While I'm not sure that I will be able to give you anything as good as last year's holiday/end of year 'zombie twinkie' blog ( http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/the-requisite-holiday-survival-guide-because-of-course-we-will-be-running-from-hordes-of-zombie-twinkies ) I found a couple of handout s(while I was doing some end of year cleaning) that I had written almost 20 years ago, and I thought they still stand pretty well. (Except for some outdated technology references, and I think though I am less fit than 20 years ago I probably care more about kindness than muscles)
Today I am going to share my 'Ten Tips to Reduce Stress and Anxiety'. Next time I might offer the '5 Obsticles to Exercise, and How to Get Around Them'. Please keep in mind that not every tip is for every person. One or two on this list speak clearly to me, while others do not. As with my advice on yoga, and fitness... remember that we are all unique. Learn to look at yourself with kindness and truth, and take what you need and what calls to you from whatever sources you find.
Get enough Sleep
While you can go without a full night's sleep occasionally, regular lack of sleep can make one irritable, affect concentration, and cause you to ingest more caffeine and gain more weight. If you try to put your work down and let yourself have even an extra half hour or hour's sleep you may find that it is easier to get up a few minutes earlier for breakfast, and not have to rush to work, swearing at backed up traffic the whole way to work.
If you put some food in your stomach in the morning you will be less tempted by the jelly donuts and snack machines. Sugar is a strong physical stressor. Try some actual food in the morning, rather than just sugar and caffeine. (Note from my current self. I love strong tea with sugar in the morning, but I do feel much better when I have my Irish oatmeal, or a scrambled egg with some avocado.) Whole grains, lean protein, fresh fruit, yoghurt (read the label as some yoghurt has a ton of additives and sugar), beans, and smoothies are all good breakfast options.
Decrease Caffeine Intake
You wake up tired and dragged out: you have coffee. You drink a coke or two while working, hav ea chocolate bar for lunch, more coffee when the afternoon dumps hit... Our caffeine intake can add up quickly. It can add to dehydration, jangle our nerves, and make us more anxious. In large doses it can exacerbate heart arrhythmias. One study suggests that a third of anxiety ailments may be relieved by cutting out caffeine intake. One word of warning though: don't go cold turkey. You can have withdrawal symptoms, such as excruciating headaches. Gently tapering down intake is usually best. (Note from my current self: I knew someone who decided to go cold turkey on her honeymoon. It did not go well). In this as in all things, moderation is key. Caffeine can definitely be an ergogenic aid, and it does not bother everyone. But if you are overstressed and / or anxious this is something to consider.
The human stress response was originally adapted to physical stress. If a giant animal races from the bushes, mouth open, toward you, it is good to have a body which can immediately run up a tree, or grab a large stick to defend itself. Today our bodies have much the same physical response to mental stress (aggravating bosses, aggravating employees, aggravating customers, aggravating clients, aggravating traffic, etc....) as we used to need for instant battle. This is the “fight or flight” response. Physical exercise helps to restore the body's homeostasis by using what the hormonal and nervous systems have dumped in the body during stressful episodes. Aerobic exercise especially has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, as well as to increase a feeling of well being.
Reduce the Noise Level
If you have noisy appliances or office machinery, try to find a place away from the noise where you can go for a few minutes, just to let the head and ears rest. Such noise can increase stress levels, and make it harder to concentrate, which can also increase stress levels. Also try turning off the TV, Radio, (note from current self.... and I pod and all the myriad new ways we have to produce constant sound these days) just for a short time each day. Music can soothe us, and decrease stress levels, but again, balance is key. Sometimes one needs to turn it down, turn it off, and reset.
Meditate (or for beginners you can try the 1 minute vacation)
(Note from current self: research on the benefits of meditation has been ongoing, and only continues to point out the many benefits to reduction of stress. It is encouraging to me that while I clearly felt that for the audience I had for the original handout I couldn't talk as directly about meditation, today it is very mainstream) Here are instructions for the 1 minute vacation: Lean back in your chair, close your eyes, focusing only on feeling the breath, inhale as you slowly count to five, exhale as you slowly count to five, then open your eyes. Try to let the breath begin in the belly, rather than in the ribs, as though you have an empty sack just behind the navel which you are filling with air. This takes about 10 seconds (about the same amount of time as to swear internally at someone in the express line with twenty items, or to sharpen a pencil); 6 times a day is one minute
Look at a tree. Touch its bark. Smell the soil in which things grow. Look up at the clouds moving across the sky. Listen to the sounds of the birds, and see if you can recognize the different calls of different birds. Give yourself a few moments to connect with the larger world in which we live. Time moves in a different way for a redwood than for a corporation. You don't have to give up the latter to appreciate the serenity of the former.
