To explain the use of shavasana in yoga I often use a particular set of images in my classes.
Imagine the class as a walk you are taking with the group of other students through the woods. As a group you are walking together, but you do not all walk in exactly the same way: there will be some who are bird watchers, and some who like to race to the top of every hill, some who run ahead and double back, some who enjoy the company and conversation, some who like to take pictures, or some who like to sit and rest by the water for a bit. There is a path I am following, but I do not expect people to step precisely in my footprints from beginning to end. I've had students (more than once) come into a class, lie down, and fall asleep. Afterwards they have said that it was just what they needed. I have students who really need that headstand or crow, even when they are in a room of students who are taking a different path. I try to set a tone that we need to listen and look inward for what we need, and then support those with whom we are practicing as they do the same.
Now imagine that as you come to the end of the walk, feeling stretched, a little tired, but with that good feeling that physical exercise tends to promote you find yourself at the end of the woods, entering a sandy stretch approaching a large marble building, shining in the sunlight. As you come to the edge, there is a kind of portico, or vestibule, or covered poarch area, with seats, and a place to stow your shoes. When you enter and sit it is quiet... you can hear some noises of the people who are still in the woods, though they are muffled, and beyond that are aware of the more frenetic pace of the city beyond. But in that space it is quiet, and peaceful, and you can simply rest.
Shavasana can be just that: a place of rest after your practice. If yoga is about balance, shavasana is essential to that practice. During a typical practice your forward and backward bends have balanced eachother, your right twists balanced your left, your inhales balanced your exhales, and so on. Fight or flight balances the relaxation response. Parasympathetic activity balances sympathetic.
But this space is more than a place to rest and regroup. On one side we can exit (back through the woods, or the yoga studio) to the parking lot, as it were. But on the other side is that elegant, shining, beautiful, quiet building. If our focus is clear enough we will be able to make out a door along the wall. As we approach the door we can hear the sound of the ocean, and see the blue of an endless sky within, and beyond that golden light.
Shavasana is one of the doorways into meditation. My own feeling is that it is important to understand that we will not enter the royal path of meditation every time we enter shavasana. Sometimes we are going to rest in the portico, and that is exactly what we need. Sometimes the traffic in the parking lot is so loud that we cannot focus enough to find the doorway. And that is when we must find compassion and patience. The building is not like the village in Brigadoon. It will not vanish never to be found again. We hold the key. We can loose track of it, but it can always be found again.
I came to this place almost as soon as I did yoga, as a child. I lost it for quite a long time. I found it again with a wonderful teacher, years later. Over the years there were spans when I entered easily, but other, sometimes long spans when the woods were full of storm clouds and I could not find the sun. Of late it seems easier and easier to see the door, even when the sky is dark. I guess I stopped worrying about getting in, or needing to prove anything to myself or anyone else. Each of us who decides to have a meditative practice, of whatever kind will find that it will have its ups and downs, like any other practice. Some days the forward bend goes to the floor. Some days you need a block. Some days you need a nap. And some days you really do need to go buy groceries. But if you practice yoga for long enough, and deeply enough there will come a day you will enter that door.
I try to go to take other people's classes as often as I can. I also try to go to workshops. It is so important not just to have your own practice in yoga, but also to keep open to new ideas, and to learn from others. I also try to do one 'big' training a year. My current family obligations make it hard for me to do as much as I would like, in terms of time and cost, but I make an effort to keep up with training as well as reading.
In August I went for my big training to attend the IDEAfit convention. This is a huge fitness convention: about 12,000 fitness trainers, instructors, business owners, and a sprinkling of body work professionals, Pilates instructors, and so on. This is a bit out of the box for me. Although I teach and am certified in group exercise, and used to do and be certified in personal training, my main calling (I recently blogged on the difference I see between calling and training) is in yoga. Typically I go for a yoga training. But although it is good to deepen one's understanding of one's own area, it is equally important to learn from other areas. I find having read Aristotle has deepened my understanding of how to do physical asana. I find having studied symbolic logic helps me understand the connection between phrasing in music and developing choreography in aerobic dance.
There are a few differences between a 'yoga' training, and a 'fitness' training. Yoga centers tend to be dedicated spaces. I guess this stems from the ashram experience: one leaves the urban center to go to a place of spiritual retreat. This is not a new idea: in many times and cultures people would go to the desert, or to a cave, or to the wilderness to be alone to pray or meditate. I have a friend who is going soon for her 500 hour teacher training in Bali. When I train I often go to Kripalu, because it is only a 3 hour drive from me, and because it is one of the best yoga training centers in the U.S. … I know I can work with some of the best teachers in the world here.
Last summer I went to Kripalu to work with Gary Kraftsow. He is founder of the Viniyoga school, and trained with Krishnamacharya (arguably the most influential yoga teacher of his age). The first part of the drive is highway, but as get closer things become more and more verdent. When you enter the grounds of Kripalu there are acres of green.... you walk toward the entrance, and if you turn you can see down a wide expanse of lawn, sprinkled with a few people sitting, or strolling quietly, across a road, down past the meditation walk, all the way across the lake. The sky pulls you up and you feel as though the white noise is lifted away. The process of doing yoga is about being present, not just about learning how to stand on one hand.
Fitness training tends to do better in an urban setting. Comparing the IDEA world convention and a training at Kripalu is in some ways a false comparison. IDEA world is enormous. And some of the training requires equipment that would be expensive to cart out to the wilderness. But for most fitness trainings one needs hardware, and space for people, and the one's I have attended tend to be in more populated places.
Food was one thing that was different. A lot of yoga places are very vegetarian. Kripalu offers chicken, but only of the free range variety, and has lots of options for those who are vegetarian or vegan. I had a lot of trouble finding vegetarian and vegan options at IDEA world (although there were people at the expo with samples of both). I think this is partly that it is hard to offer such things on such a large scale and in a convention center setting, and partly that not everyone in fitness is looking for the same thing. I stood behind a woman at a sandwich shop who ordered diet soda with her sandwich. I have not seen soda of any kind at the yoga trainings I've done. I found a small vegan place a short walk from the convention center, but when I mentioned it to some people who were talking about walking out for lunch they laughed and said they wanted chicken. I am neither vegan nor fully vegetarian, though I might be if I was not cooking for a family. I think people should think about the health and philosophical context of their eating choices, but those choices are just that: choices. But it seems clear to me that there is a lot more emphasis on vegetarianism (and on sustainablilty) in the yoga community. (I have blogged about this before).
One thing is certainly similar for both of these trainings. I had the opportunity to learn from some of the best people in their fields. As honored as I was to work with Gary Kraftsow (and with David Swenson... a senior Ashtanga teacher who trained with Sri. K Patthabi Jois) the year before, I was as honored to have a seminar with Len Kravitz.
