Categories
blog pranayama self-help critique

LOL ridiculous…about last

time. This just popped into my radar:

So how about a TV show where you can sit back and egg on celebrities as Wim Hof runs them through an ice-cold gauntlet?

Enter Wim Hof’s Superstar Survival. In this brand new BBC series, Wim guides a slew of celebs as they face “wild and death-defying challenges in Europe’s harshest conditions”. Yeah, we’re hyped too. However you will have to temper your excitement just a bit, as the show won’t air until 2022. Check out the details on the BBC website…

Will this encourage people to do the method? Or will it result in couch potatoes living vicariously through mini-god celebs? Methods require discipline, which I’m not sure that TV can inspire, but let’s see.

We also see a, if not the, dominant theme of the WFM on display in a new pod: “Power of Masculine Energy” brought to us by a smiling blond who, of course, saves women from trafficking and domestic violence. Moral entrepreneurship at its finest.

The first is with actress & activist AnnaLynne McCord. AnnaLynne does a tremendous amount of work combating human trafficking and helping victims of domestic abuse, and she found the Wim Hof Method to be exceptionally effective in tackling her own personal trauma.

In this episode, Wim and AnnaLynne delve into the negative consequences of sub-normal breathing; physical vs mental imprisonment; and how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back.

Oh, wait a second. It’s about “how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back” and not the “Power of Masculine Energy”? These are quite different themes. No, I haven’t listened yet, but already I have to roll my eyes at the branding. Would no one click otherwise? (Maybe not?)

If masculinity is so “natural” why must you all go on and on about it ad nauseam? If you don’t feel all that masculine–as it’s absurdly defined in the here and now–why not step back and enjoy how you do feel? What you do enjoy? Assuming that you have interests outside of video games and porn, enjoying who you actually are is quite hot.

Some Thoughts on the Relaxation of Human Bodies; and on the Misapplication of the Bark in That and Some Other Cases. London: printed for W. Nicoll, No. 51, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1783.

As I mentioned in the Circle Jerk post, the women who get the most play on youtube are cheerleader types like Gabrielle Reece and the Red Scare devushki who joyfully (lucratively) prop up masculinity tropes and sell their allegedly submissive sexuality. McCord is the only woman on Wim’s pod thus far.

But I will listen and possibly report back. As with his method, maybe there’s something more there.

Ir, spėk kas? Wim dabar yra lietuvių kalba.


If you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

bamboo squatty pottyWhen traveling abroad way back in the 90s, my then-partner and I talked about how one day we’d have squat toilets in our homes because they are vastly superior to the porcelain gods. But of course, in our post-modern 21st Century, instead we buy some wood so that we can squat in our chairs. This model is bamboo and comes with a fabulous foot massager, though this one is a bit better made. They also come in white plastic, which does blend better with most decors. I have and love the foot massager model, you might guess.

Categories
blog favorites pranayama self-help critique yoga habits

youtube is a circle jerk

Last time, I mentioned turning to youtube for inspiration for teaching breathwork on zoom last winter. First, James Nestor’s Breath: The Science of a New Lost Art popped up, which I listened to on audiobook. (I have too much research reading on my plate now for leisure reads). It’s quite interesting, though like most journalistic endeavors, has its share of historical inaccuracies (e.g. ancient westerners did, in fact, place value on breathing). I nitpick though.

As eye-opening as the book itself was the long line of podcast interviews James Nestor appeared on: Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, Joe Rogan, Lewis Howes, and so on. These pods brought me to Patrick McKeown and the Buteyko Method (mentioned in Nestor’s book), who’s also done the podcast circuit of which I was so blissfully unaware. While Joe Rogan I knew as a generalist talk show host, the others were new to me. They traverse that great American tradition of straight-up self-help (though not all are American).

lewis howes
the titles tend to shout at you

You will not get far in the youtube breathwork world without coming across Wim Hof. Of course I’d heard of Wim Hof, but I’d written him off as the kind of guy who appears on the sidewalk signs of Bushwick coffee houses and attracts masculinity movement followers. But again and again his name came up on the podcasts mentioned above, as well as those of Russell Brand, Andrew Huberman, Dr. Steven Gundry, Tom Bilyeu, and Jordan Peterson.