Cut back on Alcohol
Drugs, such as alcochol, do not cure stress or take away what is causing it. What they can do is temporarily relieve stress symptoms, but can themselves stress the body, and may for some be habit forming. We are back to the 'moderation in all things' again. The occasional wine with dinner, or drink out with friends (unless one has an addictive personality or is going to be driving) is not an issue, and may carry some benefits. But if you find yourself regularly needing rather than wanting a drink, frequently drinking too much, blacking out after drinking... you would do well to talk to your doctor or other health care provider, as there may be serious health consequences beyone simply a raised stress level.
Learn to Say No
Are you superman/woman” Do you help everbody with everything? Do you stay up till midnight baking ten dozen cookies for a school project and get up at dawn to drive the car pool, before helping one coworker edit his manuscript, and another to polish her resume, while our own work piles up and comes home with you at night? Do you worry that people will not continue to like you if you turn down even one request? Sometimes not being able to say no can make you resent the people asking. People naturally support each other and turn to each other for support. And if someone is only going to interact you for what you can do for them you need to ask yourself whether this is a connection that was worth buying at that price? It is important ot recognize that it is great to help others as much as you can, but tha tsometimes it is ok to let someone else help them too. Sometimes it is even ok for you to ask for help. And if you are on a deadline for a big project it is good to be able to say “I can't do it this time, I'm too swamped.” Which leads us to:
Learn to Ask for Help
Sometimes this just means giving up being superman/woman enough to ask someone to help you with a big job. Sometimes it means, if things seem like they are just too much, considering seeing a doctor or other health provider. Please remember that compassion is not true compassion that does not reach inward as well as outward. Please treat yourself with kindness. Please remember that despite the despicable things some do, for most people compassion is at the human center. And when it moves beyond simple stress and normal anxiety it becomes so much more vital to ask. Admitting to depression, anxiety, and other conditions can be difficult. Some find it mortifying to ask for help, or to admit to oneself that one is not completely in control. But truly it is not more moral or praiseworthy to suffer needlessly in silence for something which is a human condition, and medically treatable.
I hope you all find yourselves in a place of health, hope, and kindness shining in and out as we reach the end of the year, and prepare for a new one. Namaste.
If you have never done yoga (an increasingly smaller set of people these days than when I was young) you might perceive yoga as doing stretches and head stands, and then sitting with your legs crossed. Once you start to do yoga you begin to realize that: 1. The postures, and categories of posture are extremely varied, 2. The postures build strength, alignment, balance, and all sorts of other dimensions of physical capacity than just flexibility, and 3. The postures that you see if you do a google image search, or buy a book, or get an ap of yoga postures are only a part of what is done on the mat. Bandhas, breathing techniques, the use of the gaze, sensory discipline.... there are a lot of other things going on during a typical practice. For the last year and a half or so I've been blogging I've tried to give my perspective on some of these parts of our practice.
Most people, even if they have not done yoga know that yoga tends to end by sitting or lying quietly in Shavasana or some similar quiet resting posture. (I have blogged elsewhere about Shavasana, and its importance both practical and philosophical as a part of one's yoga practice. http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/shavasana-and-meditation )
I think it is important to remember that while the time in Shavasana seems simple and straightforward, it is as complex, and in many ways deeper than the (typically) longer asana based part of the practice. Some of the tools in our box to deepen into this part of the practice are ancient, and some are quite modern. In my practice I embrace both categories. I want to use whatever tool I have that seems best suited to my need, or the needs of my student. Candles, meditation bowls, gongs, scent, incense, lighting, chanting, music can all be used. Readings can help direct the mind, just as the bends and twists help direct the muscles and connective tissues. Using mental imagery is a very powerful tool.
As we move into Thanksgiving week I would like to offer you something I find helpful to use when I come into my post asana place, especially if I feel the need or wish to help open that part of myself that is less analytic, and more emotive (or in a more yogic sense, to open my heart center).
