Monday, December 20, 2010

Reality check

Finally saw the movie Inception on an airplane after many of my friends specifically told me that I would be the type of person who would love this film.  It's a movie about a corporate espionage thief Dominic Cobb (played by Leonardo Dicaprio), whose work consists of secretly extracting valuable commercial information from the unconscious mind of his targets while they are asleep and dreaming.

It's hard to discuss this movie because the plot is rather complicated. To call the movie mind-blowing is rather an understatement.  If you have not yet seen this movie, I highly recommended watching it to get your mind opened and stretched farther than it's been stretched in a very long time (brain yoga anyone?).  If you have seen this film, I'd love to hear what are your thoughts about it.  In this blog post, what I wanted to talk about is the concept of dream state vs. reality.

In the movie, Cobb and his team construct these multi-layered dreams and plant them into people's heads while they're sleeping.  It's like kidnapping someone and putting them into an artificial environment, except it all happens in the subject's head.  If you try to rationalize the details, the whole movie doesn't really make sense because the entire team hops around between different team members' dreams.  You just have to put your inner critic on hold and pretend this is possible to enjoy the movie. Since these people spend so much time in people's dreams, each member needs a way to check that if he/she's awake or still dreaming (a totem). What Cobb uses is a top that keeps on spinning in dream worlds and only stops spinning if he's back to reality.

Have you thought you've woken up, but you're actually still dreaming?  I've never had any dreams as elaborate as the ones shown in the movie (my mind is nowhere as vividly creative as the writer/director Christopher Nolan's).  However, I have had the experience of going about in my fantasy dreamland, heard my alarm clock ringing, opening my eyes to see my bedroom and my alarm clock, hitting the snooze/off button, and feeling confused/frustrated that it just kept ringing no matter how many times I tried to press the button or shake the clock.  It seemed so real,  until I woke up again, in shock, but finally managing to shut off the alarm for real. So my reality-check device is my alarm clock.  The good old pinching technique also works quite well. Is it just me, or has anyone else ever tried to pinch themselves  learned that they were still dreaming because it didn't hurt?

So what does this have to do with yoga? Well, for me, to differentiate between sleeping dreaming state and waking state is not too hard; the above mentioned techniques can do the trick.  It's difficult for me to differentiate between zoning out while being awake and being truly in touch with reality.  I spend an abnormal amount of time in my own head, daydreaming with my eyes open.  I'm not always aware of this.  Sometimes hours pass, or a whole day goes by before I realize I've just been sitting in front of the computer and absolute no work got done.

Yoga forces me to snap out of my zoning-out state. Most yoga standing poses place us in positions that require us to exert our conscious efforts in order to maintain still, whether it's a triangle pose, a forward fold, a warrior pose, or even the simple mountain pose.  If I zone out in any of the poses, I literally fall over. Isn't it crazy that I can drive from my home to my school in auto-pilot mode (not recommended, but it happens to me all the time), but not while doing yoga?  I love snowboarding for the same reason.  Even though gravity does most of the work dragging me down a mountain on a waxed board, if my mind drifts off and leave reality, the board could catch an edge at any time and throw me on the ground.

What is it about reality that makes me want to avoid it throughout the day?  It's the obligations, the mundane, the absurdity, the tiresomeness, the impurity, the ugliness, the unfairness, the injustice, the unpredictability, and my profound feeling of utter helplessness.

What is it about reality that I want to get in touch with? The beauty, the vivid colors and images I can't seem to reproduce in my mind, the creativity of others, the unexpected acts of kindness, the warm connections shared among living beings (however briefly each one lasts), the mind-blowing ideas/creations/naturally occurring events I can't possibly dream up with my own puny brain, the intense sensations, the rush of adrenaline, the pleasant surprises, the positive side of unpredictability.

Again, trying to say a whole bunch of ideas in one post.  I am amazed how Christopher Nolan managed to pull that off in 2 hours.  He literally put forth like a million concepts into one movie, and among all the complexity it's still magically coherent, understandable, and immensely enjoyable. I'll keep working on it but until I get there one day, my apologies for not always making sense :)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Definition of "healthy"

What exactly is the definition of being "healthy"? Everyone around me seems to care quite a bit about their health, but somehow I the sense that people also seem to obsess about some aspects of health over others.