If you spend any time listening to these, you might be struck by the sheer maleness and, with the exception of Chatterjee, whiteness of the crew. While their credentials range from M.D. to comedian to former pro athlete, they again and again circle back to one another, even hosting each other on their respective pods. While some, like Rogan and Peterson, are known for their 1950s take on gender, Chatterjee, Huberman, Hof, and Brand also serve up a traditional bi-gendered framework of the world–if not offered themselves, like Brand’s announcement that “wellness is for women” (“wellness” ascended in the mid-1970s US, when corporations sought relief from the vertical spike in health care costs, and its first subjects, as with most medical experimentation, were white men), than by their guests. There is little interrogation of guests’ sometimes fantastic statements, though such questioning would make the pods infinitely more informative and interesting, not to mention “authentic” and “deep,” as generally branded.

fix yourself! change yourself! DO THIS NOW!

With the exception of Peterson, whose status as an intellectual or great thinker strikes me as depressing evidence of just how little North Americans like to think (though censoring him is even more absurd. Any honors high school student could critique his sloppy interpretations of Dostoyevsky and Jung, much less his muddled understanding of postmodernism), I actually quite enjoy these pods. I’m just shocked by how male they are. Women seem to be relegated to the candles, makeup and mommy corners of the interwebs, where playing a little dumb is highly rewarded. If that’s your thing, fantastic. If you want a, or want to be a, stay-at-home wife, that’s great. Just don’t ask me to do it.

And I suppose that’s the crux of it. Born in the early 70s, when the promise of equality for all had not quite yet met the backlash of neoliberalism, (no, not just conservatism, neoliberalism), I am always just a little bit shocked that people in the US aren’t allowed to just be, and be with, who they want. Why is that so threatening? If youtube and podcasting are the channels for startup info-tainment self-expression, why are they still dominated by white men? Are my interests–in this case, breathing–more masculine than feminine? More manly?

They are not. In fact, my research and interests tend to fall into what Americans like to deem “female” interests. My request that we sometimes be, rather than incessantly do, could be seen as a “feminine” endeavor.

When I heard about the studies done on Wim Hof’s method, I looked further. It turns out to be tummo breathing (Tibetan kundalini), cold showers or baths, and yoga, all of which I already do anyway, though my cold showers were previously isolated to sauna/banya. As I desperately miss my hot-cold bathing routine under Covid19 and I’ve long sought out others as passionate about it as I am, I got Wim’s book, The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential.

I read the book before watching him on  video, and I recommend that for those who aren’t into the we’re-so-manly, high performance, HACK YOURSELF schtick. The book, which I’ve now given to a few people, comes across as very human and very practical. I have not taken a warm shower since I read it. Of northern European stock, this is not so difficult for me. In fact, I enjoy it.

What I find most impressive about Wim Hof’s method is that he came to it through exploring himself, his body, and perhaps his trauma. He talks about the ecstasy of extreme temperatures (well, cold) that I know and adore from swimming in the winter ocean but also melting in the banya. (In fact, I was recently thinking about organizing a public banya in Brighton so that we can swim and easily warm up after in the not-summer seasons.) While he somewhat annoyingly and inaccurately waxes on about its scientific validity, it is clear that he came to this through his own personal and intense exploration and then systematized it for others. Experiencing my body and learning from it rather than applying “protocols” because science told me so is precisely what I find most valuable, and it is impressively on display in his book. I’m not sure I’ve come across anything or anyone like it.

After reading, watch him in the above videos if you like, but prepare for some yelling and repetition. His method does attract mostly men, from what I can see from the documentaries and teachers, but his method is awesome and I see no reason it’s better for men than women or non-binary people. He even has an app–that used to be free but is no longer–to help you learn the breathing or simply to hold you consistent and accountable.


If you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from the links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

bamboo squatty pottyWhen traveling abroad way back in the 90s, my then-partner and I talked about how one day we’d have squat toilets in our homes because they are vastly superior to the porcelain gods. But of course, in our post-modern 21st Century, instead we buy some wood so that we can squat in our chairs. This model is bamboo and comes with a fabulous foot massager, though this one is a bit better made. They also come in white plastic, which does blend better with most decors. I have and love the foot massager model, you might guess.