Len Kravitz is a fitness researcher. I have followed his work for years. I even have an early VCR tape he made years ago of abdominal exercises. His articles on the science of exercise are exceptionally well written and always interesting. I do wish I could sit through that lecture he gave three more times though, as I felt left behind in a few cases. (A wonderful feeling.... that one is being stretched). The topic was on fat metabolism. This is something I studied a lot on back when I was a trainer and doing my master's work in exercise science. I've been thinking of doing a small workshop for my students, as I think people who have an interest in weight control would benefit from having some good information to balance all the information they get from people eager to sell them products and services. His workshop was fabulous, and presented quite a lot I did not know, and that I suspect even some trainers do not know.
I also got to do two workshops with Susan Hitzmann. Foam rollers are used in Feldenkrais and Pilates (I think Moshe Feldenkrais may have been one of the earliest people do do so), but her MELT program has really taken research on fascia and practical techniques for the use of foam rollers and balls and created one of the best and most well thought out programs out there. She has a DVD available that I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn her method. She also offers trainings, and I highly recommend her. She is a truly gifted teacher.
I guess the most 'out of the box' thing I did was to take a kettle ball class. It was pretty hard for me. I really like lifting weights. I think there are great benefits to bone density, and to a lot of othere paramaters of fitness. And the old idea that you cannot do both yoga and weights because if you stretch in yoga you will give up the bulking you want from the weights is something I haven't heard in decades, thankfully. I think most people now get that yoga is about more than just stretching as far as possible. I also think kettle balls are an efficient way of training. I do not think they are for me though. I do not see anything more I can get from them that I cannot get from the old fashioned free weights. But I must stress that I do not argue from there that they are not good for anyone. For a serious trainer it is good to have multiple tools, and for some sports and training the effect of this modality may be just what they need.
I do worry about a couple of things generally. One is that people sometimes go to something new because they get bored, rather than because it is inherently best for what they want. That is not always bad.... if a person gets bored easily and doing new things keeps them exercising, well that is better than sitting on the couch. And cross training varies the load and therefore varies stress and therefore lessens overuse injury. But is it good for the pocketbook to keep buying new stuff? And is it good for the earth to keep tossing out stuff, rather than simplifying?
The other thing (and this is not new, though I think it is more common now) is that sometimes things seem to be about “Here is our program... we want you to sign on, do trainings, certify, pay annual fees to join, buy our stuff, and sell it to your students” rather than, here is some interesting new choreography, or some research about safety or effectiveness. In other words how things are packaged has to do with profit. Think of how it is with restaurants and stores. When we went to see my mom in Kansas some years ago we had a very long drive from the airport and stopped into a little restaurant that had the best pie I have ever eaten. It was not a chain.... just a single restaurant. With Chipolte I can go to one in Florida and one in Rhode Island, and I know it will be good.... but it will be the same. With that pie, I will not have another like it again, but I will remember it. If I go to a store in D.C. to buy a present for my family in Rhode Island, and it is the same thing I can get anyplace else why not just buy it in RI? There is an advantage to a gym to hire a company to provide a prepackaged exercise program from a company. They do not have to have someone on staff who makes sure that everyone is trained and knows what they are doing and has music, and so on. The company does that and the instructor pays them for the training and music and so on. But the public might know if they get a sub they will still get what they expect.... but what they will miss is the creative piece. I personally prefer to get something unique and then pick it apart and put the ideas together with my own to make something that I think will work for the people who choose to work with me.
I have wonderful memories of my 'going to the mountaintop' trainings: the underground meditation room and the cold water of the bathing hole at the White Lotus foundation in the hills above Santa Barbara, reading in the sun room, and the restfulness of silent breakfasts at Kripalu. I also learned so much at IDEA world. If one is looking to deepen one's practice, or if one is a trainer or yogi seeking to learn more I would recommend either. In fact, if you are a trainer or teacher and have never gone to an ashram I highly recommend the experience, and if you are a yoga teacher in the traditional mold I recommend stepping into the other world. I think it is a good way to stay both strong and flexible both mentally and physically.
Prelude: On Training versus Calling
One of the standard questions any adult asks a young child they first meet is, “What do you want to be when you group up?”. By the time that young person is a teenager the question has usually shifted to, “What do you want to do when you are out of school?” The question is whether this is a shift, or if the being and the doing should or must have some connection.
There are a few areas by which one can judge suitableness of profession for a person. The ability to support oneself is important, but something people do not tend to think about until they are facing doing so. On the other hand if making money becomes the primary factor one can end up in a job where one is 'living for the weekend'.... and giving away rather a large part of their life between the weekends. To be able to make a living at something one enjoy's doing is worth the trade off to earn a bit less, and be a bit happier. The third thing I think one can forget is that it helps to be good at what one chooses to do. If one tries to work at something one loves, but for which one has a demonstrated lack of aptitude, one is likely to live in a state of frustration as much as happiness.
So if one is fortunate one can figure out, train for, and find employment in something one enjoys, has skill in, and can earn a decent living doing (recognizing that the people would disagree on how much weight to give each part of this). If one is really fortunate one will have one more aspect to one's life task. Here is where I see the difference between training and calling.
I see calling as more than an ability in an area, or an enjoyment in doing something. I see it as a belief in the deep importance of the work, not just for oneself, but for one's community, or one's world. Joined to this is the conviction that who one is, at their most fundamental core, is someone who should be doing this work. There are some types of work that are more likely to be filled with those with calling, rather than simply training: spiritual or religious leaders, public defenders, investigative journalists, those who serve in doctor's without borders, or other such organizations. And, yes, I would add the preponderance of the yoga teachers I have known (at least in years past) would definitely be in this group.
I know full and well I could earn more doing something else, but for me being a teacher of yoga is not something I do, but something I am (to be a bit trite). Even when I was not working actively, my yoga way of being was the bedrock of my being. I love teaching. I would rather teach than go on vacation. When I finish a class and sign my mantra it is an outward manifestation of a radiant joy I find within. It is difficult to articulate this without sounding like a hallmark card, but no worry of sounding hokey can shake my belief that this matters, and that this is my place.
“Whoa” you say. I am a fitness instructor, or personal trainer, and I just want to teach a few yoga classes, to expand my repitore. There is no reason why you cannot teach yoga without a 'calling'. There is no reason why you cannot explore the physical, postural discipline, or even the meditation or any other part of it. Do understand that you will find as you work with yoga people, that you will find rather a lot of people to whom the practice is a lot more than doing downward dog or head stand.
The Nuts and Bolts of Teacher Training
I would like to give some practical advice to anyone who is thinking about doing some yoga teacher training. Keep in mind that how you train will affect where and how you are likely to work. There are differences between health clubs, yoga studios, research studies, and running your own program.