Traditional Chinese culture tends to assume that everyone has a weak organ, usually either the liver or the kidneys, and needs nutritional + herbal supplements to strengthen these organs.  Some people will go as far as not bothering with exercising or watching their diet, and attempt to cultivate health entirely from Chinese medicine and health food supplements, sometimes to the point of overloading the liver and kidney.

On the other extreme, some people equate the term "health" with "fitness level". To be healthy means being the fittest person one can be.  Some people erroneously think that by running ultramarathons, winning Ironman triathlon and/or Strongman competitions, their superhuman fitness will make them invincible to all diseases. It does seem like some people's bodies are built to be able to comfortably run insanely long distances or lift super heavy weights, but I hope these people realize that what they achieve are celebrations of human performance capability, rather than a pursuit of ultimate health.  Sometimes people overestimate the body's ability to regenerate.  When we're younger (20s and younger), our body can handle a lot of abuse and we seem to be able to recover in no time. But we can learn from observing retired Olympic athletes that they seem to age faster than people who exercise in moderation.  It seems like they have used up their youth prematurely in achieving those superhuman feats during competitions and training.

Now let's take a look at yoga.  The general impression of yoga is that it is a relatively mild form of activity that will exercise the body, increase flexibility, and lowers stress levels.  This makes it especially popular for people who dislikes gyms and not very sporty.  It also makes ultra-athletic and competitive people look down on yoga.  Now the extremeness of yoga comes when people see the advanced yoga poses that requires extreme flexibilities, for example the feet behind the head poses, or the crazy backbends (kapotasana or Tirieng Mukha Uttanasana.. ouch!!!).  Just looking at these pictures can make people feel pain (especially for people who are particularly not that flexible).  I was fortunately born quite flexible and could touch my toes to my head when I was 5 years old (though I lost that ability as I grew older).  I have avoided yoga for the longest time because I felt these poses acted to showcase these yogi's contortionist capabilities and were not a sign of health.   My belief for health has been "everything in moderation".

Now that I'm completely hooked on Ashtanga, and worship the ground my teacher walks on, seems like my belief system is slowly morphing.  In the beginning I was careful to take things easy and not push the poses to the extreme, but my teacher has been quite enthusiastic in helping me into a lot of the poses while taking care not to use too much force on me.   So now that my knees have stopped aching when doing Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimotanasana (I was quite concerned for awhile there) and my feet can come off the floor in supta kurmasana (uh, off the ground but not over my head, yet),  it just seems like every pose will be possible with enough practice (at least it feels this way in my first year of Ashtanga practice. We'll see when I hit a bottleneck). Soooooo, am I working towards the extreme poses for my ego, like the marathon runner going for that extra mile, or the strongman looking to break his personal weightlifting record?  Is the Ashtanaga practice actually healthy for me, phyically?

I am certain that mentally it's doing me wonders.  When I started coming to yoga, my teacher told me that I looked like I carried a lot of tension. I didn't talk to anyone for months. I went for the corner spot of the room every class and pretended I was invisible.  Now I actually smile at people who look my way instead of averting anyone who makes eye contact with me.  Every practice makes me happy, no matter how exhausted I may feel when the class is over.  I don't really understand why I need to twist and fold myself into a human origami in order to nurse my mental health back to life.  I suppose yoga is not the only way to cultivate, but the yoga community happens to be the most supportive community I have encountered yet in my life.  I'm guess that it's the shared sensations and experiences in the journey of Ashtanga that brings people close together (Teacher: I know exactly how you feel; my ankle would hurt too if I didn't flex them during Mari B, D, and padmasana).

