. I was thinking about a number of older ladies whom I have in class, and many of them have talked to me about a loss of a partner or husband. How wonderful that they find their way to a class that provides sociability, and physical exercise.
There are some ways I think we can all be mindful of hidden wounds, and welcoming to those who come for more than ripped abs and flexible hamstrings. (And grief and loss are universal. We may not see the scars but I know almost everyone I have in class, and almost everyone with whom I have worked, myself included have known loss and grief and emptyness.)
Create a Space Free of Judgement
I was watching an episode of My Little Pony recently (It is actually a great show) and all but one of the ponies were crying about something very sad. When one of the ponies mentioned it another responded that Applejack was crying on the inside. There are a lot of Applejacks out there. Not everyone expresses grief in the same way. You can't assume that someone not shedding tears is not in pain. Be kind, be understanding, and above all be respectful of whatever confidences are shared with you. This also goes for not mocking those who may not have the look you think they should. Judgement is not always bad. Just save it for cruelty and greed and violence. And even then temper the judgement with compassion.
I think as leader we need to set an example of how each student treats the others. I do not model judgemental talk. I do not complain that I ate too much and need to loose weight. Imagine someone struggling deeply and being confronted with an atmosphere of judgement and criticism. I avoid criticising other teachers or students or other studios. Rancor does not breed healing.
Create a Safe Space
One of the yoga tools I really like are the Flip Chips. They are small cloth circles that students can place either side up to indicate if hands on correction works for them. They are great for a larger class, and let people figure out each class if this is what they need. It also helps keep me from spreading colds. More importantly, I know I have had students in the past who have been the victims of violence, and given the statistics I am certain there are more than I know who have put down a mat in my class. It is wonderful to give them a tool where they do not have to feel self conscious, but can be empowered to say yes or no with no judgement either way.
I always want my students to feel they can leave early if they need without being made the center of attention. If someone is making an effort to come to class I am so happy they are joining us, but completely understand they may not have the emotional stamina to make it to the end.
Create a Shared Space
At the end of class I try to remind my students to bow to eachother as well as to me when we say “namaste”. I like the idea that everyone is important and that everyone makes the class what it becomes. More than that it is one small way to try to build supportive community.
Especially when dealing with an older group loss will be assumed. Loss of loved ones, but also loss of youth, loss of function, loss of hearing.... these are with us as we grow older every day. A home that was once full and is now empty can be very lonely. A studio of gym that offers social programs, even if it is a few couches and a water cooler in the atrium can support the physical work being done in the class. Some of the studios where I teach offer book clubs and pot lucks and movie screenings and all sorts of things other than just classes.
There was an episode of the original Star Trek (which I remember watching the first time it aired) where Kirk is walking with someone who asks something like 'Can I Help?', and he tells her that some hundreds of years hence a poet will suggest those words are more important than even “I Love You”. I think they kind of work together. I think our job as instructors may be to teach down dog or squats, but our work as humans is to help and support eachother.
Beloved community is the strongest light for our path up from the dark.
There are many different types of 'fitness plans' for different goals and needs: reduction of lifestyle health risks, injury rehab, general fitness, stress reduction, and sport specific training are some of the main ones. Yoga can have a role in many of these programs. I've talked in the past a bit about yoga for runners, and yoga for stress reduction, and so on. Because I have had quite a few soccer players lately, I would like to talk a bit about how your yoga can be helpful, either in off season or during your playing season.
When dealing with any sport I think you have to take the yoga in context of other training. Yoga is a very flexible discipline (yoga joke) but if you try to stretch the limits past the basic principles of the practice you will no longer be doing yoga, and you will not be getting any better benefits than you would by using other training methods, and taking what is already in yoga and using it for your benefit.
For example: Two skills you need in soccer are speed and agility. If I start trying to have people do vinyasas while they run around obsticles it will neither be effective yoga nor effective agility drills. However there are skills you will develop in yoga that will serve your soccer practice very well.
In soccer balance is important. While you will not practice kicking a ball while standing on one leg in yoga, it does provide the oportunity to slow down and develop the brain body connection and the kinesthetic awareness, and core strength and flexibility, and ability to adapt to a shifting center of gravity,... all of which will form a base from which balance while moving can then be built. I teach a lot of vinyasa with balance poses built in, and try to teach the importance of feeling the movements between the start and finish. I think this allows us to understand the move as a whole. Again, speed can then be built on a base of control.
The specific places a soccer player will benefit from more flexibility include the ankle joints (down dog is helpful here), the hips (including inner and outer rotational movements), the hip flexors (the power of your kick will be aided if your range of motion is not too shortened by your strong thighs), and the spine (spinal twists, side bends, as well as forward and backward movements all aid in the ability to move with more fluidity, and to be able to turn to see what is going on in various directions, or to move with power.
Breath techniqes are obviously useful when working toword higher ends of aerobic capacity, as well as when trying to maintain a higher output over time, but they are also really helpful for maintaining mental calm and focus. When one is in a competition and something goes wrong, or when one makes a mistake it is easy to let that affect the rest of the game. Breath work can be used to rebalance if one finds oneself loosing that 'eye on the prize' thing.
Asana, breahtwork, proprioceptive awareness, and meditation are all part of yoga, and used together in yoga they are excellent for providing the ability to maintain focus in the midst of the storm. We often practice bringing our minds to one very specific physical spot in our body, or one part of the breath, or to one sound, or one thought, or one object in meditation. One cannot make all the distractions dissappear, but one can learn to see through the fog and to ignore that which does not matter at that moment.