If you are unfamiliar with either the world of group fitness, or the world of yoga (and they are not the same though there is overlap) and are wondering about teaching yoga as a career my advice is to take a few classes. It is also very helpful to read a book or two on the history, philosophy, and types of practice. If you do not love doing yoga yourself this is not a great career path.
If you are have a yoga practice (and that is the way it is usually phrased in yoga... “I do yoga”, is less used than “I have a practice”) and are thinking of teaching you probably do not need a ton of advice on how to set about getting teacher training. You will be familiar with the various lineages, or schools, and will be likely to have favorite teachers or studios who either offer training, or can advise you on where to take it. The one big piece of advice I have if you do yoga but do not yet teach is to ask the place you intend to train if it helps with finding you teaching assignments.
If you are a working group fitness instructor or personal trainer who is thinking of adding yoga to your training I have the same advice regarding creating a regular practice, and doing some background reading. The biggest difference here is that people interested in yoga in this group may be thinking not of teaching a regular yoga class, but of adding some yoga to their schedule. Typically someone working in fitness will have connections and perhaps students. But before offering any program, or taking any training it is a good idea to check your insurance. If you are teaching yoga and someone gets injured (even if not your doing) are you covered? The industry standard in yoga is an Alliance certified program. You want to check to see what your policy covers and what sort of training they want you to have to provide coverage.
Also keep in mind that continuing education may or may not have cross over. In other words if you are teaching zumba, or doing personal training the same continuing education training may not serve for all of the things you are offering.... which will add to your program costs.
For anyone thinking of training, who is also thinking of teaching you will want to do some cost comparisons regarding how much the training costs, and what you will be able to charge. You might also want to see how many studios are in your area, and read the teacher bios to see what the standard is for training in your area in the places you wish to teach.
I definitely recommend getting training that is Alliance registered. This means that it will be either a 200 or a 500 hour training. Any program that is Alliance registered will offer the same basics. Keep in mind that beyond those basics you have lineage specific training. There are differences between teaching in an Ashtanga, or a Kripalu, or a Bikram, or a Jivamukti, or an Iyengar, or a Viniyoga style. If you want to offer, for example, Bikram yoga you will need to do Bikram training. If you want to teach Iyengar, you will get some of the most rigorous training there is, but be ready to put in a lot of time, and to commit to teaching only in that lineage for some time after your training. Many teachers are eclectic, and are able to fuse elements of various styles, or teach in different styles.
There are training programs that are shorter. They often call themselves yoga 'something', which is a way to set them apart as a specialized training, and (to be cynical here) to offer a training that is shorter. If you are running your own program and just want to have some sort of certification these short programs are certainly available. They are less likely to get you hired in a yoga studio. For health clubs it will vary. If you are not doing straight yoga, but adding some yoga to your program they may work well.
I strongly advise against doing any program that is only online. Aside from your own liability, yoga is a practice about building connections, and the face to face practice is vital.
I do understand that there is an economic side to training. It may be that you find yourself not able to afford, or have the time to undertake a full teacher training. There have been times in my life that I learned by devouring whatever books I could get, watching Lilias on T.V., and practicing on my own. You can certainly begin your journey without the long training. Most yoga studios offer 'community' classes, where the cost is donation based on what you can afford. Many offer the chance to help in the office, or work things out with the owner. There are lots of meditation groups around to join. Most of the teachers I know, at least the ones who are called to yoga, believe in its transformative power, and will want to help people be able to get to their mat. Most libraries have books and media available (much more than when I was young). Practice, read, meditate, ….. and keep open to possibility.
Will you get rich teaching yoga? Well, a few people have, I guess. But that is true in any field. You can make a living as a yoga teacher, but my experience has been that the teachers who do so typically have put as much in energy and commitment into the process as they are getting out, so you should at least love coming to the mat before you decide to draw the mat to the front of the room. But if you feel strongly that you have something to say or show that matters, and a burning desire to do so, I hope you will decide to join our community of teachers. I look forward to learning from you some day.
If I say the way yoga is understood and practiced today is different in a number of ways from how it was understood and practiced traditionally it is helpful to understand what I mean by traditional. After all yoga has been around for thousands of years, and it was not one thing for most of that time, and then suddenly another thing twenty years ago. The tides of historical change have run throughout human history: it is just easier to see subtle changes to the waves that are closest to us. I am not going to give a scholarly text with dates and citations. I just want to show a few areas where practice and philosophy generally were different, say a hundred years ago (or even fifty years ago, when I was young).
What I mean by yoga today is pretty straightforward. However, the thing is that people today practice it in a variety of ways, some more traditional, and some less. I just want to point out a few shifts. I also do not want to denigrate the changes. One of the strengths of yoga as a practice is that it is malleable to our needs. However, I do think it is important to understand what the tradition is, and to have a clear reason for whatever shift you want to make. In terms of what I am comparing, I am a bit looser.
I have blogged elsewhere on my understanding of the connections between vegetarianism and yoga, (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/so-what-does-vegetarianism-have-to-do-with-yoga), so I won't go into this too deeply. It is a huge shift though.
One example of the shift, and the importance of this to people in the yoga community, came to my attention a couple of years ago, as I recall. A teacher I know was talking about going to do a training at Kripalu. A few other people posted their utter refusal to go to or have anything to do with Kripalu because they had decided to serve chicken in the dining hall. I am not here to judge Kripalu, my colleague, or any of the posters. I just think it is interesting that this is such a strongly held belief among many traditional yogis (Sivananda people I have known seem particularly attuned to this). It is of course, based on the idea of ahimsa, or non violence to all living things, and has an association with the Hindu roots of the practice. My own belief is that it is possible to eat meat and practice ahimsa.... and to eat vegetarian and not practice ahimsa. If one buys vegetarian food in non recyclable containers and dumps them in the local lake one may not be eating animals, but one is not being kind to the earth and its denizens. If one supports old fashioned family farms, and kind treatment of animal livestock, and eats eggs and makes cheese, or even eats chickens, I think an argument can be made that one is practicing ahimsa by living in harmony with nature which has its carnivores and herbivores. I personally would have preferred Kripalu not serve chicken, because I think it is good for people to understand the traditions, and I do not think it would harm anyone to try a vegetarian path. But as long as the decision was not just 'hey more people will come if we serve chicken and we will make more money', it is still a decision I think can be made within the context of being yogic.
It is definitely a change though.