To bring it back to my question in the beginning: while Ashtanga is a very physically demanding practice, especially in terms of pushing one's limits in flexibility,  I appear to be pursuing this path more for the sake of my mental health more than physical health.  I happen to be the type of person who requires something this extreme to save my mind, a mind with a tendency to over-worry, over-analyze and over-criticize.  Actually I have available to me opportunities to pursue alternative activities that are more physically demanding than Ashtanga,  in terms of strength, power, agility and coordination.  By choosing Ashtanga, I am actively choosing to not strive to be the fittest person I can be physically, and instead go down this path of deepening my mind-body connection.  Who knows where this path will take me?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The elusive headstand

Ah, the elusive sirsasana - climax of the Primary Series. It seems like the pose to conquer. It make my neck uncomfortable, but for the past few months, I can't seem to stop attempting the pose whenever I can! Talk about OCD....

[Addendum: Preparatory steps before attempting a headstand

I know I know, everyone wants to attempt a headstand right away. It looks cool and you want to try it out, even if it means falling on your face during your first attempt! I wasn't that brave, but I did want to start practicing the full version as soon as possible. However, my awesome teacher, having observed many headstand-related neck issues, made us practice the dolphin pose each class and told us that we should not start practicing the headstand until we could hold this pose for 30 breaths.  How to practice the dolphin pose: head completely off the ground, support body weight on forearms and shoulders, fingers loosely interlaced, slowly walk the legs closer towards the arms until your body feels vertical (shoulders over elbows) and your feet are on tippy toes. This pose does NOT feel good... in fact, it feels a lot less comfortable than doing the actual headstand. However it's way safer and builds strength in your arms and shoulders required to do a safe headstand. ]

Yes I realize I should put 90% body weight on my forearms/elbows, only 10% pressure on my head, but once my legs are off the ground, my attention goes to the dangling legs and the body, and my poor head and neck are sadly neglected until my feet land on the ground again. I mean, I can feel my head and neck being somewhat uncomfortable the whole time, but my mind says to them, "You guys shut up! Quit complainin' will ya? Just stay put and support the rest of the body! You're on the ground so you're safe. I'm going to worry about the moving body parts instead." I'm not very nice to myself I guess.. that's probably why my neck has been sore for the last few weeks :p

My teacher teaches the version where both legs rise up slowly together. Some people kick one leg up and then try to get the other leg to meet the one up in the air. For some unknown reason my teacher discourages that, so I've been practicing it his way. When I try it at home, I could feel tremendous engagement in my abdomen and psoas, and then as the legs rise up, at some point the abs and psoas seem to lose the intense engagement with the legs, and then I panic and either smash my feet into the wall if I'm near one, or, if I practice it in the middle of the room, my legs kick wildly, losing balance, then I roll over jamming my interlaced fingers. Yay clumsy me! Thank goodness for thick carpets. [ To avoid rolling your head on your interlaced fingers (ouchy knuckles), tuck your chin into your chest if you end up falling over ].

It's fun to practice the pose with someone spotting me in class. Feels very different than practicing next to a wall. I don't really know why the hands guiding the hips help so much. I used to think that it was my teacher lifting my legs up in the air, but if I really think about it, that's a lot of weight to lift up with just a few fingers. So really, they just act as guides for my mental security, but they seem to help so much! Also, I used to practice to lift my legs until they make contact with the wall. Not a very good habit because I always rely on the wall being there. The mischievous yoga teacher, on the other hand, lets me make contact, then moves away, causing me to go into a major panic mode before giving me his shoulder or hand support again. It always felt like a disaster (sometimes he doesn't manage to catch my legs so they come crashing down), but a classmate behind me told me after class recently that I had a nice-looking free headstand.. huh? Really? I managed to stay upright on my own for an observable amount of time? Yay! Certainly didn't feel that way while I was in the pose, but thanks!

After a few weeks of struggling with up-side-down balance, I can now do a free headstand at home! Yay! The trick is to not panic when I feel I lose my core engagement when my legs are about 10-20 degrees from the vertical line. Trust that my legs are already up in the air, and let my body (and head) do their balancing act. Then work on trying to straighten the legs. Actually I have no idea if my body is straight or not because I can't see myself in a mirror. Right now I still can't do it in class without a spotter because I'm usually too exhausted 2/3 way through the Primary series. Hopefully in the next few weeks (or early next year) I'll be able to get it in the classroom, without assistance (and not fall on anybody)! Someone fell on me once; I think that's why I hesitate to be more daring in class.

