Saturday, December 31, 2011

The effects of yoga

For the past month I was working on a paper and final revisions of my thesis, and my yoga studio membership had expired, so I hadn't been going to yoga classes much at all. Even after I completed everything and felt a huge mental and physiological relieve that I was done school, for the past couple days, I hadn't slept well or felt well within the body. My ashtangi friends invited me to their house for mysore practice on Christmas day, which was lovely, since I haven't done the primary series for ages (lacking discipline to practice it on my own). It was also wonderful to be able to spend time discussing yoga with them and enjoy delicious food prepared by my friends (I am so spoiled). The next day I felt sore everywhere and my hamstrings felt overstretched, and I still had trouble sleeping at night.

It worked out that the studio was selling some relatively cheap single class passes for December so I purchased some and started going back to the studio again. I ended up taking a pilates class, a hot yoga class, and a vinyasa flow class. Last evening I noticed the therapeutic magic of continuous practice of yoga. The past couple of weeks I had been experiencing uneasiness within. The inner body was unhappy and anxious for no reason. The night before, I woke up at 4am and couldn't get back to sleep, so I attempted a short CD guided sitting meditation. The center of the chest under the rib cage felt like it was going numb and about to die off. I  was so anxious I wanted to stand up and run away, but the CD said to sit and feel the body, observe any thoughts and sensations that happen, so I had to force myself to sit for 30 minutes while different parts of the body went numb and then turned into pins and needle sensations. It was miserable. But after last night's practice, even though certain muscles are very sore, I felt like the crazy energy and sensations inside the body were gone. So many people think of yoga as a work out or stretching, but I really think it has a huge soothing effect on the subtle body.

I did another practice hot yoga practice today because it was taught by a teacher who always make me smile from the bottom of my heart whenever I see him. It was another great practice (sometimes I don't know if it's the yoga teacher or the yoga; it's probably an additive effect). I thought the calm and pleasant feeling would last me through the night, until I called my mom to say happy new year, and the conversation ended badly, even though neither of us wanted this to happen. I think I'm beginning to understand why some regions of the world (Africa and Middle East come to mind) are permanently in conflict, even though everybody involved really wants peace.

Anyways, after I hung up the phone, a whole bunch of negative memories, associations, stories came up and fueled my anger + discontentment. Then that washed over and went away. I checked in to the inner body: it's still maintaining that post-yoga calm. This in turn prevents me from hanging on to the drama and  going to bed angry. I think some of the indescribable discomforts in the body are associated with certain emotions or memories. Feeling that discomfort triggers negative emotions, and anxiety ensues when the discomfort refuses to go away. When the nadis are clear, good and bad feelings come and go freely, without the body holding onto the bad emotions.

Lesson learned: a regular practice of yoga works for the subtle body like fiber does for the bowels - it keeps the channels clear and so I don't become a chronic emotional mess. Temporary emotional episodes are probably unavoidable in life and as long as they pass through, I am okay dealing with them.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Reflections

In 2011 I:

- Finally got myself out of graduate school after a long long time. Woot!

- Made use of 911 service for the first time in my life, and subsequently had to use it 2 more times later in the year - all necessary emergencies for friends and family (good things and bad things like to come in threes!). Won't go into details, but suffice to say this was indeed an eventful year. I got an opportunity to deal with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, rode in an ambulance for the first time, and I got to interact with a total of 10 firefighters (was never in any situations involving fire, but I learned that firefighters are first responders so they'll usually arrive first if the dispatcher cannot get an ambulance or cop cars to the scene right away.

- Went to a Kino workshop (sorry I didn't blog about it; was trying to stay anonymous but fellow Ashtangis found out about this blog anyways). Kino helped me with my first ever drop back.

- Went to Thailand for the first time ever, and loved it! Hoping to go back again next year.

- Vipassana retreat is not going to happen in January. It's okay.. I will definitely go on one in the future.

I hope 2012 will be a great year. I am in dire need of chakra balancing, meridian cleansing, nervous system restoration, and all that stuff. Seriously. Doing a PhD causes serious brain damage. I hope it's a non-permanent one that can be reversed somewhat.

I have made zero plans for job hunting, but I do have several travel plans. I may or may not blog about them. We'll see how it goes. Will let you know if I get a job by the second half of the year or if I will remain as a bum for the rest of my life.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Things to think through over the holidays

So I successfully defended my thesis, finished the revisions, submitted the final draft to the libraries. Yay me! People are totally curious (or sympathetic, because I don't have a job lined up): what are you going to do now?