This comes under the heading of the yamas: saucha (purity), tapas (austerity or self discipline), and svadhyaya (self study). Even when I was first teaching yoga in my late twenties and early thirties most of the yogis I knew did not drink alcohol. Smoking is in the same boat. A teacher I knew back 20 years ago, when I happened to see her smoking was highly embarrassed. She knew it was generally counter to the 'yoga path', and she did not want her students to know she smoked, but she was also not willing or able to stop. My own practice is that while I never was a big drinker, I do occasionally have a cocktail or glass of wine, but I find with time it becomes rarer and rarer, not because I am against it, but because as my own practice evolves I am less and less interested. This is one of those areas I think it can be a good change for people to accept that the things of life can be explored and enjoyed without detracting from our path toward self understanding. One of the best pieces I ever read on this topic was years ago in yoga journal. A gentleman talked about travelling in Russia with a group, and how they would feast and drink vodka late at night, and he would go to bed early and not eat late, or drink vodka, and would wake up cranky and with a headache. Then one night he decided just to celebrate with them and have the vodka and food, and stay up. He ended up feeling wonderful. The key is that he was sharing with them, and not being so rigid in his own path that he was unwilling to walk with them in theirs. I don't recommend getting drunk and driving sports cars around because your friends are doing so, but I do think the bigger principle here is the connection with and understanding of other people and other paths that enriches us, not to take the path as our own, but to be willing to try something different. This multicultural openness seems to me to be rather modern, and a good shift. Like the bumper sticker on my (and many) cars 'Embrace Diversity”.
Women and men did not always practice together traditionally. In fact it was Indra Devi who first went to the great Krishnamacharya and asked him to teach her. She was the first foreign woman to study yoga and eventually she went on to teach Hollywood celebrities like Gloria Swanson. There is a fabulous film called 'Yoga Woman' that traces the history and practice of the great women yoga teachers of the west. In the west women outnumber men as teachers as well as students. There are a number of reasons for this, some historical, some cultural. It is true that a number of men, even in my early days of teaching, had the idea that yoga was wimpy, and that they would do better in the weight room. These days men and women are both in the weight room, and both in yoga. And strong, competitive athletes like Kareem Abdul Jabaar practice yoga for its physical and mental discipline. I feel that the shift to bringing men and women together in their yoga practice has been wonderful, as it allows us to learn together things we would not learn separately.
I have blogged elsewhere about yoga and age (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/age-exercise-and-yoga) .
What is interesting is that in traditional yoga practice and philosophy the powerful physical practice would have been one for youth. By the time one was older one's practice would be less about developing self discipline, and honing the body. The changes in yoga mirror changes in our culture, where we understand that strength, and vigor, and the enjoyment of all aspects of life that physical health and strength and vigor bring are possible, and desirable even at an older age. Our culture honors youth and vigor more than age and wisdom (to use a traditional differentiation) with the result that in age we seek to keep the vigor while we try to find wisdom. Actually the idea that yoga could promote physical health is not that new (look back to books like the Hathayogapradipika, from the 15th century) and you can see that hatha yoga was taken by many as a path to physical benefits regardless of philosophical niceties.) But the practice of yoga as a method of maintaining physical function and health even into older age dovetails nicely with our modern concerns and desires.
Posture over Philosophy
Singelton in his book 'Yoga Body' did an excellent job of looking at how the modern practice of yoga has become increasingly asana or posture based. I hardily recommend his terrific book, but will not go into depth about it.
Keep in mind I am not talking about really big differences in, say, Jain and Hindu ideas, and I am leaving Tantra out entirely. There are a ton of other things I could bring up: the use of the chakras, the interest in science to bolster practice, even our tendency to pick and choose those elements of varied traditions and the way we sometimes leave out the most difficult parts of those traditions in favor of a simplified understanding. By and large I would say though yoga today is practiced in some different ways, those ways mirror the needs and ideas of our modern world. I think it is possible to keep the principles, but to reunderstand them..... as long as we take the effort to understand what has been, and why we are choosing to do what we do.
A few days ago I posted a photo on my Facebook page of my lunch. I had been trying to keep my fridg stocked with pre made healthy choices, and given that I had seen a lot of photos of oreos and such recently, I wanted to share a thought of some ways one could eat quickly AND healthfully. That day I was having kale with garlic and lemon, spiced chickpeas with ginger, and brown rice with turmeric and cilantro.
I was surprised how popular that post was. Even more popular than when I posted about Kareem Abdul Jabbar doing yoga, or quoted Camus (gentle irony). So I said I would follow with the recipes. I promise 2 of the 3 dishes can be done in less than 10 minutes, and they are all quick and healthy.
If you just want the recipes please skip the next paragraph, as I exercise my 'jnana yoga'.
There are all these threads coming together around our eating habits. Big food provides us with whatever maximizes their profits, and coincidentally (and sometimes perhaps not coincidentally) decreasing our health and increasing our weight. People involved in health and fitness (and those that make a profit from supplying its needs) tell us about juicing, eating raw, eating paleo, eating low carb.... Beautifully set cooking shows show amazing and elegant cuisine. But we also do not live lives where we have a kitchen staff, and even people like me who work part time are hard pressed to avoid the traps of cholesterol, trans fat, over pricing, animal cruelty, staying in budget, growing our own.... and still get everything else done that we are called on to do. I know what it is like to be tired and just want to make a p b and j, or eat digestive biscuits. I know what it is like to try to manage a household of different tastes and different schedules. I know what it is like to walk the gauntlet of the grocery trying to avoid pesticides, cruelty, worker ill treatment, over packaging, trans fat.... and to engage in the war that SOME companies wage to fool me into buying their outwardly pretty inwardly dubious wares.
Brown Rice with Toasted Turmeric
If you are optimizing reducing packaging and cost you will start by cooking a batch of brown rice. I typically steam it. If you are optimizing speed you will go to your freezer for your box of Rice Expressions Organic Brown Rice and microwave 2 of the packets (3 minutes each). You can also use the whole foods frozen brown rice, or some other one.
In a sauce pan heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil on low to medium heat. Once warm add a teaspoon of turmeric (or a bit more), some salt, and a few turns of black pepper. You can also put in a sprinkle of ground cumin. Give it a couple of minutes, till it starts to get a little golden, but not dark. Stir in the rice, and about a quarter cup of rinsed and chopped cilantro.
Keeps well in fridg, warms up well, and if you do the frozen rice ready in under 10 minutes.
Kale with Garlic and Lemon
You can certainly do this with fresh kale from your garden or farmers market and reduce packaging and carbon footprint. If you do that you need to wash carefully, and chop. Or you can procure a package of organic baby kale and rinse it in the package.