Yoga. is. fun. Makes me feel like I'm still a kid, which I still feel like one at the age of 30.

[Addendum: As Loo pointed out in the comments below, I did *not* anticipate that even after I have built enough arm/shoulder strength practicing the dolphin pose, it's still possible to put too much weight on my head due to negligence/laziness. That's when this whole blogging / getting feedback from the online yoga community thing comes in handy :) ]

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just another day casually exercising at the park

This guy makes it look sooooo easy.... actually the girl next to him is pretty strong too. I'd be happy if I get to her level sometime next year.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How I fell in love with Ashtanga

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that  take our breath away.
             ---      Unknown

Yes I know, yoga is supposed to be about taking long, steady breaths, but I love Ashtanga precisely for all the moments where my heart skips a beat (or pounds harder), and my breath pauses a few seconds in awe.

Not all power yoga classes are created equal.  Some seemed to be taught by teachers who feel compelled to work students to exhaustion. The Anusara-inspired class are better in that they have a theme for each class and the teachers really do try to inspire their students.  However, I kept finding myself going back to the same led Ashtanga-inspired class, for a variety of reasons.

I would think that I’d get bored of a class that does almost the same asana sequence every time, but there are so much goodness packed into this class and so much room for improvement, the perfectionist in me has its hands full, mentally trying to refine different  bits and pieces of the primary series each time.  The teacher allows us to customize the number of vinyasas we want to do through out the seated poses, so I have the freedom to control the amount of physical workout I get according to my needs that day.  Although I joined yoga to get a workout,  the pace and predictability of this class allows me to really focus on my breathing for extended periods of time and enjoy a sense of peace and calm generated from this breathing method.

A couple months after I had been going to this class regularly, the teacher quietly came over and gently pressed on my back, pushing to extend the spine during one of the seated forward folds. Then he started doing this almost every class after that day.  It felt nice that I could go slightly deeper into my forward fold with the teacher’s assistance, but  I didn’t understand why he would keep doing this consistently since my back would pop right back up after he removed his hands.  I was content with the flexibility I had to begin with – I could touch my forehead to my knees, which was already better than most people right?  The teacher can press on my round back all he wants but it ain’t ever gonna become flat against my legs like those yoga models in Yoga Journal photos.  I don’t know how those gorgeous yoginis managed to achieve it but that ain’t ever gonna be me.

… Until a few months later, when I suddenly noticed during one of my forward folds, that my belly was touching my leg.... without assistance.

My heart must have stopped beating for a second, while my logical brain went into shock at this incomprehensible observation. 

Holy cow what’s this crazy Indian black magic?  Seriously, I thought I was too old to try to accomplish this pose if I didn't achieve it after I turned 15 years old or something.  So I just need to show up to class, go through the same sequence every time, where the teacher will perform some uncanny adjustments, and over time all the poses that I deemed impossible for me would just magically happen, all without me forcefully pushing myself to strive for perfection? I FREAKING LOVE THIS SYSTEM!!

For the past months since I’ve started, there have been soooo many (literally) breath-taking moments. I do a little dance in my head whenever something magical happens, such as the first time the crown of my head briefly made contact with my mat in Prasarita Padottanasana D, or the first time my forehead made contact with my leg in Utthita Hasta Padangustasana A (my teacher provided so much support he might have gotten more workout than I did for doing this pose. It was like trying to hold up a super unstable structure that's about to fall apart at any time).  For my first assisted headstand,  boy did my legs feel like they were fish out of water… they wouldn’t stop kicking in panic until they touched something solid... in this case I think it was the teacher’s shoulder. But once I was fully up side down, it was such a cool feeling, different from anything I've experienced before! My body had never been in this position,  relatively to gravity, with this amount of pressure on my head. The teacher pulled away, and my legs were in panic mode again, then he used his hand to try to keep my legs upright, and then I crashed onto the ground in a sprawled mess, but that was so much fun.  