Categories
blog self-help critique the yoga consumer what is yoga yoga habits

tell me what you’re running from

About thirty years into yoga & meditation, I look back at the questions and desires I had for it in the beginning. The one that loomed largest was that I wanted some kind of coherent system that brought it all together and made sense in scale. A philosophical and practical system that included both yoga and meditation that would bring shifts that weren’t so gradual I couldn’t sense them, that had teachers who weren’t more fucked up than I was. I wanted both yoga and meditation integrated, not one or the other, or separate.

That didn’t exist though, largely because of how modern postural yoga has developed in the last century. Yoga schools are mostly postural, and meditation schools are mostly sitting. The meditation done at yoga schools is generally short and visualization based, which is pleasant and valuable but not terribly revealing.

Ducklings
baby ducks lurching over a construction float on the hudson river

On two occasions, I realized that my problem was essentially relational and that sitting silently on a cushion or doing backbends was not going to help my general distrust of people. To be honest, yoga and meditation teachers couldn’t answer many of my basic questions about the psychological patterns the practices can revealor show a way out of them, or even simply support my exploration of them. Whether or not that’s their place is a discussion for some other chat room.

(The problem stems from my father’s untimely death when I was a teen. I was encouraged to chin up and keep moving, and I did. But I shut down my grief and organized my reality to avoid experiencing such destabilizing loss ever again.)

So I found a good psychoanalyst who happens to think that meditation is largely about bypassing and dissociating. No, we don’t agree on everything. Thoughtful people generally don’t.

Yoga does create the body-container and body awareness to hold the psychological work of psychoanalysis and meditation, a concept I learned from the work of Marion Woodman. Decades in, I realized that the combination of my various endeavors, which include breath work, sauna, city walking, country hiking, and summer swimming, are all part of that pat system of yoga I once sought. The philosophy, once so central to Indian, Greek, and other ancient traditions of health, I’ve had to sort out on my own.

Ah yes, the individual.

Perhaps partially due to covid, I also realize that so many things I make part of my day simply because I enjoy them are just as healthy for me as yoga and meditation: getting up with the sun, walking outside (on the river or ocean, if possible), getting outdoors several times a day, swimming in the ocean, talking to friends and neighbors, taking photos, watching the animals of NYC, sauna/banya/pirtis (oh how I miss the smell of heated wood) and the obligatory cold dips or showers that follow, reading books, and so on.

The ocean swimming I knew was good, so to the sauna habit. And sure, the walking, the river, the small creatures. How? I felt it. I paid attention. Much of it, really, feels like yoga.

People find me a bit obsessive perhaps. But in the last year, youtube has informed me that my beloved pastimes are healing. Like, bonafide scientifically healing.

But we knew that? Well, we did know that, but it’s interesting to hear another take. To have intuition confirmed, particularly when you aren’t status quo.

Fifteen years ago, as part of my master’s degree research, I hunted for information in PubMed and various other sources on why sighing felt so good. The intellectuals smiled and said, “Oh, how cute, this yoga teacher,” with a look that suggested my question was trivial. Eventually, maybe five years later while reading about trauma, I found that it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Okay then.

And now, fifteen years later, the mainstream scientists are studying it. That’s cool. Will more people do it? I hope so. Sauna studies have been going on for a while now, too, though mostly in Finland.

banya sauna pirtis

I turned to youtube over winter break when trying to find new ways of explaining breath work to students over zoom. Most of my students are more into the postural practice, and breath work can seem too esoteric. But I first learned yoga in the early 1990s at a 1960s-style school in the Village, where pranayama was a standard part of class. When I moved on to more vigorous styles of yoga, I noticed that the awesome effects weren’t as long lasting without the pranayama. So I include it in my personal practice, though sometimes my students resist it.

Youtube. I was aware that many of my young students plan on making it big on the small screen, but I had no idea of all the medicalized self-help on offer there. Every other doctor has a podcast on BEING YOUR BETTER SELF because HUMANS ARE PROGRESS THAT’S JUST WHAT WE DO. 

It’s entertaining, it’s maddening, and I love it. I’ve thought about and researched self-help culture for decades because it’s an essential part of the American psyche and storyline.

What strikes me hardest about the youtube strivers is their desperation for progress. It is very upsetting for students to hear that history is not a linear story of progress, and many simply refuse to take that in. And so it is with the youtube coaches. “What are your goals? If you aren’t progressing, you are a loser! Better, faster, stronger! Tune in for more! I will succeed in my goal of saving you with my science-based advice! Here! Buy some vitamins!” (No shade, but I’ll sell you chocolate.)