In a sauce pan over medium to high heat add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Add some chopped garlic and about a teaspoon of butter (can be left out, but enriches the flavor). Again a choice: fresh chopped, or Penzy's spices (in my opinion the BEST spices ever) has wonderful chopped dried garlic, much more flavorful than anything chopped in a jar. This will start to brown quickly so quickly throw in the rinsed kale. Usually enough water is adhering to it to steam it. Put on the lid and let it steam a few minutes. How long? How crispy do you like your kale? I do about 5 minutes. Stir once to bring up the bottom layer. Take off lid, drain if excess water, add salt to taste and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Here I am going to give you a link, because I got this from Allrecipes.com
I will say, I made a few changes. First I did not crush my cinnamon sticks, I used powdered (penzy's again), and I used ground cloves. Second I used 2 cans of organic chick peas, and I rinsed them well. Third, mincing takes time and my family tends not to like big chunks of 'veg ter bles' so I grated rather than minced the onions and ginger and I used the penzy's garlic again. Saves time also. I also did not cook it for a full half hour, I found 20 minutes quite adequate.
I think it is possible to eat and feed a family in a way that tries to do well with those things that matter to us. I also think the act of cooking and eating is one that sits at the center of the various dimensions of self. It feeds our physical self, our emotional self, our creative self, and when we cook for and share food with others is one of the most basic ways to feed our social selves.
If you like these I will do some more. I am planning a really delicious moroccan salmon for tomorrow's dinner which I would be glad to share, for example.
(please note I am not on the payroll or otherwise have any relationship other than consumer with any product I mentioned).
The other day a few students and colleagues were engaged in an online chat about a spin class the gist of which was that the class was difficult and awesome. The end result of the exchange was to make me want to go take the class.
The first thing to understand is that decades ago I was a full time fitness trainer and instructor who taught about 20 hours a week, saw clients, and walked miles every day. I did take a spin class during that time. As I recall spin was pretty new, and I liked to try out new things. Some of those new things had staying power (like step) and some didn't (like jump rope aerobics). Spin did, but for whatever reason I did not pursue learning to teach it myself. As I remember it bothered my hip where I had had an injury. Also, even then my work centered on yoga, and secondarily on strength training. That was 20 years ago.
I ended up taking about 7 years off from teaching to care full time for my family. For the last 7 years I have been working part time, slowly doing more with each year. The thing is yoga has always been the center of my work, as well as of my personal journey. So a lot of my hours are teaching yoga. But I decided to go to the IDEA convention this year. I am very excited about this: it is 20 years since I have been at an IDEA convention, and I remember the excitement and how much I learned. But after watching the online ad I realized I probably needed to tweak my personal workout schedule if I was going to manage this without basically dying.
So last Tuesday I found myself turning right rather than left to the yoga room, and walking past the aerobic room into the spin room.
My experience with this class was really interesting. What is most interesting to me are the ways that I find spinning a lot like doing yoga. Obviously the music is really different, and the training effect is primarily cardiovascular, where in yoga the training effects are more flexibility, balance, and strength related. But it is a little like the way Levi-Strauss looked at mythology: the cultural trappings are different, but there are pronounced structural similarities.
Actually I posted to the instructor my sense of similarity ( I think I told her it was like yoga, but like yoga that had drunk a lot of espresso) and she said that it was no accident that the two things she liked were spin and yoga. Actually the first thing that struck me when I went in was her relationship with the room and the students. The ability to connect to individual students, and to notice what is going on with them, and to provide options and modifications is a very yogic thing. Certainly this is how I have always taught yoga: what you learn about yourself while on the mat is even more important than how many calories you burn, or how much weight you lift. This may be due to her experience in both worlds, I would have to take a few more teachers to know.
Many of the spin classes I have seen, and this one that I took are done with the main lights off. I think that is another thing that made if feel particularly yogic to me. I don't just mean that a lot of yoga studios turn the lights down, or use candles, or fairy lights. It has more to do with why one might do that, and with one of the parts of yoga that has been talked about even as far back as Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras: pratyahara.
When we are children we learn about the '5 senses'. The thing is those senses have to do with our relationship with the world outside of our own physical body. There are other senses that give us information from within our body. They help us balance, judge spacial presence, feel pressure in joints, and lots of other things. When there is a disconnect between our inner and outer self (the mind and body) we often have difficulty focusing on and responding to those inner signals. Of course we can also become so self involved that we forget that or loose interest that these inner signals are shared by others. The way I say this is that the lines of stretch, or energy, or understanding reach outward like waves from a pebble dropped in a lake, but also inward. Shutting the eyes for a few moments when one enters practice, in my belief, allows us to rebalance the senses that draw us inward and those that draw us outward. In particular with spin the darkness pulls our attention away from the surface of our own bodies in the mirrors, and those of the other students. The kinesthetic connection grows stronger. Yet the sounds of the bikes and the breath keep us from loosing ourselves solely in the inward journey.
One thing that I need to think about more has to do with focus. I often find if I ride a cardiovascular machine that my mind often goes off to check email, or to shop at the grocery. In yoga it doesn't (well, it used to, and I know when you begin a yoga practice that can be a difficulty). In yoga we call the place of intense mental focus dharana. Dharana is balanced by dynana, or meditation. I think of them as like a hose attachment that you twist to open the water or to intensify it to a narrow point. We use the breath, linking inhale to exhale with variations in movement, moving deeper, and finding the mind body connection by body surfing the breath. That focus came to me very strongly in the spin class, partly because of the breathlike quality of the pumping of the pedals.
Actually the first thing I thought once I got on the bike and the instructor advised me how to modify it to my needs, was that the seat was most uncomfortable and I wished I had a pillow. Once the class started it didn't seem to matter as we were usually standing up, or moving up and own so the seat only met with the seat for a few seconds. That rhythm combined with the rhythm of breath, deepening and lengthening, and, the rhythm of the peddling, created flow. While different in many ways, (like speed, number of joints involved, etc) it FELT like vinyasa.
I would say I am quite looking forward to my next class.
It is widely understood that one of the huge differences in lifestyle between modern people and their ancestors is that we sit a lot more and walk a lot less. This sitting, particularly sitting for long periods in chairs, and particularly in front of desks with our head and shoulders hunched forward, has contributed to a lot of discomfort and injury. And it has only been made worse by being combined with the even more hours of the day peering down at screens of varying sizes and types.
There are quite a few things that we can do to balance the needs of living in the 21st century with the needs of our human body. Some of those things involve what in yoga we call svadhayaya, or self study. Some involve what is at the heart of yoga: joining or connecting various things to create a balance between those elements. I want to look at some of the biomechanics of the chair/computer problem. Then I want to consider some general life choices that can help to balance them, some of the small techniqess that can be done while engaging in those activities to balance them, and what are some exercises that can be added to our weekly workouts, and some poses that can be added to our yoga practice that are helpful in counteracting the effects of too much sitting and too much computer.
Please keep in mind that the tips I offer are for a general, uninjured population. It is really important if you are pregnant, injured, or have some sort of chronic condition to speak to your medical provider before beginning a program. It is also helpful to speak to your teacher/trainer as you modify, as they will be familiar with your body and your background.