I feel extremely thankful that I stumbled upon this teaching system.  For the first time I'm not forcing myself to reach for some superficial goal (score 100% on that exam, get into that prestigious school/program, aim for that black belt, land that perfect job etc), and ultimately experiencing loneliness,  disappointment, and lack.  My goal had simply been to get through all the poses without falling behind with what everyone else was doing.  I am blessed to have such a talented and enthusiastic (and funny, and kind, and patient) teacher who somehow seems to keep track of my progress in a not so small class.  I do my showing up part, and it feels like he shares the workload (adjustments seem like a lot of work to me) in helping me grow, not just in terms of improving in asanas, but various other limbs of Ashtanga as well.  I should say that all of the yoga teachers at my yoga studio, heck, most yoga teachers in general, seem to be phenomenal beings. But this Ashtanga system... I'm still amazed by it every time I practice.

By the way, even though my body now makes full contact with my legs, my teacher still comes to do the spinal extension push sometimes... seems like there's still a lot of room for the spine to lengthen in the direction of the toes!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Trying out different yoga styles

I may be a bit sexist here (apologies in advance), but if I were a guy, I'm not sure if I would have continued with yoga after that experience. It would be so much easier to dismiss yoga as a silly activity and move on to more masculine pursuits. However, since I'm a girl, and every girl I know seems to do some sort of yoga, it would be seriously lame to tell people that I've tried yoga a few times and it's just too hard for me.  So, for the next little while, I tried out every style of classes that the studio offered:

I started with the least active - Yin yoga, where you hold each deep stretch for something like 3-10 minutes, which supposedly allows the muscles to release their engagement so the deep connective tissues (tendons, fascia, etc) can release and stretch. This class requires no exertion of muscular energy, but brings up all sorts of not-so-pleasant emotions (anxiety, annoyance, anger, boredom, impatience, panic, to name a few) as you lay in some deep hip opening pose, trying to breath deeply for what feels like forever and trying not to throw something at the teacher (yes I have emotional violence issues). The class builds patience though, and encourages me to practice the concept of surrender.

Then there are the Core and Pilates classes, which are not yoga classes but they strenghten your core muscles to aid with the yoga poses. In my opinion every yoga studio should offer these classes because so many people do not have strong cores, but they mistakenly think that they can't do many yoga poses solely because they are inflexible or have weak arms and/or legs.

Then onto Hatha classes, which basically means any of the physical practices of yoga asanas (including all the Power yoga styles). However, in yoga studios it seems to be a label reserved for yoga classes consisting of beginner asanas, with no full vinyasas, arm balances or inversions.

And then, staring at the scariest description for a yoga class:  "A challenging class containing arm balances and inversions in a room heated to ~32ÂșC", I asked the front desk receptionist how many months should I practice yoga before I would be fit enough to try out a Power yoga class (I could not do inversions or any arm balances, let alone doing them in a heated room only several degrees cooler than hot yoga). She assured me I could give it a try right away, so I gingerly walked into this class, hoping I could make it through the full hour. My downward dog still sucked, but the teacher gave extremely detailed instructions on how to engage muscles in different parts of my body, and assured me that my shoulders and arms will get stronger if I keep practicing this pose (so it's a strengthening pose before it becomes a resting pose?).  Half way through class, some students were balancing their body weights on their bent arms, which looked like crazy gymnastics/break dancing moves that I figured I'd never be able to accomplish.  At least the teacher didn't make fun of me for not being able to attempt them. I was allowed to just sit and watch these girls do their thing with genuine amazement/admiration.

Seeing that I had survived my first power class without declaring defeat half way through, it was time to go back and conquer Hot yoga.  I picked one fine day, brought a 2L water bottle to my office, gradually transferring all that liquid into my body as the day went by.  I carefully timed it so that I finished eating 2.5 hours before the class started, and walked into Hot yoga room, ready to take on this feat. With a different teacher guiding the class, the poses seemed nowhere nearly as challenging as I remembered them on my first day.  How did that happen? Turns out that, as Murphy's Law would have it, I picked my first hot yoga class with a teacher who likes to combine postures to increase the difficulty of the class (eagle pose straight into airplane pose; Utthita hasta padangusthasana C for ~10 breaths, then directly transition to warrior III, for example).  He is now one of my favorite yoga teachers, but for a first yoga class, it was more than a little overwhelming.