So once you have taken what time you need to stretch, and strengthen, and flow, and braid together your breath and movement and thought, come to your mat, or your cushion, or your chair. Get comfortable. The point isn't to get into lotus because it looks cool, but to help your body to rest, so you do not have to be so focused on tightness, or discomfort. Take a few moments to notice and slow and deepen your breath. I usually suggest allowing the exhale to be slightly longer than the inhale, and to open gently into the edges of the breath.
Namaste. This is greeting, blessing, and farewell. The divine in me reaches to the divine in you... The light in me greets the light in you. This word is where we begin. Imagine you are looking at yourself in a mirror. You can see your skin, your hair.... all your outward appearance. You can see the lift of the chest as you breathe.
Now imagine shutting your eyes and feeling the breath. Imagine slipping down, under the skin, through muscle, and bone, and connective tissue, and organ... as though you were drifting toward sleep, drifting slowly into a quiet, peaceful darkness.
Notice, tiny at first, but growing steadily a flickering light. A candle, like a light in the window welcoming you home. Notice how the flame flickers with your breath (your prana, or life force). Remember that the breath is the thread that links the mind and body. Sometimes our light feels dim and low, sometimes crackling merrily as though we had fed it with pine cones, and sometimes warm and steady.... Wherever it is honor it, and observe it without judgement. Feel its warmth and light within you.
Now imagine opening your eyes to look outward. You can imagine you are in any place that holds special meaning to you: under the giant redwood trees in Muir woods, in the beautiful marble halls of some great museum, in an old, slightly shabby entirely comfortable family cabin by a lake... Notice the sounds... running water, laughter... the scents.... the dust of old books, the pungency of wet earth... the colors. Notice how the inner light leaps up, not just to the inherent beauty of that place, but to its memories and connections for you.
Now imagine someone (or several someones) who is dearest to you of all those you know. Again there is no judgement. For some this will be family of one's blood, for others family of choice, for others it may even include animal companions. Allow yourself to feel how much your light leaps up to meet them.
Look carefully at their outward manifestations. Can you see beneath their surface appearance to the light within? Can you move to look at yourself through their eyes? How would this person or these people look at you? Can you feel how their light leaps up to meet yours? Can you see yourself as capable of being loved, and trusted, and can you reach out to love and trust?
This, I think is the meaning of Namaste....
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving
This blog follows some ideas we were exploring in class this week.
I know many people who love Halloween, quite a few of which even call it their favorite holiday. There is an aspect of it that I find very yogic. Very early on I wrote a blog about yoga and mirrors, and how part of what we do in yoga is to strip away all the costumes, all the roles, to find the shining center. But another way to see all those costumes are as representations of what Gary Kraftsow spoke of as the multidimensional self. I've also blogged about how much I enjoy all the online surveys where you find your flower, or your Harry Potter character, and so on. Such symbol systems provide us with a template to explore our own personality, character, and relationships. Some say that Halloweeen with its tradition of donning a costum lets us become something we would like to be and are not. I think what we choose can give us a way to understand a lot about ourselves.
The holiday is also a time to walk around our neighborhoods and interact with friends and neighbors. This also seems very yogic to me. Yoga practice can be solitary, but it is also a shared endeavor. As I often say to my students: “Namaste means the light in me greets the light in you.... not wow there is all this light in me and that is what matters”. When we open ourselves and look honestly inward it is not just an inward journey, but as a preperation to journey outward to our community. We go out in costumes we hope others will admire, and we are prepared to admire and enjoy those we see on others.
I think most people in the fitness world (and to some extent those in yoga) have a bit of difficulty with the part of Halloween that involves the mass purchase and consumption of highly caloric usually highly processed food stuffs. Most fitness magazines, articles, blogs and so on that tackle the holiday give advice about limiting one's consumption, buying candy the day of the event instead of early, and so on. And there is always talk of how many calories one will have to burn off after a certain amount of candy. And on the other side you have the comments extolling the candy of one's youth, or the recipes for cat cupcakes, or the suggestions that one after all 'deserves' the sweets, and the fitness people should just lighten up. I believe there is merit to enjoying sweets and other good foods. I make candy during the holidays and have done so for years. I used to take them to my studio to give to my students back years ago. They sometimes laughed at me and accused me of having a nefarious plan to get them to buy more passes to work them off. But I absolutely believe the sharing of food is a vital form of human connection, and that both chocolate and exercise should be enjoyable. The problem is when they get out of balance on a regular basis.