Some Specific Practice Suggestions
Focus a lot on standing work. Your sport is not done seated, and this will help you build strength and endurance. There are lots of hip openers and hamstring stretches that can be done standing.
Include spinal stretches in all planes of movement (but avoid end range).
Include standing balance poses.
Do some vinyasa practice and try to focus on the movements as you go from one posture to the next, rather than just to the place where you end.
Include some pranayama techniques. A metronome can be helpful in learning to listen to the pace of your breath. Ujjayi breath is a good one to try as well.
Include a meditation portion to your practice. I think a single focus, rather than a generalized one might serve the soccer better, as it matches what you will need in your sport better, (but that is my opinion, and I am open to being convinced otherwise)
Include balance postures. You might work toword ardha chandrasana and utthita hasta padangusthasana, though you will want to do a lot of prep work as they are both challenging and should not be done cold, or before working on simpler things, like vriksasana before being attempted.
If you are local and you make it to my class please remember that I am happy to help you with your individual needs, and if you want to comment or question you can do so on my FB yoga page or through IDEAfit.
Have a wonderful soccer season, and please stay hydrated.
We often talk about yoga as a 'mind/body' exercise, or about the practice of 'mindfulness', as though it was a simple dichotomy: Here is a mind and here is a body and I will put them together and be mindful. I think this is all very interesting, but a lot more nuanced and complex in practice. I've been teaching introductory mindfulness techniques in daily life for a while, and my sense is that it is helpful to have a theoretical framework in place that captures some of this nuance.
Imagine going to the gym for the first time, or if you are a trainer working with a client who is new to exercise. There may be an idea... I want to have a healthier body.... but of course there are a multiplicity of ways of exercising that will provide benefits within different dimensions of fitness or wellness. You could work on strength, or flexibility, or agility, or balance, or core control, for example. And especially if your time is limited, or if you have specific goals in mind (to play basketball better for instance) you would need to know what you want and what dimensions of fitness would help you to reach those goals and what activities within those dimensions will give you what you need.
This is also true for the mind side of the equation. There are different aspects of 'mind' just as there are different aspects of 'body' and how we train and develop within those aspects are different.
This is why my theoretical construct for teaching mindfulness starts with the idea that the self is not unitary, but multidimensional. Within each of us we have a physical self, an emotional self, an intellectual self, a social self, a creative self, and a spiritual self. The goal of mindfulness is less to connect the mind and the body than to strengthen the threads between each of these aspects of self.
Moreover, even more basic than the idea of the multidimensional self is the dichotomy between what is us, and what is not us. I know that is a tortured sentence, but here is what I mean: imagine a graph with a number line. There is a 0 at the center, and the numbers run off to the left, as well as to the right. Sometimes we take mindfulness as a tool to travel into the self and increase self awareness, but that is to go off in one direction, and ignore the other. If being mindful is only about getting to know oneself there is a risk to narcissism and ego. This is not fully developed. But not enough self focus can be blind. What I say in class is...”if you only breath in your lungs will collapse, if you only work you will collapse, if you only rest you will atrophy.” Mindfulness is just as much about looking outward as it is about looking inward.
So how do we decide which dimension of self to explore? I think we all start out with certain strengths and weaknesses. Often we play to our strengths, which will make them stronger, but if we ignore our more challenging aspects they will surely atrophy. If you only do upper body lifting and spend 12 hours a day in a chair your legs will not grow stronger. So I think it is helpful to explore all the aspects of self, to become aware of yourself in a wider range of capacity and interest. This doesn't mean if you are a professional cyclist I would tell you to stop training and spend an hour a day meditating, or go live in an artist colony and paint. But I would suggest if you bought a coloring book, or wrote in a journal for a while at the end of the day, or joined a book group, or spent a little time at an ashram or whatever house of worship speaks best to you (and I know people for whom the place of most intense spiritual centerdness is the woods), you would get to know yourself better, and create connections between your highly developed physical self that would in turn give you a deeper appreciation of that part as well.
How to begin? Here are some of my basic suggestions.
It is not possible to pay attention to everything at once.
We must choose, so it is useful to think about how we will make those choices
Clearing our physical or inner spaces can come after we consider what we value and wish to keep, or can help us learn what that is.
Time does not stand still, nor does the mind. We must work to keep focus. As Krishnamacharya said 'We have to climb the tree to taste the mango'. But the other side of that is to treat yourself and others with compassion when it is hard.
Decluttering, like inhaling and exhaling, needs to work in both directions: our inner spaces and our outer. And in either case shoving stuff you don't want to deal with in the closet is not true decluttering. I don't think you need to put stuff that doesn't serve you out on the coffee table... but recycle, give it away, throw it out..... let it go. I know sometimes terribly hard... but if I had a giant frying pan I couldn't put down and had to carry it around with me every day it would really hard not to be focusing on the pan rather than the yoga or the meal or the friend I am with. And sometimes the letting go requires help... friends, house cleaners, or medical and or therapeutic professionals.
The world is full of wonderful things, and the day is full of shining moments, but if we close our eyes, or only see in our minds the end point, or get stuck in the past, rather than being fully in the process, we will miss them. And we cannot hit pause or rewind.