As I stroll along the river early in the morning, I watch the bodies and faces of people running, walking, and working out on the pier. I wonder if they’re enjoying themselves as they struggle along, forcing their bodies farther and faster. They don’t stop to admire the cormorants drying their wings on the old pier stumps, the baby ducks lurching over a construction float, or the common terns on their wild and erratic nosedives into the river for fish.

I have no idea, really, if the strivers are enjoying themselves. Sometimes I am tempted to ask.

If you don’t enjoy moving, why do it? How do you even make yourself, if it isn’t fun?

Does everything have to be quantified to be valuable?

I’m not suggesting we only do what we enjoy or that we never push past discomfort. I’m just wondering if that’s all there is. And if moving isn’t fun for you, then stick around, because I can help with that. (Yes, I too, am a self-help guru.)


theo chocolate w/o emulsifiersIf you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from the links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

If you’d like to eat chocolate that does not wreck your belly with detergents (ok, emulsifiers), Theo and another kind with a blue package are the only bars I’ve found that are free of guy-destroyers and delicious. I stick with 85% chocolate because there’s as much fiber in it as sugar. (Really.)

 

Categories
blog favorites practice at home the yoga consumer

yoga stuff

You suddenly find yourself doing yoga at home and you miss the props (and everything else) at your studio?

If you tend to hover on the wiry, over~thinky, anxious side of life, a weighted blanket can help ground you.

If you want a cheap mat, try this one. If you want a great mat that’s guaranteed for life, this is the only one I recommend (not the eKo version. It disintegrates rapidly). The regular pro version is brilliant and even better but weighs about 10lbs. 

If you tend to slip on mats and are not an ashtangi or doing jump-throughs, you might prefer the jade yoga mat, which is extremely grippy (so much so you can get caught on it and hurt yourself if you are just learning to jump through). These mats wear through fairly quickly, down to a mesh, but are good while they last.

If you want yoga blocks for class, these are good (I use them).

Less necessary is a strap. You can use a scarf or dog leash instead. But if you want a yoga strap, they aren’t pricey.

Also not as necessary are blankets. You can use a pillow or another blanket instead. Studio style:
100% cotton Mexican yoga blanket
Mixed Mexican yoga blanket

Be safe and well ~ Anastasia

Categories
blog meditation teaching

yoga teachers and teaching philosophies

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.  ~Jiddu Krishnamurti

 A Q&A with students back in 2007

(I’ve taken the old site down.)

Q: How long have you done yoga? Taught yoga? What’s philosophy for teaching a class?    —S.L.P.

I took my first yoga class in 1993. Needless to say, I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t even like my first class, an alleged intro class full of pretzel-twisting poses that were way beyond me. I tried & liked other classes, though, and did yoga off and on (more off) until 2002, when I realized it was really quite nice. “Really quite nice” doesn’t merit much time on a busy New Yorker’s schedule. I practiced once every week or two, when time permitted.

During a patch of big stress early in 2003, I realized just how much yoga helped me relax. I began to practice twice a week, and by summer I decided to do a teacher training, not because I wanted to teach (I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t see myself as a yoga teacher at all) but because I wanted to deepen my practice. I trained that fall, and in January, I walked into a job in spite of myself. I’ve been teaching since, and love it more each year. (Short answer: I’ve been teaching a bit over five years.)

My philosophy for teaching a class? I want you to come in, leave your life (good and bad) outside, work hard, meet your body, relax, find your breath, and have fun. How do I encourage this as a teacher? I don’t know. Teaching is extremely intuitive. I practiced daily and have studied with some great teachers. I absorb what I do and don’t like, and try to pass this on to you.

Sometimes I worry that I should do more—go to more teachers’ trainings (I plan to this summer), more retreats, more classes, do more preparation, and so on. But I work full time, I teach about 15 hours a week, and I’m in grad school. Doing more isn’t possible at present. But everything I do brings something to my teaching in a way that living and breathing only hathayoga cannot. I did grad work in South Asian Studies, and now Health and Behavioral Studies/Heath Education. I draw heavily on both in my yoga teaching.