Actually I personally have no problem with a holiday that includes a feast, or a mass injestion of some highly desired food. I would prefer to see the people who pick the cocoa beans able to send their kids to school, and to be able to afford to eat the wonderful food they make available to us to gorge upon. So I try to support groups that work for fair trade for those workers, yes, even if it means that I will not be able to buy a bag of chocolate for 2 dollars for Halloween.
What mostly bothers me is the sense that we are being pushed toward ever more consumption of specific products by an insatiable demand for profits. The market drive toward profit is not evil... but it is amoral. The profit margin on a piece of fruit is vastly less than that of a piece of candy. And if that candy is full of preservatives and artificial ingredients it is even higher. I think most people (not all, but most) would say that not giving kids diabetes is good. But when faced with a difference in profits a company tends not to respond the way an individual person would. And advertisements work hard to increase that 'us versus them' thing: 'go ahead, you deserve it'..... I deserve what? And why? And are they telling me 'I deserve it' because they know me and think it is true, or because they want to sell me more stuff, and figure this is how to do it? And will it be enough that I buy 5 bags for the holiday, or will the junk food people be inundating me with ads to buy it again next week, showing me pictures of people who only are happy because they are eating chips with their friends?
I think we all merit the good things of this life. Chocolate is wonderful. I love potato chips, though I eat them rarely. When I do eat them I do not agonize or count. I enjoy. But it is definitely a once a month thing. I think they are more pleasurable that way anyway. But I do not like companies trying to tie my happiness to the purchase and consumption of their products. And I think it might be helpful to balance the consumption of a lot of candy on a holiday with trying to eat more healthfully as a regular thing, and with opening oneself to the idea that there is as much happiness and pleasure in the company of friends and neighbors, and the walking, and the creative process of coming up with a costume as in the sweets.
The idea of using pressure and friction on the human body for health and relaxation is not new. Massage was prevalant in the time of the Roman empire: if you went to the baths it would be common to have a body rub in addition to the hot and cold tubs. The Greeks as well had it, and before them the Egyptians and the Chinese, and the Indians. There are even some European cave paintings that suggest massage may date back thousands of years earlier. So the practices and the understanding of their benefits predate a lot of our modern medical science. But as that science developed it gave both new insight and new techniques to various forms of body work, as well as to exercise science and sports science. The study of anatomy and detailed anatomical drawings grouing out of the practice of disection helped us understand what is going on with the musculature underneath the skin, and investigation of processes like blood flow and lymphatic flow and drainage, and immune function have helped paint a picture of the integrated nature of the various systems of the body. The invention of the microscope and the study of biochemestry helped us see the underlying cellular and chemical processes of our bodies.
The first society of trained masseuses in Great Britain was founded in 1894. It is interesting that the time that massage moved toward being seen as a skilled profession in the mid 1800s to the early 100s coincided with other discoveries... like the importance of hand washing to avoid spreading germs. Advances in hygene were as important as anatomical knowledge, and the microscopic study of the chemical processes of the body.
Massage is a representative of a style of therapy sometimes called hands on bodywork. There are many styles of massage: Swedish, Thai, and Shiatsu are some that are popular. Reflexology is a bodywork that attempts to influence systems of the body through movements and pressure to the hands and feet. Physical therapy and Occupational therapy also use hands on techniques. Rolfing is another form, and one that was one of the first bodywork therapies to work toward structural integration of the fascia. Ida Rolf, who was born at the end of the 19th centure, and lived until 1979 was trained in biological chemistry (as well as physics and math) which clearly relates to her interest in underlying structure and its interconnections.
The first time I had a massage therapist mention special techniques to open the fascia was more than 10 years ago. This was a very experienced practitioner who spent most of her time training other massage therapists. The technique she used on my back was very different than what I was used to, and the effects surprising for something that didn't have that strong deep feel of most of the massage I had done. Since that time I have paid attention to everything I have seen on fascial research and have continued to think about it in my yoga practice.