First Understand what matters to you. Journaling can be helpful for this.... One technique is to sit down and make a list of what matters most to you. If environmental impact is high on your list you may find that your exploration of social self might take you to a beach clean up. If being around to see your kids graduate is important you might put your physical self high on the list, but also work on your intellectual self by trying to learn what paths will work best by begining to explore work with a trainer or a nutritionist, rather than just going off to buy weight loss products with the best advertisments.
When my kids were young I used to tell them that all rules in our house devolved from 2 principles: People are more important than things, and It is better to be kind than to be right. Im my faith (I am a Unitarian Universalist) we live by 7 principles. I find they match my sense of what matters pretty strongly. I think people can differ a lot on what matters to them.... but I also think it is important to explore these questions, each in our own way. They provide guideposts to point us on our way.
Second Clear the clutter. Once you understand your basic principles and values it will be easier to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. And the clutter is both inner and outer. Actually this is the basis of a lot of mindfulness practice. If you go to a gong bath, or meditate to music you are stripping away everything but that sound.... same with chanting 'om'.... or doing a candle meditation. The single object can be a physical object you are looking at, or holding (different sensory point.... the 5 outer directing senses being one way we connect the inner and the outer), or an image in our mind, or a thought or idea, or a sound. But generally with these mindful techniques you are either emptying everything or focusing on one thing to clear out the extraneous.
I am not going to discuss all the varied techniques for doing this work. There are some that are small practices, like the stone I keep on my desk to remind me to pause and breathe, or the moment of silence before eating a meal as a reminder to be present to the food in front of me. Some are big ticket items... like journaling, meditating, art work, walking, reading and yoga and other mind/body exercises.
Really, anything can be a mindful practice, if we can be present to it as it unfolds, if we can have looked at how our path brought us to this place, and where it might lead us, but also be able to sit within that shining moment in awareness: to smell the honeysuckle, to hear the creak of the branches in the wind, to notice the shape and movement of the clouds, to notice the tickle of the grass on our legs, and the wetness of sweat under our knee, to lift of the rib cage and release of the diaphragm as we breathe... to feel the web of connection between our bodies and our minds, and our world, and outward to all the brimming life of our world, and it back to us.
When we first met my husband used to joke about how I cooked multi course dinners with just a fork. This is hyperbole, but it is true I didn't have a microwave or a blender or a food processor or a mandolin or a meat thermometer, or.... well, you get the idea. It isn't that I didn't cook. I rarely ate out and baked bread weekly for a long time, and even made dozens of boxes of chocolates at Christmas time. I just never saw the sense of having more kitchen ware than I needed, and was happy to do things like kneeding dough by hand. On the other hand, I did receive a food processor when we married, and almost 20 years later I still have the same one. The top mechanism is broken, so I have to push it down manually, but I have found it to be a really useful device. I use it enough that it has pride of place on the countertop.
I think the same thing can be said about any of the categories of stuff we buy and keep, not just the kitchen stuff.
I was thinking about this as I was preparing materials to give my beginner mindfulness training again. Doing meditation is a mindfulness practice. So is a silent retreat. But I like to practice and teach mindfulness with context, and in a way that is about how we live every day, rather than leaving behind the every day.
If you have six good tools in your kitchen they will be easy to clean, care for, and find when you need them. If you have six hundred you are likely to end up with things you duplicate because you forgot you already owned one, or you couldn't find it, or it got bent by being shoved into an overfill drawer. This doesn't mean everyone should pick 6 things and throw out everything else: it is relative. In a small kitchen or one where less cooking is done the line between extraneous and useful is different from one where a dozen people are fed daily, or one that serves a restaurant.
This applies to starting a yoga or fitness studio or a home exercise room as well. Here is where mindfulness as a practice can have a practical application.... If you walk into the showroom and buy the latest toy without having taken time to think about it, you could end up with something that does not fully fill your needs, or something that doesn't fit your space, or something that costs too much to run or fix, or something that is going to be obsolete in a year. It doesn't help your wallet, or your fitness goals, or our need to be kind to the earth to constantly be buying new stuff.
So here are my suggestions regarding mindfulness in accumulation of stuff:
Get to know yourself first.
This is a general starting point, rather than the specifics. Understand your values (for example, “I am against child labor, so I know I will not just go out of my way to avoid products made by child labor, but I will actively try to support fair trade items,” or “I see yoga as spiritual as well as practical and know I need to make my space represent this”, or “I am concerned with reducing and recycling, so I know I want items that will last forever and be environmentally sound”).
Think about how you already practice/workout/cook etc.
For example, if you are setting up a home yoga area go through a practice in your head... think about what things other studios have had that have been really helpful. Try to have a sense of what has worked in real time, rather than what looks good in the ad.
Do your research
Once you have a sense of what really matters to you and what your practical goals are you need to do some work to figure out what are the best places to acquire what you need, and what are the things to avoid.
Pick up the box and read the back.
This is a phrase I use when talking about mindfulness in shopping, but it applies here as well. The front of the box is meant to make you buy it. On the back is what government regulation says you have to be told. This can be helpful, but you have to learn to understand what it means. There are people who sell things and can be trusted to tell you the truth. However, there are many who will tell you the parts of the truth most likely to get you to buy their product, and some who will outright lie. If ou do your research you will have a better sense of what product will best match your need.
Before you shop for new things clear out your space, and inventory your old things.
Remember that being mindful starts with having a clear idea of where you are going and why, but also about clearing out what is just going to be something that accumulates dust or requires dusting.