I want people to get into their bodies and be honest with themselves. We neglect and abuse ourselves constantly, and we numb ourselves to life. Yoga can reverse this habit, and it isn’t all relaxation, or love and light, because often we open to the pain we’ve been taught all our lives to avoid. Better to be real and move through the pain (and the joy), than to be rigid and constantly defensive, or bubbly and fake. Or anxious. Or depressed. I’ve found that coming into the body is a remarkable way to do this.

 

Q: A teacher talked about seeing the good in everyone, even the people you don’t like. That’s not easy. You know, sometimes I don’t want to see the good in someone. Sometimes I just want to hate them. —J.F.S.

While there is merit in seeing the good, it isn’t easy. On one level, I agree with you. I don’t personally find the “be good” lectures in yoga particularly helpful (and there are many). Some may, and that’s great. Use it. But be aware that translated to the western psyche, being good when it isn’t sincere often translates to more anger and repression. If we want anger and repression, why not stick with where we are and forgo all the trouble? Again, I find this true for many, but not everyone.

I, personally, would hate them, if that’s what I felt truly felt. And I’d observe myself doing so, and perhaps, watch how that feels in general, and in my body. While working myself up can feel good and righteous for a bit, when I watch the process of feeling hate towards someone, I find that it doesn’t feel that great at all. It feels hot, leathery, and cramped. If I can feel the anger, watch it pass, and feel my pain and the hurt beneath the angst, I may or may not feel compassion toward the other person, but I sometimes find some for my own pain. And bad habits.

When this happens, I notice all the stories I tell myself about this terrible person and his/her behavior aren’t accurate, or even the point. The point of the stories is to protect me from the pain that I’ve learned to push away and point at someone else.

Part of the brilliance of yoga, when done regularly, is that it opens the heart and clears the mind just enough to want to be good, to not want to hurt others (even if they’ve hurt me), and to be brave enough to face the pain that lies beneath my angry, depressed, or anxiously cartwheeling mind. It’s not about faking like or resisting hate. It’s about being strong enough to observe how my mind works, how my body works, and how I trick myself into more and more pain by trying to avoid the truth of the pain I have. No, it’s not easy, and no, I don’t manage it much of the time.

I didn’t arrive at this by wanting to be good, and even less because someone suggested I should be. I just came to the point, about six years ago, that the behaviors I used to feel good didn’t work anymore, and had never worked very well at all, though they did get me through some hard times. I was making the same mistakes, thinking the same thoughts, having the same conversations over and over and over again. I wanted out, and wanted something else. I knew yoga made me feel good, so I did more of it. That led to meditation, and an intimacy with my mind and how it works.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Q: What is the ultimate goal of Western-style yoga from the instructor’s perspective? —A.T.

The ultimate goal? Hmm. “Western-style yoga” is extremely diverse and yoga instructors come in many stripes and colors.

From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior. I ultimately believe that yoga and meditation belong together because they balance one another. Those who only do hatha yoga can unwittingly get locked into physical habits or the exhilaration of the experience. Those who only meditate can unwittingly get stuck in mental habits—or the exhilaration of the experience. But together, they keep a check on the other and balance mind and body.

That said, most of my students don’t meditate. I did yoga about a year before I could sit still long enough to even attempt sitting meditation. For Columbia students, who are already way up in their heads, hatha yoga is very grounding. Sure, meditation would be great for them, but at this point yoga may well be enough.

 

Q: Given that everyone is different from another, how do yoga instructors evaluate their students’ progress?    —A.T.

Most of my students are grad students and with me two years, at the most. They are busy, and most aren’t dedicated to a yoga practice, so even getting to class is an accomplishment. This can make “progress” seem quite slow from where I stand, but they may be getting more benefits than the manic-yogi who shows up each day and rips through the practice out of addiction or habit.

What is progress? I may define progress one way and the student another. My goal of yoga may not agree with a student’s goal, but it doesn’t mean that we are mismatched in the studio.

The idea of a linear progression toward a specific goal doesn’t agree with my perception of yoga as a practice that is at least as cyclical as it is linear. I could evaluate progress along the lines of my last response (“From my perspective, the goal of yoga is to connect deeply with myself, to see life more clearly, and allow this connection and clarity to guide my behavior”). The student who does this may hit a huge crisis and feel as if life is falling apart. From this perspective, that may be the best thing in the world and just what s/he most needs. Ergo, fantastic progress!