I could keep going with the other types of yoga classes I have tried after that: Kundalini, Restorative, Iyengar, Anusara, etc etc etc. I enjoyed them all, and continue to take these classes whenever I can since I am extremely fortunate to have access to truly superb teachers specializing in each of these styles.  However, I'm just going to cut this post short and blurt out my favorite yoga style: Ashtanga yoga rocks!!

There, I've said it. It's out. I feel better now.

Next post: why I am absolutely in love with Ashtanga yoga.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How I started yoga

I've read so many awesome blogs about fellow yogi's personal journeys for their yoga practices recently that I've decided to start my own documentation of my obsessive compulsive love with yoga :)

My previous misconception about yoga: it's a stretching exercise + some nice looking poses that don't look all that exciting (this was before I had ever seen pictures of arm balances).  Having above-average flexibility to begin with, I didn't feel like I needed to dedicating a full hour of class on stretching and holding poses with funny animal names.  Having never attempted the poses myself, I somehow didn't think a tree pose or a triangle pose would be challenging.  The few times I tried out yoga gyms the classes were challenging but un-inspiring.  Downward dog was such an uncomfortable pose - why did they call it a resting position? Why did the teacher make us do all these vinyasas that felt like an inefficient way to do push ups?  I was not in shape back then and probably shouldn't have gone to a power yoga class as a first attempt for yoga.  However, my second attempt was not a better experience: the teacher (a skinny middle-aged dude), who probably studied yoga in India, spent the whole class showing off how flexible he was at the front stage with advanced twisting, folding, and binding poses, then told us to try and copy what he did (which we obviously couldn't without any previous training or instructions). If this happened today, I probably would have walked up to him at the end of class and told him that he was unqualified for this job and should consider taking up yoga teacher training, and then filed a complaint to the gym manager, but I was pretty clueless at the time and walked out of class confused, with a decision to never get into yoga again.

Fast forward to about 5 years later, when I noticed 3 of my friends from different social circles had decided to sign up for yoga teacher training.  It's one thing to take up cardio kickboxing, zumba class, acro yoga or whatever, but I don't know too many people who would quit their day jobs to become  fitness trainers.  I became suspicious that there might be more to yoga than I previously thought.  Finally, at the beginning of 2010, with my neighborhood yoga studio offering a 2-week unlimited pass for $30, I decided to dive in and investigate why this activity of contortion and holding funny poses with animal names is converting my friends into yoga fanatics.

Word of advice: if a yoga studio offers multiple styles of yoga, it's probably best not to take a Hot yoga class as your first trial class;  a hatha or yin yoga class would be a much better option.  However, this warning might only apply to me, as I'm the only person I know who ran out of the hot yoga classroom  10 minutes into class, crouching on the ground and panting in shock.  I considered myself pretty fit by this time, doing lots of hiking, martial arts where my instructor ran the class like we were in the military, snowboarding etc.  I had trouble breathing properly in class (granted I was still getting over a cold and had a bit of a stuffy nose); every pose, while they looked simple, felt unbearably challenging:

Half moon pose - I never knew I would have trouble holding my body weight if I tilted slightly to the side.
Back bend - I totally crunched my lower back since I didn't know any better.
Chair pose - compared to horse stances they make us do at the dojang (martial arts classroom in Korean), in a hot room my legs shook like they were going to disintegrate and melt into pure liquid.
Tree pose - as someone who had spent the last 5 years doing kicking exercises three times a week, I was appalled that standing on one leg and trying not to move for 1 minute would make me want to drop to my knees and cry "I give up".

And you're supposed to breath smoothly through all this? What? I think that was when I ran out of the room.

So yeah, that's how I started yoga.

Where's the falling in love part? I guess I'll have to cover that in a later post.