One writer says to put all of your things of a certain category (clothing, books, knick nacks, etc) on the floor and put them away or get rid of them one by one by asking for each one if they bring you joy. I think there may be things that are useful without being joyful, but I agree that actually looking at your things and not holding onto, say, old magazines written in languages you don't speak, or twelve workout guides on the same muscle group is probably not the best use of space. Come on people, we have the internet now.
Try to give things away before resorting to throwing them away.
If mindfulness is reduced just to being self aware it can easily slip into narcissism. This is not true mindfulness. This is why I also teach the concept of the multi dimensional self when I teach mindfulness. One aspect of who we are is the social self. We may become the most diligent meditator, or the most flexible yogi, or the most joyful chanter, but if we are that in a vacume, rather than within a community, our mindfulness is like a light under a basket.
Background (Skip this if the Historical/philosophical stuff annoys you)
Planks are ubiquitous. I have seen them in the yoga studio, the gym, the karate dojo and the fencing studio. It is not so surprising that there will be overlap in physical disciplines from different cultures and among different sports: both the human body and the laws of the physical universe are the same throughout our world.
Fusion among disciplines also plays a role, as people bring things from one discipline into others. (We may think of fusion as a modern practice... as technology brought cultures into more contact with eachother people learned and fused a greater and greater variety of practices. From our perspective looking back we sometimes see the fluidity of our own take on the practice but see the tradition as somehow set in stone before relatively recent times. But if you look carefully at the history of any sport or fitness discipline (or any language or practice) you can see how there have always been shifts, big and small, and people and events that helped to direct those shifts.)
Today the plank would win a space on most trainers/instructors in many disciplines list of fundimentals. Yet I find with a lot of students the word 'plank' or 'push up' tends to be met with groans, or with beginners, fear. (Today I worked with one group on plank variations, which prompted such groans, which in turn prompted this blog). I thought it might be useful to consider why to do plank, and some of the particular ways it shows up in yoga class.
Some anatomical considerations
I often say to my students I want them to think of the postures we do in class as tools rather than goals. In other words, I want them to think about what they need and pick the postural work that supports those goals. However, before you can fill the tool chest you do need to learn what tools are available and how they work.
There are various ways to classify these postures: unmoving or isometric (plank, side plank, low plank, e.g.) and moving (push-ups and vinyasa where one moves in and out of chaturanga dandasana, e.g.) or in relation to gravity (plank, side plank, and reverse plank e.g.), or modifications of base pose to adapt for level of strength or proficiency (such as the knee position for push up) or for condition or injury (such as padding the wrist, or moving to the elbows, or using a bosu ball).
There are differences for different variations, but the basic benefits of this category of postures are similar: development of core muscles, improvement of balance and posture, protection of the low back, and development of strength and stability not just in the core but in the shoulders and legs as well (depending on the variation used). Easy to see why everyone uses it... it gives a really big bang for our buck.
I can give a list of muscles impacted in plank, but given how many there are I think it is more useful to think about how this posture works in more macro terms. What sets postures/asanas/movements of this category apart is the relationship of gravity to the body.
When I was young I remember a style of desk where you had 2 wooden boxes maybe 4 feet apart (I guess you could imagine short file cabinets if you prefer) and a wooden door laid across them so there was a space for your feet underneath, and the boxes were toward the ends of each side of the door. Now imagine if you started stacking books on the top. Now imagine if you couldn't find a door and used a sheet of plywood. The force of gravity is pushing down all along the body surface, and the body surface is the whole length of the body. And of course the body is not solid. There are joints which are held together by muscles and ligaments. So almost everything in the body is involved to a degree. (Less so the lateral muscles, which is why it is good to balance plank with side plank).
You can also see why people tend to drop their tush in plank. You need strong abdominal muscles to keep the spine in alignment, and pushing against gravity builds them. This strength also helps to promote stability when the body is in other relationships to gravity... sitting, standing, therefore helping to keep the pelvis and the lumbar spine from being pushed out of place, therefore aiding in avoiding low back stress and pain and promoting better balance. But gravity doesn't just act on the front of the body.... it passes through the whole body, so the low back muscles are also being used isometrically, a balance of strength front and back.
But though that center of your desk is holding up a lot of weight, so are the two ends. And of course the arms are not a solid block either. The arms and shoulders and the hips and legs are also holding up weight, and, when you add the push up movement, or the slide out of chaturanga dandasana you have cocontraction of the biceps and triceps, and the chest and upper back and rotator cuff muscles stabalizing the movement. And keeping the legs straight requires gluteal, hip flexor, quadricep, gastrocnemius, etc.
How can one not give this movement pride of place in our tool box?
Basic principles of use:
Balance each posture/movement with oppositional postures/movements to develop synergists and promote balance. (An example would be if you use chaturanga dandasana you might use navasana to balance the core aspect, purvottanasana to reverse the arm and shoulder aspect, and stand hand to balance the wrist aspect. Please note I did not say handstand.)
Use both moving and held positions. Holding helps with the development of endurance and stability, but being able to move through postures with stability and control in different relationships to gravity more clearly mirrors our daily activities and needs.
Modify as needed. The last blog entry before this one was all about modification, so I will suggest looking at that.
Breathe. Deep belly breath that moves the diaphragm thereby provides vagal stimulation that promotes the release of acetylcholine and thereby reduction of stress. If someone already finds plank anxiety provoking chest breathing won't make it better. Also it is an opportunity to practice the body surfing breath, where you maintain intra abdominal control while moving the diaphragm and breathing deeply.