If a student wants me to evaluate her/him, or we have a long term relationship, I’d need to know the student’s goals, abilities, and dreams (nothing less!) before I could do so, and even then it would be more about helping the student evaluate her/his practice on her/his own terms.

What about on a simply physical level? I’m not sure there is a simply physical level. Yes, I notice how someone’s down dog is coming along, and can give pointers, but I’m not sure that this is an evaluation of progress. Simply showing up to the mat with a sincere effort to focus on the body and breath is, to me, the biggest accomplishment for any student.

Categories
asana blog emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) favorites

stretching the east : on backbends

So, backbends. I’m not good at them. But I need them. I like them. They feel good. They used to feel like a jolt of coffee, because I take so little breath into my upper chest in my regular breathing pattern. To stretch the chest is crazy energizing, especially if you tend to hunch forward. Now that I do them daily, all sorts of things come up.

The more you do yoga, the more subtly you feel your body. The more you feel what it has to say. What you have to say. That is the trickiest thing in writing and talking about yoga. It’s a non-verbal endeavor, truly. Putting words to it can be difficult, and for a thinker, can run into territories of faith. It’s really something you can’t understand unless you have done it, and done it in a way that is accessible for you (i.e. the teacher and style resonate). It’s like meditation. I really can’t take anyone’s theories or analyses of yoga or meditation (eg Zizek) seriously if they haven’t sat on their ass for at least a weekend (that is very very generous. I do not mean you know anything after a weekend, but you now have an idea bigger than theory). Until then, you really have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s just head talk. Disembodied ideas. Blah, blah, blah.

Right. Backbends. I’ll quote from two books I encountered last time. The first, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann. I only read the small backbends sections in these books, so I have no recommendation for or against them.

Backbends are especially tremendous poses…because they encounter a sense of emotional openness and confidence. They gently open the chest, abdominal organs, pelvic region, and the whole front side of the body—the tender vulnerable side. The chest is where the heart chakra is located. Many of us are closed down and defended in that area, either from a lack of love or from past hurts. The pelvic region is where the sex chakra is located and many of us have contracted and pulled back in that area. We attempt to protect ourselves emotionally by closing down, pulling back, contracting our bodies, and thereby forming a protective shield or barrier. Closing down is not healthy, though. It’s part of what makes you feel more separate psychologically, and it constricts and restricts vital energy flow, which will inevitably cause you to feel more depressed than you would otherwise, more fearful, less vital, and less alive. Not to mention the fact that most of us sit in a somewhat cramped or collapsed position much of the day, anyway—either at a desk, while driving or eating, or in front of the TV–which not only impairs the functioning of the lungs and abdominal organs but causes the spinal vertebrae to push backward out of healthy alignment.

Backbends open these closed areas, thereby releasing blocked energy while simultaneously building the strength needed to stay open. Strong back muscles, developed with backbends, make it easy to sit and stand erect all day long, so you are alert and comfortable more of the time. Backbends give you energy because they release tension and blocked energy in your chest and pelvic regions as well as through the ankles, knees, quadriceps, abdominal organs, upper back, neck, shoulders, and arms. They are rejuvenating. They encourage youthfulness by keeping the spine supple.

(Schiffmann, pp. 199-200)

I appreciate his mention of the pelvis here, which is absent from most discussions of backbending, but hugely involved. The more intense backbends, in fact, slam my major areas of stress. The “sex chakra” analysis is unfortunately simplistic. The root chakra is located in the pelvis as well, and there are all sorts of reasons one might hold in the psoas and pelvic region. When I talked to my Rolfer about my thoracic spine and kyphosis, she went straight to work on my right psoas, where I tend to hold, to release by back. “Whoa. Weird,” I thought.

We need to be careful about reducing matters to the “heart” and “sex” chakras. Though, sure, trouble in the second might well lead to imbalance in the fourth, and vice verse. Though linking sex and the heart almost seems far fetched in the postmodern era. [Tears.]

The other book with some interesting insight was Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow:

As part of their sunrise practice the ancient yogis called their backward bending “stretching the east.” [They did?] Backward bends stretch and strengthen the front portion of the torso, the shoulder and pelvic girdles, and the legs. They stretch and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, which lay deep under the anterior musculature of the abdomen and pelvis and bind the legs to the spine; the diaphragm and the intercostals, which are the primary musculature of respiration; the anterior muscles, which bind the shoulder girdle to the spine; and the anterior muscles of the legs. In addition, they strengthen the superficial and deep muscles of the back, which contract as we bend backward; strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder girdle; stretch the abdominal organs, relieving the visceral compression; gently compress the kidney/adrenal area, stimulating its function; and stretch the anterior muscles of the neck and throat, including the area of the thyroid and thymus glands.