Self study has a number of tools. I think using journaling techniques can be very helpful. For example, if a person wants to know how many calories they are taking in they might use a 'diet diary'. I think that is a great tool, because prepackaged food tends to be high in calories and to have labels that try to trick one into thinking it doesn't, and because if one looks at the data it is clear that most people underestimate portion sizes and total amount consumed. In the same way I think it can be useful to do a diary of screen use. Screen time related to work and school probably cannot be shortened (though there are other ways to balance it), but just as we may be surprised at how often we put a handful of m and ms in our mouths, and how many extra calories that adds, we may be surprised if we actually time the number of minutes (hours....) we spend on social media, U tube, twitter, instagram,.... etc. Once we know we can try to set some limits. Once way is to have daily time when one is purposefully unlinked, another is to use a timer to limit the total number of minutes, but leave free when it happens.
Another method of self inquiry (or data collection) that can help us understand how much time we sit is to use a pedometer. Once we see what our baseline is for how many steps we take per day we can try to increase it. Using an alarm to remind us to get up at defined intervals of sitting and walk through the office or home is also helpful.
If we want to think about what sort of movement patterns can help more specifically we need to look at the biomechanics of sitting and staring at a screen, and then think about what sort of movement patterns can help to balance that. My preference is to look at this from the ground up, as it were. I know a lot of the problem areas are in the neck, shoulders, and arms, but it is easy to overlook what is happening at the base, and I think it is always helpful to take a whole body approach to things.
For most of our day, especially if we work in an office setting we are wearing shoes. Shoes protect our feet from injury (stepping on a sharp stone or broken glass and getting an infection for example). They also force the feet into a simple repetitive movement pattern, and if they have heels, can shorten the muscles that attach through the achilles tendon to the heel. This can then pull on the hip and contribute to low back problems, and pull on the foot and contribute to problems with an overstressed plantar fascia (the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot).
If this is combined with lots of sitting the feet and knees and hips are all pushed into a series of flexed positions and held there. Think about when you have gone to the gym and been on a bike and then gone right to the car and drove home. When you get out of the seat your hips resist opening. Or if you have ever had frozen shoulder.... how once the joint has not done a movement for a while it is very difficult, or even painful to stretch it to its fully open position. Joints are constantly remodelling. The connective tissue that surrounds the muscle fibers start work as soon as the joint stops.... like making paper mache.... layering itself into position. If you are warm and cool down stuck in flexion that will be even more noticable. In addition remember (as I always tell my students) arteries have muscle to push the blood out. Veins need pumping action to help push the blood back to the heart. And gravity is working to pull the fluid down at the same time. So the longer you sit (or even stand) in one position the harder it is to keep fluid moving (including not just the blood, but also the lymphatic fluic).
foot has lots of movements.
There are a number of things you can do to balance these effects:
Choose shoes that can be slipped off and on easily and occasionally do so under your desk. Then do heel/toe stretches, ankle circles, and practice holding one leg at a time straight.
Set an alarm to take an occasional walk from the desk.
Do wall stretches (If you put a book that is between a half to an inch thick near the wall you can stand on it and sink one heel at a time off the edge and hold for about 10 seconds and switch. Yes... barefoot)
Some of the things to think of for your workout or your yoga practice would be to include some rhythmic cardio which is helpful for fluid dynamics (as well as other things). I also really like downward dog, which opens the ankle joint as well as the hip. I would suggest as you breathe into the posture and hold for whatever is your regular time, you take a few breaths with both knees bent by a half inch and pressing the navel toward the thighs. When the knees are straight one of the two calf muscles opens, and when you slightly bend them you work into the other. I also think adding a few standing balance postures can be useful for building strength in the feet. And occasionally varying shavasana by laying perpendicular to a wall with your legs resting straight on the wall is also helpful for the feet. Just make sure to do regular shavasana sometimes to rest the hips as well.
The hips, low back, and middle of the body also can suffer from too much sitting and computer use. Sitting in a chair with a back means that the abdominal musculature is not called upon to help with posture. This can mean that the lower back can get overarched, and the hips be pulled in one direction. The pelvis is supported above and below, front and back, and side to side. If any one of these directions gets too tight, or too weak the system is thrown out of whack, and everything above the hips can get misaligned, and become more likely to get stressed or injured. Also if one is sitting facing forward for hours at a time there is a huge loss of lateral and rotational movement. Remember that the spine is a lot of bones, with a lot of movement between parts.... it is meant to move more than just hinging forward. And of course, remember that the hip flexors are getting shortened, so in addition to weak abs not pulling up on the front of the pelvis, the hip flexors are pulling down too much, putting much stress on the low back.
To keep the core of the body strong it is helpful to do strengthening exercises. These can be done in a lot of ways: e.g. in a core yoga class, or a Pilates class, or in a toning class, or as part of a weight room workout. It is possible to add some core strengthening even while sitting at one's desk. In yoga we learn to do mulha bandha and uddiyana bandha. These two practices can be done at regular intervals during the day. They could be timed to do right before or after taking that walk down the hall, or in whatever way works. I've talked about these things in the blog before, so I won't give instructions again. Doing kegels is another great occasional practice.
Another general tip I suggest often is to try a chair yoga class. People often avoid such classes as they feel they are for people who are unable to do more vigorous work. The thing is though, one can get great tips that can be used in an office setting. And it is easier to learn them in person, rather than my describing the movements.
I will, however suggest one chair based posture that I think is really good. This is a chair variation for virabadhrasana. It is not to be done in a chair on wheels. Sit in the chair, forward so your back is off the back of the chair. Place the feet flat on the floor. Pivot so you are 'sidesaddle' with the chair back to your left. The left half of the buttocks are on the chair, the right half is off. Hold the arm rest with both hands, have a good grip, but not so tight you raise your blood pressure. Make sure your left foot is flat to the floor. Slowly push the right leg back and straighten it slightly. Tighten the buttocks, and press forward slightly at the hip. Breathe fairly deeply and hold for 3 or 4 breaths. Draw the foot back in and carefully move to do the other side. If you want to add a spinal twist (remember that if you are sitting in that chair facing forward you are not squeezing and hydrating the spinal discs, the importance of which I have blogged about before... but also remember if you have a herniated or bulging disc or other back injury or condition lateral work may not be for you) when you are in position move your hands gently toward the backrest of the chair. Make sure to push the head up and the seat down before you twist.
When doing your regular workout I do recommend squats if it works for your legs, same for lunges. And definitely stretching the whole leg, back, and hip area. In yoga I think all the Virabhadrasana variations, and the lunges, and pigeon (look at my instruction for leg series if you need a gentle way to approach these leg stretches) if your knees allow, as it is great for the hip. Also cat to cow and the six movements of the spine, and half moon.
So now we get to the places that are really affected most deeply by our long hours of screen time: shoulders and chest, arms and hands, and neck.