Remember that most of these movements, except for the low variations put a lot of stress on the wrists, so make sure to balance each session with other movements that are not on the wrists.
Yoga Postures in the Plank Family (and some of my favorite variations)
This is not a comprehensive list, just some of the favorite ones in my tool chest.
Bird dog – While not a classic yoga pose, it is a useful first rung for someone who is not yet ready for plank, or as a warm up and preparatory stretch for plank.
Kumbhakasana – Your standard plank. Can move from the hands to the elbows, to low plank, or can be done on the knees. I prefer a folded blanket under the knees if one uses this variation.
Chaturanga Dandasana – (chatur (4) anga (limb) dand (staff) asana )pose) ) . I do not teach this a lot. I am more apt to offer it as an option at particular places for those who know how to use it and have the strength to do so. I will occasionally teach it, but only if I have enough time to spare to teach it with precise alignment. I really love the smooth vinyasa transitions between chaturanga dandasana, urdha mukha svasana, and adho mukha svasana.
Purvottanasana – (east side intense stretch) Reverse plank.
Vasisthasana – (the name of the pose refers to a person) I love this pose. It is a great tool to promote balance between the left and the right side of the body. There was research recently about using the posture to help reduce scoliotic curviture, for instance. And there are lots of variations, both to make it harder and to make it more gentle.
Low plank – I use these a lot in my core conditioning classes. Some of my favorite variations:
Hold the ankles tightly together and point each toe in turn slowly, equally slowly changing sides.
Move up from here to bend each leg and lift each foot to the ceiling in turn, keeping the knees tightly together.
Move up from here to lift each straight leg from the hip. Not for anyone with back pain or weaker abdominals.
Holding the ankles tightly together roll just the legs right and left. If really flexible you can roll till the body weight is resting on the outer surface of each foot in turn. Letting the hip sink down gives a great stretch.
Progress from here to lift the same side arm as the leg you are rolling to the top. Make sure not to allow the arm to move past 90 degrees to minimize stress on the shoulder girdle.
Walk from low plank to dolphin and back.
Progress to dolphin
Progress to yoga push up … keeping the legs in dolphin, but dipping the breastbone toward the third knuckle.
Please don't do these at home
These are really advanced and have the capacity to injure if done without significant strength, significant flexibility, and significant training. I would not teach them in class, and some I have never mastered myself. But they might be of interest to those who are ready for them, or those who are wondering about what sorts of postures one might find if one went far enough on this road. Also, again, they are representative, and in no way exhaustive.... that is one of the great things with yoga... there are so many ways to explore.
I would suggest googling them if you want to see what they look like. Just describing them really would not do them justice.
Visvamitrasana – This is a much harder variation on vasisthasana.
Mayurasana – Peacock.
Astavakrasana – This is more in the family of arm balances like crow, but deserves a mention with plank variations because the arms are like chaturanga dandasana, and the legs straight, though they are wrapped around one of the arms
When we think of modifications it is often from a specific point of view.... “I have something going on that makes my usual practice/workout painful or inaccessible, so how do I work around it”. When a trainer or instructor first learns how to teach or train they generally will learn about common conditions and how they effect the body, and specific ways to 'modify' to those conditions. This is all very helpful.
I would, however, like to suggest that these are only the big ticket items. Every workout, every practice, is always being modified in a multiplicity of ways. It is great to learn about how to modify to improve your golf swing, or how to modify after hip replacement, or for osteoarthritis. But it is also good to have a sense of the inherently malleable nature of the human condition, and how we can meet our practice or exercise session with that in mind.
Goals have a lot to do with how we choose to modify. Someone who wants to become more healthy in their daily life will modify after the same type of injury quite differently from someone who is a professional dancer whose career is tied to being able to perform in a certain way. For the first person a leg stretch is a tool to create flexibility and stability and balance.... to the second it is a goal.
Whatever the goal may be, knowing where you are right now will make it easier to choose the path toword it. This is one of the advantages to doing mind/body exercise, or mindfulness training. I might have two people with the same condition, but one may have been injured recently, or have other conditions, or not have the same underlying physical strength. How they modify is likely to be rather different, and how I instruct them in that modification is also going to be different.
Part of that knowing where you are is understanding that you may HAVE diabetes, for example, but it is not all you are. And just as the whole is more than the sum of the parts, how you modify for something is affected by what else is going on in your body (and mind). This is kind of like what one sees with medication. When a doctor prescribes a new medicine they have to consider not just your body weight and your age and other demographic factors, but what other medicines, suppliments, and vitamins you are taking. Each one may have interactions with others which will shift how each one acts.
Exercise or yoga practice, like fitness goals are always part of a network of interwoven, not always mutually helpful priorities and needs.
Here are a few general thoughts on modification:
Be clear with what your goals are before you begin.
When you first begin having a knowledgeable guide is really helpful.
Learn to practice mindfulness techniques …. learn to listen to signals from the body before you go to the edge.
If you have an injury or new medical condition seek medical help and information from a medical professional. When you are cleared it is a good time to return to other fitness activities.
Remember that your practice is likely to provide safer and more effective outcomes if you learn to shift and modify toword a wide variety of conditions, both external and internal.