The role of connective tissue, and in particular fascia hasn't been studied as much as the shape, structure, and function of other systems. The story you hear in lecture after lecture is how when one used to do anatomical disection the fascia was stripped off and slopped into buckets. In fitness in particular even when I was studying almost 20 years ago the musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory systems got most of the attention. But lately fascia has been getting quite a lot of interest. Recent research into the major role connective tissue, and fascia in particular has yielded a new theoretical understanding of the important role it plays in human function, as well as a number of practical techniques for health and relaxation. What is being learned has important links to how one understands physical function, physical exercise, and techniques of rehabilitation and relaxation.
Connective Tissue 101
Please feel free to skip the next 3 paragraphs if they make your eyes cross, or if you already know it. Connective tissue is the part of our body that functions to support and bind together various structures of the body into a whole. There are a number of kinds of connective tissues (just as there are different kinds of muscles: bicep, quadricep, heart....) for example: your outer ear, intervertebral discs, ligaments, tendons, and the fascia. If you were to peel away the top layer and the deep layer of the skin you would find a superficial and deep layer of fascia. If you were to remove everything from within the fascia you would find something that looks a little like a spider web that forms a body shaped glove from your head to your feet. After a lifetime it would be worn out, torn, or stiff in certain places, but it would still be a whole body shape.
Connective tussue includes fibers of various sorts (collagen, elastic and reticular fibers), and cells (some secrete fibers, some have an immune function, cleaning up and breaking down stuff, and of course fat cells). Cappilaries run through the tissue, some are more vascularized than others. And there are fibers: collagen, and elastic and reicular fibers. It is the amount and arrangement of those fibers that a lot of people peaked a lot of interst. Some types of fibers are naturally loosely woven, or densely woven which can have a regular or irregular shape. There are also a ton of sensory nerve endings: 10 times as many as in the muscles. And, oh yes, a lot of water.
What gets really interesting is not just how it is made, but how it works, why it works that way, and how it affects everything else. The fascial web transmits force. It holds together and balances the contractions of the muscle fibers in relationship to gravity. The sensory nerve endings allows it to transmit complex messages from the autonomic nervous system to parts of the body. The fibers realign in response to stress and movement. So when you engage mulha bandha from that center it is not just the intraabdominal pressure of the transversus abdominus muscle that is helping to stabalize the body.... you are causing a cascade outward of fibers turning and realigning, life bits of grass in a bowl of water when you drop in a stone. Actually even before you engage the movement the fibers in the fascia start to orient toward the direction of movement. The movement of the fascia which interdigitates the muscle fiber bundles allows those muscle fibers to slide over one another. There even seems to be a connection between emotional tension and the state of the fascial web. Release one and there can be release in the other.
So strong, healthy, and stretchy fascia is important to movement, to balance, and to avoiding pain.
Keeping it healthy is partly a question of movement. This is what yoga teachers and physical therapists, and personal trainers, and all those types of people have been saying ad nauseum for decades. Range of motion is important. Being sedentary is not good for long periods of time. Fascia is adaptable. It can heal and it can hypertrophy.
The other really important thing has to do with hydration. As we become inactive, and as we age the fascia dehydrates. Just as a sugar syrup you are boiling becomes thicker and harder to stir as water boils off the fibers in the fascia get more flattened and harder to move as they get dehydrated. This does not simply mean that you should drink a lot of water (though that is good as well). Think about what happens if you have a drought and then a rainstorm... a lot of water just rolls off the surface. It means that you need to move that water around so that it has the fibroblasts can take in water. They produce proteins that bring in water, and if they are dehydrated they do it less well.
Yoga, even before having the science, tended to employ processes that create healthy connective tissues and a healthy fascial web. A yoga class will move the whole body (not typically one joint in isolation) within a variety of three dimensional directions. Spinal twists in particular are wonderful for moving fluid through the body: hydrating the intervertebral discs, as well as squeezing and rinsing out internal organs. In a typical yoga posture we are less interested in isolating a specific muscle to do an isolated action, than to stretch or open into a particular direction. In my teaching I talk about line of stretch and line of energy. We balance our directions of stretch. One fascial technique that I read about recently is the use of stretching in the opposite direction of the tension and then into the tension: something I've been doing in class for a long time. (My students will think of tail on the dog into pigeon). It is wonderful to see the science that explains the benefits that I've seen in a lifetime of practice.