Leaning forward over a desk, or toward a laptop or computer pad causes thoracic rounding, chest compression, and inward rotation of the humerus. Considering that age already is associated with such rounding, as well as the dehydration of the intervertebral discs (as I talked about already) it becomes even more important to create balance, by focusing on movements that lengthen the upper spine, and produce extension. In addition holding the arms, back and shoulders still while the hands fly over the keys, or work the mouse mean it is really helpful to do regular range of motion stretches throughout the arm and shoulder complex.
Think of the chair variation of Vira I mentioned. Before doing the twist, as you push back on the foot, and forward with the hip turn the palm of the hand on the outside inward, push down into the fingers and sweep the hand up to point to the ceiling, concentrating on pulling in on the belly, and keeping the ear aligned no further back than perpendicular to the floor. Then move into the twist. These movements will help to stretch muscles like the rhomboids and trapezius and serratus (among others).
Doing regular strength training is very useful. It will help to create the strength of the upper body to handle the stress of sitting and keyboarding. It is important thoug to take care to balance fmovements like bench presses with back work. If your work is constantly collapsing the chest your strength work should include work to draw the scapula together as well as things that lift and externally rotate the arms. One movement might be a high pulley lateral extension to try to strengthen the teres minor, infraspinatus and rhomboids as well as trapezius and deltoids. Rows and pull downs can help to strengthen lower in the back.
In yoga one should definitely include back bending postures (if medically allowed). Cobra (especially a baby cobra that focuses higher in the back), and down facing boat, and bow, and bridge are all good variations. I do a variation of boat where I place a block on the seat, draw the arms back and press into the block and lift it up, drawing the scapula in and down the back, engaging the belly lock and the neck lock. I find it creates strength within the lift as well as focus. There is a set of movements I learned with Gary Kraftsow (a great viniyoga teacher) where while one holds virabhadrasana I one flows forward with the arms and back into deviasana (goddess) arms. Any sort of flow that opens the shoulders and arms through multiple lines of stretch are great. These are just examples. I do not have space to list all the ones I do, but I definitely do a lot of this sort of opening. Another shavasana variation I like is one I learned from Megan Garcia: a blanket is rolled (or a spare mat) and placed in alignment with the spine. The seat is flat on the floor and the blanket roll is from the low back where it meets the spine, up to under the heat. The shoulder blades are able to spread and rest, the arms held palm up can be next to the body, or fanned out up to perpendicular to the body.
Breath work will be particularly helpful in countering the forward slump. There are lots of pranayama techniques. One thing I like to do is to lengthen the exhale a count or two over the inhale, and silently to say 'lift' as I inhale, and 'relax' as I exhale. Allowing breath fully into the lungs will promote stretch to the chest area, among other things (again, I already blogged about breath work, so I don't want to go too deeply into other aspects of this part of the yoga).
One of the best techniques to balance the stress of computer work and desk sitting is massage (full body, or neck and shoulders). I do recommend finding someone who is trained, certified, experienced, and recommended. I actually do not always go to people who are recommended, because I try to try new people so I can give recommendations to my students. I have found there are tons of great massage therapists, and that styles vary quite a bit.
Of course the hands and arms take a lot of overuse with computer use. The same principles apply to this area: take regular breaks to change activity, and to stretch, and consider adding some exercises to strengthen this area in your strength training program. One example would be to do reverse wrist curls for weak wrist extensors, and wrist curls for wrist flexors. For me I like to do hammer curls as well as bicep curls, again to vary the angle of stretch and strengthening.
Approaching down dog can be challenging if one's wrists are week, or overused. One option is to do dolphin. If one is going to do dog, it is extremely helpful to have someone work with you to show you how to place the body weight, and how to turn the shoulders, to pull the pressure off the wrists. There is a reason this posture is used a lot. It is really helpful. But like most good postures done with problematic allignment it can cause as many problems as it solves. The same can be said with plank, and with upward facing dog. One can always replace up dog with cobra, and plank with low plank. And if you have any sort of issues I strongly suggest leaving chaturanga dandasana out.
If one develops carpal tunnel, or any kind of overuse pain I think it is really important to see one's health care provider. I know the idea of surgical intervention is unpleasant, but there are quite a few things they can recommend, including working with a good physical therapist or occupational therapist, that can be very helpful.
The last part of the body to look at is the head and neck. Here also there are problems with forward movement. Especially if eyesight is not perfect, but really with most people there is a tendency to push the head forward, which can cause shearing stress in the cervical spine. The regular use of jalandra bandha (and yes, I know you are tired of hearing this, but I believe I blogged on how to do this already), or the neck lock is really helpful. I generally prefer to do spinal twists by opening from the base of the spine and working up, from the large vertebrae, to the smaller. With the neck though, I do like to do positions like the floor lying spinal twist where the head and hips move in opposite directions.
One of the things that can be done at one's desk I also like is to sit and bring the chin toward the breast bone, and then draw my hands to where the skull and neck meet, and pulse the fingers quickly up and down that area. It is also useful to stand at a right angle to the wall and place the hand on the wall at shoulder height. Then keeping the hand on the wall one turns one's head and torso slightly as though one is looking at someone standing next to them. This is great for opening the chest and neck.
Do remember that ANY exercise done with the neck should be done slowly and not to full range of motion. Also please refrain from extending the throat so that the back of the neck squeezes and the head moves toward the back. Your cervical vertebrae dislike being squeezed as much as L4 L5 does.
This has turned into the longest blog I have done, and though I think it is important, and though I have taken at least 4 breaks, and taught 2 classes in between writing sessions I am so ready to turn off my screen and walk my dog and make dinner.
Namaste my friends, and thank you for your interest.
Math, like language was created by man. There have always been things that could be counted and sorted, but we have not always counted and sorted them. There are cultures like the Piraha that have concepts like one and many, but no system of counting a group of things. Systems of counting and math began as a way to keep track of stuff, particularly stuff that belonged to the ruler of a culture large enough to have a lot of stuff to organize. In a larger and more complex society it was practical and useful. These days we count and measure all the time. It seems as obvious to us to measure a half cup of water into our instant oatmeal as to someone younger to google something about which we want to know. When I open my copy of Cook's Illustrated and my metal teaspoon and quarter teaspoon it is easy to forget that it was something like 120 years ago that Fannie Farmer published a system for more accurate measurements, leaving behind things like 'an egg sized lump of butter'.