I am not going to give detailed information on how to modify, but if any of these areas seem to relate to you I would suggest you seek out that information. In some cases a trainer, or instructor can help, in others you might want a physical therapist or other medical practitioner, or even a nutritionist or therapist. There are a wide range of knowledgeable professionals. Seek someone who has good professional credentials, recommendations (preferably from someone you know and trust), and someone who won't expect a ton of money upfront, but will give you time to see if they are the right person to work with you).
Some areas of interest for modification:
Climate: Heat and humidity and cold all have effects on the body, as does elevation. Sudden changes are harder to deal with. And when one is older or less fit the effects can also be more problematic.
Time of year: Not just in terms of how cold it is. The amount of daylight can affect many people, and seasonal holidays can bring stress, or shifts in patterns of eating and travel, and so on.
Time of day: There are definitely shifts in energy levels thorugh the day. A lot of them are common, though I have seen variability person to person. With yoga there is a big difference between my own practice on a December morning, and a June evening, for example
Terrain: For example if one is used to running on an indoor machine, and shifts to running outside, especially through the woods there are issues about foot wear and preperation that are helpful.
Community: Most people can relate to the fact that they are going to feel a different energy sitting with six friends listening to a chamber group play Beethovan than they are with several thousands at a Taylor Swift concert. An example of what I mean here would be how if you are going to lift weights with a group of friends who are regular and heavy lifters it is good to be mindful of where you are before you begin, and not to let the energy lead to injury.
Age: There are modifications that come into play at both ends of the age spectrum. Some of the modifications as we age are really about specific conditions, that are secondary to age, but are common enough that most people who work with this group will set the baseline of the work for them, rather than modifying to meet them.
Body type: By this I mean not just size (for example, with someone who is very heavy, they may do better starting with a chair for extra support in yoga, as the joints are starting from a more stressed place. As muscle builds, the chair will be less necessary) but also things like height and limb length. I find people with longer legs often are rather tight in that area. And look at someone like Michael Phelps.... I have heard it said that part of what really worked for him as a swimmer is that a lot of his height was in his torso.
Posture: Where someone is before they move is relevant to how they are when they start to move. And certainly if, for instance, I see someone who is stooped (and I have ruled out other things that would make such work dangerous or unproductive) I am likely to be interested in chest openers and shoulder strength.
Medications: Some can have an effect on heart rate, so need to be taken into account before starting an activity that uses a heart rate monitor, for instance. But that is only one thing. If one is on A medicine it is good to talk to one's doctor and to read the product inserts. If one is on several it is really really good to talk to one's doctor about interactions and effects.
Habits and Schedule: If one's work, or daily schedule, or family engagements shift one's exercise tends to shift as well. It is good to be flexible, and to have options already ready if one knows that one's life and obligations tend to be fluid.
Personality: Understanding who you are is very helpful as you choose your workout or practice. A Bikram or true Ashtanga Vinyasa practice will be highly structured, an Iyanger practice will be structured in a very different way, a Bhakti practice will be highly emotive and exstatic. Are you curious? Do you tend to be anxious? (sometimes a trainer is really good to start with, as it will alleviate the stress that you might be doing something wrong).
Injuries: Old injuries can leave scars, or tight spots, or places that work quite differently now. I have a finger I broke falling up the basement stairs (long story) and even post hand therapy it just doesn't open as far as it used to. Newer injuries need specific medical attention and should not find their way into a general class until one's medical advisor has cleared one. Getting feedback during therapy about anything to be aware of long term is very helpful.
Conditions: These are the things we usually think of when we think of modifying.... hip replacements, diabetes, heart disease, macular degeneration..... and others that are common enough that I have seen them in more than one person, but which are less often talked about.... stress incontinence, spondilolysthesis, …. oh there are lots of them. One think I would say here is that we tend to think of ways to adapt to teaching someone with a specific physical need, but conditions that have to do with mood, or mind are as important, and often as needing of modifications. So, for example, someone may be told by their doctor that they have an anxiety disorder and that they would benefit from yoga. That person, if they have never done it before, may wish to start working one on one, if they are anxious about hurting themselves, or they may wish to speak to the teacher privately about their concerns. They may also want to start lifting lighter than someone else, as a small injury may feel more to them. This is one example.... any modification here has to meet the needs of the individual.
Sports and exercises: Someone who used to do a sport seriously will definitely have differences in how they move and how they think about that movement. This is even more so with someone who currently is invovled in some sport or fitness regimin and takes on another.
The bottom line is that a teacher or trainer needs to meet each student as unique, and provide them with what they need based on an understanding of who and where they are. Modifications are less about shifting the 'right' way of doing things off of the 'correct' path, than about acknowledging that there are a lot of paths forward, and we learn more by looking and considering where and how we walk.
When I used to have my own space and ran my own program I used to tell people who approached me about classes to buy a single class first, before they bought the 6 class pass. I knew I was competent: that was not the question. But not every teacher is the right teacher for every student. For me teaching yoga was never about how many bodies I could pack in the room, or how much money I could make, or how much press I could generate. It is kind of like the packaged food in the market.... I would rather be the orange that you take if you like oranges, and want the vitamin c and bioflavanoids and so on, than the packaged product covered with colorful words and images shouting “Here I am!!!, I am all you need to fix anything wrong with you!!!, Nothing else is as good as I am!!!”
So I would like to share what I look for in a yoga teacher. The caveat here is that some of these things may matter to you, and some may not. Like the 'bucket list' what matters is thinking about what will go on that list. And not giving up if you try one style, or teacher, or class and it doesn't work. Because, believe me there are huge differences between lineages, schools, teachers, and styles.