Yoga is not a hands on body work modality. The pressing, stretching and squeezing comes from within. There is, however, a strong hands on tradition in yoga. These days yoga teachers have to make some accomadations to how such touch is used. It can be enormously helpful in more ways than I can list here, and I am always honored if my students trust me to help them find a slight shift in movement … to feel their way kinesthetically into it, rather than to understand it cognitively. On the other hand, I always understand that there may be reasons why someone may not be ready for, or may not best respond to learning and connecting in that way. But there is a reason why there are a fair number of massage therapists who do or teach yoga, and a fair number of yoga teachers who are massage therapists, or at least take a lot of massage. If I could budget the time and money I have often thought I would love to study massage therapy. They seem like disciplines that each enhance the other.
Just as we know that when a trained masseuse presses their fingers into a particular part of the body and rolls in a particular direction we feel release, we know that a non human object pushed in that way can have a similar result. People have been using tennis balls, and other already existant devices to manipulate the myofascial web, but these days there are a range of tools that have been developed to do what is sometimes called hands off body work.
The biggest name in hands off body work is Susan Hitzmann, the founder of the MELT method. I have had 2 workshops with her and would say she is a gifted teacher. Her techniques involve several types of pressure and movement using a fairly soft foam roller, and fairly small balls. She uses light compression, gliding, and shearing as a way to rebalance and rehydrate the fascia. Rather than describing her method at length if you are interested you can take a workshop with her, or get her DVD. But there are a lot of people doing these techniques, and a lot of tools available. Susan's recommendations for rollers were to use heavy compression after a major workout or for injury rehab, and light compression for chronic tension or pain, and to keep the sessions rather short. I have a set of gel balls I use for the feet which come from Gaiam. You can source a range of equipment from companies like OPTP. I purchased my current foam roller from them, and you can get a nice book of color photos showing various techniqes for breaking up tension in the muscle. I know a trainer who swears by a myofascial device shaped rather like a padded dumbell or oversized peanut. The only thing I would suggest is to discuss this with both your trainer and your medical advisor. There may be reasons why they would not wish you to add this activity, and there may be particular guidance they would wish to give you related to your own health and fitness level.
If you wish to know about my current class schedule or beginner mindfulness workshop, or would like to schedule a private session, you may check my facebook page, or messge me.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how I think about and use shavasana (http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/shavasana-and-meditation ). Since then I find myself thinking about, and talking to my classes about the beginning of the class. If in part Shavasana is the transitional pathway out of the physical practice, into the meditative practice, and then out into our lives, it is balanced by what we do at the beginning of practice, when we step on the mat.
I used the image with shavasana of coming from a long walk to sit in the shade of a porch outside of a building. If we were to expand this image, when we put our mat down we are entering the park to begin our walk. There are practical things we need to do: applying sunscreen and bug spray, getting water, lacing up our boots. And even before that there was the matter of planning where we would go and with whom. I have also written about choosing a yoga practice. These days it is common knowledge that there are many types of practice. Some want a flat path that is not too strenuous... some want more vigorous terrain. For some it is the guide and/or the company that matters more than the path. The decisions and choices that have led you to enter the door to the yoga studio are as much a part of your practice as your first down dog: it is about self exploration. As well, the gathering of the props, the decision of where to place the mat, the question of how many layers you want: this is all part of the practice.
One of the big distinctions between the typical yoga practice and our daily life has to do with transition time. In my beginner mindfulness workshops I tend to talk a bit about what someone called the myth of multitasking (sorry, I do not remember where I got that), which is more often fast task switching. We are asked to switch our attention between more and more things, and to keep each thing timed so we can jump back as needed. This is not a bad thing. The issue is to balance. I often say to my class: if you only stretch you will likely create joint instability, if you only strengthen you will not be able to reach the peanut butter off the shelf; if you only inhale you will collapse your lungs and die. We are pushed toward speed all the time: if 3 g is good, 4 g is better. How many gs do we need? When step aerobics first came out I got an early tape with about 115 beats per minute.... how long was it before people were competing to see how fast they could do it? How fast can you go before your likelyhood of injury surpases any benefit from the exercise?
When I was going to have my first child I read everything I could find on child rearing. One of my favorite authors was William Sears. One thing I remember him talking about was the importance of transition time. Many children do not do well if swooped down on and told they have to go or do 'RIGHT NOW'. In a way the time we spend at the start of the class, and the time we spend in shavasana, and the time we spend rolling to the side and sitting up, are all ways to allow us to regain homeostasis, to have that time of transition.