I think it is really interesting to look at how we use tests and measurements not just about our stuff, but about ourselves: our bodies, our health, our intellectual and physical progress toward certain goals. At your annual physical you will likely have blood work, weight and height, and often questionnaires on lifestyle and safety. At school there are entrance tests, progress tests, and regional (in New England we have the NECAP) or national tests (like the SAT). There are IQ tests and tests to measure emotional satisfaction or stress levels or depression. If you have ever joined a gym odds are you have you have filled out a sheet asking about your health history, and possibly your exercise history as well. You might also have had someone test you on the number of push ups you can do, or use a set of calipers to measure percentage of body fat. And anyone who has watched their weight is at least familiar with tools to measure calorie and nutritional intake.
The benefits of these sorts of tests and tools for data collection are many. They can help discover underlying weaknesses or other problems. For example if your doctor gives you a blood test and measures total cholesterol above 240 they are going to have a conversation with you as this is a risk factor for heart disease. And if you are a fifth grader who measures at a second grade reading level on a standardized test your teachers are (hopefully) going to be recommending you for extra help to bring this score up.
Data collection goes on through our lives, and by having what is called 'baseline' data, or how things were at the beginning (of a program, of our lives, or of a specific chunk of time) we can keep track of trends and see where there is progress or loss.If you can do 10 push ups and every 4 months you add another 5 that is a good trend, whereas if you do less every month that is not.
The types of tests we do, or data we collect is predicated on what we have done before. You wouldn't do that push up test until you did a health history (you really do not want to do a sit up test with someone with a history of osteoporosis), and then did some postural assessment to make sure the spine and hips are working as they should. Before a teacher gives a test on Shakespearean vocabulary they would want to know the person's reading level.
Baseline tests and measures and data collection can help create strategies for change based on how things are, what needs to be addressed, and what needs to be modified. We might have a general idea that we need to loose some weight, or want to add some shoulder muscle to complete our daily activities more efficiently, or that there is a family history of borderline hyperlipidemia. These pieces of information can help us set goals that are more specific: not “I want to loose some weight”, but “I see I am about 30 pounds into the obese range, and would like to loose that 30 pounds”. They can help us see patterns: “Gee, my blood pressure is really high since the year started, and this test indicates high stress level, and my workout log shows I have not been at the gym in 4 months.” Testing and data collection is like putting lights and sign posts on the path... They can make it much easier to follow.
Quantified information can help motivate us to change, as well as set strategies to do so, “Gosh, the pretest shows I am weak on polynomials, I had better spend some extra time studying that.”
More broadly they foster self understanding. In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali talks about svadhyaya, or self study as one of the niyamas or ethical/philosophical/spiritual underpinnings of yoga. This study can be done in an unstructured or intuitive way, but because the tool of understanding is malleable based on its own understanding when it studies itself such rational data points can help to hone the course of that intuition. It is like practicing trikonasana against a wall.... it lets us compare how we feel we are standing with how we are actually standing.
This does not mean that it is good to do as many tests as there are available. That is like taking every vitamin you hear might be good for you in the highest possible dose. You can spend so much time writing things down and taking tests that you don't get to live. You can also spend time and money taking tests that have no value to your health or individual interests and goals. I personally do not feel the need at this point in my life to spend time taking the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale. Like everyone else I have things that I worry about, but they tend to be transient and do not cause me to be unable to focus on or do pretty much anything. Blood work might be a good idea though, it has been a while since I have had that done. It really is a question of time management and appropriate selection. Remember that path we are lighting? We don't want to trip, or take a wrong turn, but we do want to end up standing in the same place dithering.
What are some specific tests or tools to capture data I would recommend? I think it is highly variable. It will depend on the person's health status, age, weight, goals, emotional state, intellectual interests, personality type, and so on. It is also important to stress that not all useful information is quantifiable or countable, or might be countable, but does not need to be counted to be helpful. To help understand one's interests and goals better simple journaling is a great data tool. It is not going to give you a mathematically precise answer, but will provide much insight into your interests, goals, concerns, weaknesses, etc. Knowing those things can help you decide what things you either want to watch to make sure they do not become a problem (like a yearly weigh in), or want to set goals for as a way to track and organize progress (like measuring hamstring flexibility with the sit and reach test).
Generally speaking a yearly trip to the doctor for a health screen is a good starting point. Resting heart rate, blood pressure, some simple blood screens, weight, height, and so on can help almost any one by providing basic health information and a history to track changes for the better or worse. It also allows the physician to make a judgement on whether other medical tests are useful, such as tests for bone density, or tests for cardiovascular fitness.
Can you administer basic fitness tests for yourself? Sometimes yes. However the results will never be as accurate as when they are administered by an experienced trainer. Moreover, with some tests there are health risks if done in the wrong way, or if done by someone with certain kinds of underlying health issues. That is one reason why a trainer will generally have a student fill out something like the 'PAR-Q' health history before testing or training someone. Plus a well trained trainer can help figure out which tests are likely to help you reach your goals best. There are dozens of possible tests, sometimes measuring slightly different things, and sometimes using different tools. For example, to test cardiovascular fitness there are protocols for the treadmill, the stationary bike, the step, walking, etc.... and some are ok to do in a gym, some are best done in a hospital setting. It all depends. And of course there are tons of fitness tests you can do. You can test your flexibility at various joints, strength, endurance, cardiovascular ability (one of the differences between a medical test and a fitness one is that the trainer will generally use a test designed to measure what they call 'submaximal' and the doctor will be equiped to measure 'maximal' effort. The submaximal tests are pretty accurate, and unless there is a medical reason to do so the trainer will not usually refer you to do a maximal test. They are both designed to see how hard your heart can work to provide oxygen to the working muscles. There are tests that can be done on bikes, treadmills, steps, even walking. The Rockport walking test is a really easy one to take). You can also test sport specific skills, like speed, power, or agility. What you choose to do should relate to what your goals are, and whether there are some limitations you perceive in your everyday activities. If you are having trouble with a stiff low back, or can't reach down easily to tie your shoes you might want to do flexibility testing and create a stretching program to increase the flexibility in the areas where your flexibility is significantly less than normal. If you are having trouble picking up your child or your backpack you might want strength or endurance testing.
By the same token though there are inventories to measure stress, overload, personality, anxiety, if there are interpersonal, or emotional weaknesses or areas you would like to improve on it is absolutely helpful to work with a well trained professional therapist. There may be things for which you would go to a psychiatrist, or a therapist, just as there may be things you go to a general practitioner before starting a fitness regimen. The same is true with nutrition. It is straightforward enough to do a 3 day diet log, and to get a general idea ('gee, do I really eat that much bread?), and just journaling for yourself may give you enough information. But you may find working with a trained certified nutritionist can give you more accurate data. How accurate you want/need will depend on goals, needs and interests.
To take time to collect data or not? To write down or not? Well, we are back with Aristotle. Some is helpful. Too much can be a burden rather than a help. So we try to choose our data collection intelligently. The golden mean is our yellow brick path lit with self exploration and understanding, on which we are accompanied by and pointed forward as needed by trained professionals.