(Kraftsow, pp. 49-50)

Again, mention of the psoas/pelvis and a nice anatomical view of backbending efforts. It’s weakened by the first line, though, as there’s zero evidence that ancient yogis had a sunrise practice or that they backbended. In fact, only a few backbends (e.g. dhanurasana) are mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, which, circa 15 C.E., is hardly ancient. Kraftsow studied with T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps that’s where he got his mythology. Regardless, it’s incorrect. Yes, the front body is east and back body west. But it’s quite a stretch to bring the ancient yogis daily regimens into the argument, stated as fact. We really have no idea.

I’m rambling a bit here, largely as a process of investigating something. My chest and spine feel locked into place and I’d like them not to be. Talk about the heart chakra, closing down, vulnerability is interesting but not that helpful. I’ve spent time in my body and mind. I know that. Telling someone to open isn’t an open sesame. And even if you are massaged open, if the same mental and behavioral patterns haven’t shifted, the body will go straight back to where it was.

We can all tell sad stories of difficulties and loss. These stories can be liberating or (more usually) just another trap and excuse. The liberation, I gather, comes from experiencing the true emotion behind the tales, rather than a disassociated dramatown plea for attention that wasn’t received when we needed it. But true emotions can be madly elusive, having been avoided and ignored for so many years.

Thus far, the breath has been the most helpful. Luckily, the chest is somewhere I can actually breath into directly (unlike, say, my hip). Taking time to really breath, gently, into the top of my lungs, when I’m practicing, and sitting, and writing.

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non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

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blog favorites self-help critique the yoga consumer yoga habits

the yoga diet

Many yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.

We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):

  1. Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
  2. Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
  3. Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  4. Eat as simply and locally as possible.

That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.

While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)

This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.

Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.

Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.

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meeting resistance on and off the mat

Some books I’ve been reading have me asking why you do yoga. I know why I do it, and why I teach it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m teaching to your needs.

The other night, in a last class of the semester, I asked students what they wanted from yoga. If they came to class as a happy bubble from the outside stresses of life. Eyes got big and heads nodded, almost as if to say, “Please don’t ask more of us. Please don’t ask more.” And for good reason, as exams and finals and graduations are upon us. I remember the stresses of grad school and just trying to maintain. And honestly, this is fine. To feel good for a few hours of your week, to forget all the headaches that will just change into a different stress in a week or a month or a season, is a wonderful thing.

But yoga can be much, much more. It can allow you the space to shift your attention from an external experience of self—how you look, how you’re performing in school or work, what your friends/partner/community thinks of you—to an internal experience of self. How you feel. What your thoughts are. How your thoughts shift. How your muscles feel. How all of this constantly changes.

As a culture, we build up tremendous habits against internal awareness because frankly, we don’t feel that great much of the time. The pressures we take on in modern life to keep up and impress require that we treat ourselves like robots. But we’re not. We aren’t a mechanical airbrushed consumer in a glossy ad. And that’s a good thing. But we often forget that, and how to relate to anything else. Yoga shifts this, which is why it can feel so good.

Most people probably do yoga for this reason. Exercise and a time out. This works, especially as maintenance a few times a week. Many people sense there is more to yoga, but don’t really have the time or need to pursue what that is. And that is a great and healthy thing. Others get hooked and begin to practice more, or look into the other dimensions of yoga. Also great.

There comes a point in a serious practitioner’s practice, and maybe for less dedicated yogis as well, that yoga will make you feel worse. That may or may not be totally conscious. You might start to dislike your teacher, people you practice with, or the style of yoga you recently raved about. You might find it impossible to get to the class. You’ll start missing practices. Or drift away from the mat for long periods of time. But this is when it is most crucial to get to your mat. Your yoga is starting to work on a deep level. It’s when you start to see things you don’t want to see. If you want to shift your incessant patterns, you need to see. But your ego and defense mechanisms resist this. Hate this. Suddenly those patterns seem not so bad. Comfortable. Reasonable. Much better the devil you know, eh?