The beginning of a class often includes a little time to 'check in'. Every teacher has their own way of doing this. I find that asking where people are is helpful in a few ways: even if people do not want or need to answer they begin to look inward and notice, it promotes group cohesion (and community is one of the dimensions of human experience), and it gives me an idea of what path we might take together today. It also allows the idea that everyone gets a chance to ask when they need.
It also generally includes a few moments to engage the breath. I often talk about how the breath is the key to the mind body connection. It affects the balance between the arousal and the release of the nervous system (think about panting with fear, and how we take deep breaths when we try to calm down). I have already written a bit about pranayama ( http://blog.ideafit.com/blogs/ariadne-greenberg/yoga-and-pranayama ) so suffice to say we begin to focus on and use the breath as soon as we begin the class.
As soon as we begin moving (aside from the movements of respiration obviously) we are doing a number of things: we are checking to see where each of us is holding tension, we are limbering up most of the major joint areas of the body, we are promoting the movement of fluid within the synovial joints, and the intervertebral discs, and through the fascial web. We are checking on alignment. It is true that every posture has alignment to consider: it is equally true that before we think about alignment in posture or movement we need to think about baseline. If someone has been carrying a 2 year old on one hip, or a 40 pound backpack on one shoulder all week, or if someone is scoliotic, or has one limb shorter than the other.... well, those are good things to pay attention to as we go forward. If I am going into the woods and I know I have a hole in the heel of my sock I might want to have a piece of moleskin ready in my pocket.
Mentally I want to prepare by focusing on the body at rest, as a base to pay attention as I move. It is like the eyes tracking a moving object. I notice the lift of the breastbone in breath. This helps me notice the placement of the foot and the knee in virabhadrasana I. This helps me keep my mind from jumping to the end of the posture, rather than being present at each moment the posture unfolds.
Mircea Eliade wrote a lot about hierophany, or manifestation of the sacred within the non sacred world. It is common to set apart certain objects, (relics, statues, books) as imbued with a meaning deeper than their simple physical being. The same thing can be true of times, or actions, as well as objects. Not everyone comes to yoga as a spiritual practice; not everyone belongs to an organized religion. Yoga can be practiced without reference to the spiritual dimension (something else I have written about ), but that is clearly part of the history of yoga, and a context to find a place of spirituality is one of the things it offers. But whether the individual in the practice is coming to self study philosophically, anatomically, emotionally, or spiritually, it is a practice that asks us to step outside of the course of our daily life, and to notice and explore in a different way.
As an unrelated side note I wish to express my appreciation of those who are reading my blog. I think there must be a number of you, as I can see from the host site the numbers. If you enjoy it and ever have questions please feel free to find and like my yoga facebook page, to comment (I will answer as many as I can), or to share it with anyone you think might also enjoy it. And if you are in my area I would be honored to see my jnana students in my asana classes. Some of my classes are in membership clubs, but there are others where one can buy individual passes.
As always, it is an honor and a pleasure to share this with you. Namaste: the light in me salutes the light in you.
Sun and Moon Vinyasa Series
Suryanamaskar is practiced twice. Once with lunge leading from the right leg, and once with it leading from the left. (So this is not the sun salutation from Ashtanga that moves from lift to fold to arch to plank, but the one that moves from lift to fold to lunge to plank). Please note that during the first movement I keep the arms in the sagittal plane. This is anatomically and philosophically coherent with the flow as a whole. Then one takes a quarter turn and stands at the front corner of the mat. One does moon salutation twice, once leading with right leg, and once with the left. One should end up toward the rear of the mat where one takes a quarter turn to face the back. Sun salute is done again twice, another quarter turn takes us to the next side and 2 more moons, and then a quarter turn returns us to the front of the mat.
This style of practice suggests the eternal return (Eliade) of the continuous cycle through the 4 seasons: each cycle the same, and yet different, because it stands on and is affected by, all those that came before. In addition to the eternally renewing cycle of seasons it speaks of the four cardinal directions: east, south, west and north. Like Dorothy at the crossroads we stand at the enter, and geographically, culturally, meteorologically.... which way we turn and which way we travel will send us into new possibilities.