Compassion and Cooperation over Competition
Thomas Hobbes once described nature as a “bellum omnium contra omnes”, or a war of everone against everyone else. I reject that as complete truth. But I also cannot see that it is completely a community of seekers of truth and justice either. It is a shifting interplay of dark and light.... and our choices (to paraphrase Dumbledore) more than our talents have a lot to do with our role in this play. Yoga is all about being present, and being mindful. When we are most mindful we can start to understand how important our choices are, and how much stronger we are when we connect with and work together with our fellow beings.
So I tend to avoid teachers who trash talk other teachers, or who insist that their vision, or their practice is always better than someone elses, or say I should go to their studio because THEY will allow something or not have something that others do or don't.
For me as a teacher there are times I slip with this. There are styles that I find inherently problematic for one reason or another, but generally I try to practice both the art of supporting my fellow teachers, and not insisting on the primacy of my own style.
A Good Listener over A Good Speaker
This is not that I do not look for someone who is simply physical. I am very much a jnana yogini, and I crave the intellectual, cognitive input, as well as the kinesthetic. This is more that I want someone who is able to be a great teacher without being in love with being a great teacher.
In this I include presence along a wide range of noticing, not just listening, but seeing, and so on. Back when I was teaching a lot of aerobics in the late 80s and early 90s I used to call this teaching to the mirror. Sometimes someone would be watching themselves in the mirror rather than noticing the students. One thing I like my students to do after a class is to share a bow and a 'namaste' not just with me and to me, but with eachother.... of course I matter, but so do they all.
Substance over Form
My last blog was about some of the things one sees in a yoga studio. Well, yoga teachers generally have a certain look, as well as the studios. There is a very funny College Humor video about Gandhi taking a yoga class that really nails this. I love a beautiful yoga studio.... I love the art, and the candles, and the quiet.... but I do not equate a good studio with how it looks, but with the quality of the teaching. And I do not equate the quality of the teaching with how many expensie leggings someone owns or how many 'om' tank tops, or scarves and silver and crystal dangly earrings they wear. I am not suggesting a teacher should wear sackcloth, and I am not against fashion. I actually like that particular look, and I can think of a few teachers who have it and are really great teachers. I just find it neither sufficient nor necessary. It is again, like the wrapping on the box in the market. I always pick up the box and read the back before I buy anything.
Caring Enough About Their Craft to Keep Learning
Even teachers who have taught for decades still have things to learn from other teachers. Even teachers who focus on a specific style or form of yoga have something to learn from studying other forms. Teachers who teach an asana based practice can learn from studying chanting, teachers who teach meditation can learn from studying anatomy. None of us is immune from economic realities. We all have pressures within our life and the need to balance our resources and attention between different areas. If I were independently wealthy I would be at trainings weekly. If I did not have children at home and had the money for it I would be at Kripalu once a month. But I do try to read, and to attend classes, and to get to at least one big training of some sort every year. And when choosing my teachers I really value someone who shares this love of learning. In particular I love to see someone taking more than the same sort of trainings over and over. I think it is important to understand your subject deeply, but also to understand the complex interactions it has across other subjects and practices.
Yoga studios tend to have a certain look. Part of this has to do with the practical needs of doing yoga. For example, a carpeted floor tends to hold more dust, and is less desireable for a practice where your face is regularly close to the floor. Part has to do with the rather long and highly fluid history of the practice of yoga. There are objects with philosophical meaning, sometimes simply vestigial, sometimes repurposed (older meanings left over to which new ones are added, like layers in an archeological dig), sometimes multiple philosophical/cultural/historical/spiritual meanings are mashed together, sometimes retaining their original meaning to some and simply being like a sign that says 'yoga studio' to others. Even a yoga room in an exercise studio tends to retain some of this look. So here are a few of the things you might see in a yoga studio, and a little bit about why they were there and my take on how they are useful as more than historical artifiact.
It is widely known that yoga arose as a spiritual and philosophical practice in India thousands of years ago. Therefore it arose in the context of Hinduism. While many, if not most, practitioners of yoga today would not consider themselves followers of this religion, there are some who do, and some who do partly. There is a famous quote in yoga.... “Truth is one, paths are many”. Remember that Ghandi said he was both Hindu and Christian. Yoga tends to have symbols drawn from the heritage of the culture in which it arose, but in yoga those symbols also stand for an idea of a basic human spiritual quest.
Here are some common figures you might find in a yoga studio:
The first is Ganesh. One Ganesh story is that he was a boy who had his head knocked off (kind of by mistake, but it is a long story) and Shiva sent his followers to get a new one, and the first one they found was an elephant head so he put that on in place of the original and made Ganesh the head of his followers. Ganesh is considered a very auspicious figure, and a figure of devotion. I think for us today it can also be a reminder that we cannot avoid every painful experience, but we can always strive to move past them, to look for possibility rather than resentment and anger.
The second is the dancing Shiva (Nataraja). Shiva is one of the great 3 triad: Brahma the creater, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. There is a long story behind why Shiva is dancing in a ring of fire, and for each object he holds, and so on. These sort of bronze statues of dancing Shiva have been around over a thousand years. I think as a symbol for someone who comes from a different tradition, this can still be a powerful symbol of yoga as a practice seeking balance. First the idea of Shiva as destroyer is first that we all have unhealthy habits, old stuck ways of thinking of things.... in any wellness practice we are seeking to destroy and burn away that which does not serve us, as only then do we have room to bring in the new. Kind of like a fire in the woods and the new life that arises after. And second, this idea of death and rebirth, of the balance of what we preserve, what we destroy and what is created in its place is inherent in the cycle of nature. And this image underlines the balance in the practice of yoga between the active, powerful and energizing physical part of the practice, and the meditative, inward, resting part of the practice. (The story has him defeating deamons through his dance, while retaining his calm throughout).