When I first left a job I disliked to do work I love, I was shocked to find my resistance and procrastination was just as strong for things that I love as those that I don’t. Maybe stronger. It can be so hard to get to the mat, or sit down, or stand up and just do the work. Why? Because we like the comfort of where we are a little more than we’re willing to admit?

I could give you a long list of cliches to help you fight resistance, but honestly, nothing will get you there but discipline and an iron commitment. Yes, routine helps. A support system helps. A great teacher helps. But if you are patterned to distrust, the best sangha (community), routine or teacher in the world won’t stop you from mounting a case against them if that’s how you’ve programed things. You know this by experiences past.

Go and meet the hate. Get up and make the phone call. Sit down to your research. Start sewing the dress. Face the terror of doing whatever it is you so long to do. Yoga can help you do this—but you’ll begin to resist the yoga, too. Just keep doing it. Because when you do, you see what’s going on. It is slow and painful and terrifying, but you have begun to develop the tools to work with that. You’ve started to make shifts consciously and unconsciously. Do anything but give in to the devil you know. You’re closer than you think.

This is why I don’t advocate shiny, happy yoga. I wince at the idea of yoga as a happy bubble time that will keep you comfortable enough, when it can be the vehicle for profound change. But I do understand that there’s great value in just feeling good for a few hours a week. Honestly, I’m happy to be a part of that too.

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yoga practice in class and out

 

This post is part of an integration of the info on the first yoga site I made for students back in 2007, as I’ll be taking it down soon. Enjoy!

Q: Is there a minimum amount of time that you should practice? Is it worth practicing 10 minutes if that’s all the time you have?    –M.M.

M.M.— This is a difficult question. The standby, “it depends on you, your needs, goals, and schedule” is true, but also frustrating, especially if you are new to yoga and just want some steadfast answers.

Ten minutes is enough to make a difference, believe it or not. If I have to squeeze in a bare minimum, I do a:
2-minute Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
2-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog)
2-minute Sirsasana (headstand, or substitute L-pose, dolphin, handstand or your favorite)
2-minute Sarvangasana (shoulderstand)
2-minute Savasana (relaxation pose)

Though it’s tempting, don’t skip the Savasana. It is the most important pose.

If you have only 5 minutes, or even 2, take the time to do a forward bend or down dog, and gently bring yourself back to the breath each time you stray. These few moments can shift your awareness, and it may open up time for more. This is especially true when you feel like you don’t have time!

Q: Would it be better to practice twice a week for an hour instead of doing once a week for an hour and a half?    –M.M.

Yes. An hour-and-a-half class is great, but if you don’t practice more at home, one hour, twice a week is better.

Q: How do I find the discipline and inspiration to make my home practice an every day occurrence?    –B.J.

One teacher told me that if you want to change your habitual patterns, and therein your life, simply dedicate 5 minutes a day to something you love and believe in. This can be yoga, meditation, drawing, singing—whatever it is that lights you up. Give yourself to it fully for those 5 minutes and do it everyday (not 5m. today, 0m. tomorrow, and 15m. the next), no matter what comes up. We humans are so fond of our fixed ways that we will create resistance to even this small act of awareness. Somehow, we can watch that and move past it, and those 5 minutes develop into something much larger.

Q: I’ve begun to wonder a little bit (and this is strictly based upon my own idiosyncrasies) what a yoga class would be like conducted in silence. Is it possible to do? Is it done? I think that listening is a very good practice but I worry about how much privilege we give to the voice. What does yogic philosophy say about this?    –R.W.J.C.

Mysore-style Ashtanga is more or less conducted in silence, but for the Ujjayi breathing that fills the room. The teacher does walk around and make individual corrections (using voice and touch), but it’s directed to one person rather than the entire room.

Yogic philosophy has much to say about sound as well as voice, which can be used for creating sacred sound, or a scattered, unfocused state of mind, and everything in between. Read the Upanisads if you are interested. The Olivelle translation is direct and free from extensive figurative translation.


C: Yes, I have a personal practice. I sort of weave yoga into my day every day…I can’t seem to help it.    –R.W.J.C.

Excellent, R. That made me grin. Let’s hope we all get there—I must admit there are days I’d rather just stay in bed and read.

to close, a short video of John Cleese on the benefits of laughing yoga.