The practice also articulates how that standing at the center can be seen as the 0 at the center of the number line. Each of us is the flame at the elastic center breathing out into synergistic oppositional directions that are really two directions on the same number line. We inhale and we exhale; we forward bend and we backward bend; we right twist and we left twist.
When I begin sun salutation I reach up to tall mountain in Jupiter mudrah. I greet the sky. Then I bend down to touch the floor. I greet the earth. I was telling my students recently about having a conversation with someone about what one would look for in a spiritual leader. My feeling is that one either wants a 'sky father' or an 'earth mother'. Not that sky fathers are inherently male, or eather mothers are inherently female: these are just archtypes. What I mean is that I see two important, and connected directions of spirituality. In one we are taken to the heights of awe and wonder, and in the other we are wrapped in the arms of love and compassionand support. Someone who can remind us of, or help us touch those experiences (head and heart) is doing what I think is essential in a spiritual leader. These two physical movements beginning the flow remind us that we reach up to what is possible, and bend down to honor what is. We are the flame burning at the center: the balanced 0 at the center of the number line, that is not nothing, but is empty balanced possibility. We hold at the center and circle around that: rooting and reaching.
There are quite a number of dynamic synergies that are articulated with sun and moon: day and night, up and down, earth and sky, and male and female. I find the forward direction of sun partakes more of the traditional idea of male energy (often associated with sun), and the lateralness of moon (more twisting) more female (also often associated with the cyclicity of the moon). What is also important is what we see in the ying yang symbol: the seed of the one inherent in the other. Where the two series find commonality is in the lunge.
You can also see why I take the arms through the frontal plane in moon, and the sagittal plane in sun in that first movement. It is part of the directionality.
When learning the series, and usually in the first round or so we linger over certain movements. However, once we know the series each movement is taken with either an inhale or exhale, except for down dog in sun, and prasarita padottanasana in moon. Here at the center we pause and take a few breaths before returning to the cycle. This is a reminder of another blance (which I talked about in my last blog entry, on shavasana), that is, the balance between work and rest, and the need to pause and reset to find our balance between mind and body.
Background, or Philosophical Ramblings
Some schools, or lineages, of yoga practice a single set of repeated postures. For example Bikram yoga employs a sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing techniques. Ashtanga (the original ashtanga yoga as developed by Sri. K Patthabi Jois, as opposed to the various styles of 'power' or 'hot' yoga that are based on it)has 5 defined series, though most practitioners only do one or two. If you are in a class doing the Ashtanga vinyasa of Patthabi Jois you will be doing the same linked series of postures, until you move on to the second series. Some people on hearing this will raise an eyebrow and ask 'don't you get bored?'. I have done the primary series (with David Swenson who trained with Patthabi Jois himself), though it is not my usual practice. I do know people (my sister for example) who do practice it regularly and who find the question difficult to understand. It calls them in a way that seems always deep and new. I prefer to allow my practice to arise from being present to where I am and what I need at the time, and my teaching to arise from both my own and my students place of presentation.
If you look at the school records of the palace school where Krishnamacharya taught in the 1930s there are records of his teaching yoga, and of other teachers teaching suryanamaskar. In other words, those were seen as different things. Some teachers assert suryanamaskar series were taught as yoga as long ago as the Vedas. I personally agree with Geoffrey Samuel who said “modern yoga has become a siginficant part of contemporary western practices of bodily cultivation, and it should be judged in its own terms, not in terms of its closeness to some presumably more authentic Indian practice.” (this is from a journal called Asian Medicine, Tradition, and Modernity, yoga special edition in 2007) I think we need to understand the history and traditions.... we learn a great deal from those. But we also need to understand modern anatomical and physiological science and research. Figure out what tools are in the box, and what they do.... then adapt them as the needs arise.
Other schools use vinyasana, but do not always do the same flow. Almost 30 years ago Amrit Desai (founder of Kripalu which was named after his teacher) practiced a flow he called 'moving meditation' in which the postures were meant to flow from within as the practice stretched both inward and outward, rather than being set beforehand. And if you peruse the pages of Yoga Journal, or various yoga web sites you will see many variations of yoga sequences that are meant to be done in this way. Once can honor the great of the past by remembering and practicing their work as they designed it. One can equally honor it by understanding and then adapting it. I cannot, like Galileo say that I have seen more by standing on the shoulders of giants, but I certainly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before, and use and adapt all that calls me.
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.