The third is the Buddah. 'But' you say to me, 'I thought yoga came out of Hinduism?'. Well, so did Buddhism. And the stories of the Buddah sitting under the tree would have been quite a bit before Patanjali wrote the 'Yoga Sutras' which are widely taken to be the most important text of yoga. I kind of like what Sarah Powers said “There is a wider range of the psychological realm in the Buddhist tradition” ( http://www.lionsroar.com/buddhism-and-yoga-where-the-paths-cross/#). That statues of the Buddah have found their way into the yoga studio is a sign of, and a reminder to continue to find, the importance of the meditative practices. As with most of this statuary the positions of the hands, the mudrahs, (I have blogged about mudrahs before) always have meaning. This statue has a hand down to touch the earth because it refers to a story in which the deamon brings a bunch of friends to witness that he is the enlightened one, and the one who is to be the Buddah touches the earth to show that the whole earth is his witness. I like the image of touching the earth but reaching out or up with the other hand, as it reminds us to stay connected to our physicality as we reach up to connect to our spiritual or intellectual or emotional self.
Candles are common object sused in spiritual settings: from Diwali, the festival of lights, to lighting the Sabbath candles, to candles in a Catholic church.... they are ubiquitous symbols of the light of truth, the light of compassion, the light of hope in dark times. When we say 'Namaste' in yoga one of the common translations is 'the light in me greets the light in you'. It is small wonder one would have candles in a yoga studio.
Fire is also a symbol of rebirth …. think of the Phoenix. In Hinduism cremation is practiced because it is believed that fire releases the soul from its old form for rebirth. I think anyone who has ever begun an exercise program or a yoga practice can connect to the idea of walking through the fire into personal transformaion.
Pragmatically speaking, and I talk to my students about this all the time, a yoga studio tends not to be lit with bright artificial lights because part of the practice is about creating focus. The more sensory distractions that can be done away with the easier it will be to learn to create focus and calm. So the studio tends to be quieter, less garishly painted and decorated, and less bright. I have blogged before about meditation and how in yoga there are a ton of techniqes to do single point meditation (as a way to remove all but one sensory center of focus, and then to move to uncentered focus). Candles are one tool that can be used in this way. (tratak)
Gongs/Brass Bowls/Crystal Bowls
If the candle is used as a way to focus visually on one image, there are other auditory techniques to focus on one sound. A mantra can be used to help drop one into a meditative state, as can the sound of a gong or bowl. Actually sound can be used in very complex ways to affect emotional states, as anyone who plays or sings or enjoys music or runs with their ipod knows. A lot of yoga studios offer 'gong baths' or 'kirtans' or other events in which one can explore this side of the multidimensional self.
The brass bowls (what I have) are, as I understand it, are Tibetan in origen. But there are also bowls made of quartz crystals. They are tuned to align with the chakras. I have blogged about the chakras before and will just suggest you look that up if it interests you. I am not an expert on chakra theory or practice. There are people who teach yoga specifically in reference to these energy centers, and certainly the use of the tuned bowls would come up in some of that type of practice.
We know that physiologically music and sound generally has an extremely strong effect on human mood. There is research that the tempo of music can affect one's exercise intensity. ( Waterhouse J, Hudson P, Edwards B. "Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance.", Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Aug;20(4):662-9.doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.00948.x PMID 19793214)
I personally very much enjoy the music of Steven Halpern, who has created a number of albums, some of which use crystal bowls, and some of which try to use the frequency of the music to elicit shifts in brain flow.
I am SO not an expert on this topic. However, many people who teach yoga are interested in crystals and crystal healing. It has an association with the chakras (which also have an association with sound, and therefore with the use of sound devices which I just talked about), as each chakra is taken to be associated with a sound as well as a color, as well as certain stones, and other things. As I see it it all comes down to wavelengths and the way energy flows and the way that things and energy transmute into each other (remember e=mc2). You will certainly see representations of the chakras, and various crystals in a many studios. One example would be the throat chakra which represents learning to self express in a way that is true to that self. Turquoise would be a stone that is associated with that chakra.
I think even for those who do not find themselves drawn to this branch of philosophical study might find it useful to use a small stone as a reminder that a certain idea or habit or concept is important to them. So, if one knows that one is very self judgemental in word and thought having a small stone of turquoise on one's desk might serve as a reminder to be mindful that that is interpretation and not truth. Yoga is meant to be a way of being in the world that goes beyond what we do in the hour or hour and a half we spend on the mat at a time, after all.
I was gong to talk about OM, which is not an object, but is something you will see in pretty much every yoga studio you enter, but it is such a big and important topic I think I will leave that to another blog.
I spent a half hour trying to get the visuals to transfer with the text. I am not sure that I succeeded as I am a very non technological yogini. If you cannot see the images please message me and I will send you the document as it was meant to look. I cannot get too upset, as I am grateful to IDEA for giving me a site from which to blog, I suppose it is part of the travails of not having a budget to hire someone who is technically savvy to do it for me :-)
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.