Um.. learn some life skills that are actually practical to life(!), try to undo some brain damage caused by fitting my square brain into the spiral-shaped academia manhole, as well as hoping to heal the neural pathway stresses from constantly shoving massive amounts of useless information (the info are only useful if I keep working/studying in the same narrow field, which I'm not exactly sure if I'm going to do) into my brain. All these years of education have killed so much creativity, caused so much mental trauma, and took out my capacity to socialize like "normal" people, pay attention to every day life details (my home looks like it got burglarized multiple times, because I just haven't had time or calmness to reorganize everything). Practically every other thing that comes out of my mouth is either related to yoga or my area of research, because my brain does not have space to process stuff that normal people care about, like jokes, small talk, culture, movies, books, arts, technology gadgets, fashion, sports, entertainment, relationships, etc etc).

So, the plan is to watch a lot of cool movies, read a lot of books, learn about a bunch of topics that I have not had time to learn about but I think are of huge importance to know a little about them, and of course, do a lot of yoga. Oh yah, and go on a Vipassana retreat if I get the chance - clear the brain, hope some of the neural pathways will heal or at least take a break from being over-stressed. Below are a list of topics I am suddenly interested in blogging about, but then realized I know next to nothing about the issues:

- War against "evil": what the heck is evil? How can people be so sure that they themselves are the "good guys" while the others are the "bad guys"? Why do I feel like whoever tries to launch a war against evil are the most evil people themselves. Perhaps my definition of evil (hurting and killing innocent people) is off with other people's definition of evil (Those who try to hurt me or my kind of people are considered as evil; their life circumstances and childhood/cultural history does not matter at all, at least not to me).

- Religion: I'm not talking about those who were raised to follow a certain religion. I am talking about adults who voluntarily choose to follow or study a religion. What kind of people are drawn to Christianity? What kind of people are drawn to Buddhism? When I try to read the Bible, I don't know if it's the way it's written or what, the ideas are just words; they don't really speak to me. When I read Buddhism ideas, specifically Buddhism explained by some westerners (and not the Chinese version of the same material, strange eh?), the teachings seem to verbalize ideas I already strongly believe in. My cousin is the opposite. A girl I know was introduced to Christianity in her 30s, the teachings totally spoke to her. She now reads a passage of the Bible every night before bed and always find it insightful, comforting, inspirational, and/or educational. This came up while chatting with a friend. A preliminary response is that this girl is the type of person who feels unloved, who suddenly felt a need to know the purpose of life, who thinks it's important to obey authority, and to please other people. So believing in an all-loving God who has a set of rules for her to follow for the rest of her life which will lead her to heaven fits her personality/original set of personal beliefs. For me, I used to obey parents, teachers, and adults/authorities until their logic didn't make sense, until I realized nobody knows exactly what they are doing and the ones who know the least love to give strong orders/suggestions the most. I have also suppressed intuitions and tried so hard to be analytical all my life, thinking that I can reason my way through everything. That has worked up to a point and then failed for a significant aspect of my life.  I am very attracted by the Buddhist idea that looking within will help me find the answers I am looking for (I guess authority figures have lost my respect and trust). These ideas are specific to me and this girl though. A broader understanding is needed.

- Economics: our economy is very broken obviously, and politicians keep applying patches + quick fixes that work for a short period of time and then fail again. Gone are the days when you can hold 1 job from school graduation until retirement at 65 years old and then live comfortably on a pension until death. I've had the fortune of hearing honest talks by a good number of medical and (bio)chemical Nobel Laureates, successful professors as well as industry scientists who work in giant pharmaceutical companies. So, supposedly my training would lead me directly to one of these 2 paths - academia or industry. Their presentations as well as my past years of experience in grad school make me not want to jump at the first job opening available anywhere. If you talk to scientists who do research on drugs and vaccines, their intention is to come up with a new drug that will cure or alleviate suffering from diseases (this was my intention too when I decided to study biology as a major). When I talk to the average people or read the media, the public seems to think that the purpose of developing drugs is to make big money (evil big pharma). Some even go as far to say that pharmaceutical companies can actually cure diseases, but they purposely only sell drugs that temporarily suppress symptoms but keep you sick for a long time. I think this misunderstanding exists because people vastly underestimate the complexity of biology and over-estimate the abilities of scientists (these drugs are less than ideal because they are already the best effort that teams of brilliant researchers can come up with, not simply a money-making gimmick). Anyways, I need to teach myself a bit about economy and try to think things through.

- Dualism: again I know very little about this topic, but it's central to yoga I believe, and possibly the source of so many problems in the world.

As you can see, I've got a lot of reading to do. I feel like a bit of self-education will help me navigate through life better, rather than just conforming to current moulds of society: find a husband; have 2.3 kids; take up any job that's stable and pays the bills, who cares if you like the job or not; raise kids to 18 and your responsibility is done when kids make it to college;  constantly compare yourself with your peers regarding your salary amount, the size of your house, the niceness of your car, the maintenance level of your external beauty, the achievements of your kids, etc. Make sure your kids do what you want them to do, or else argue with them until they run away from home. Constantly worry about money. If you have extra cash, spend it on luxury items like yachts and jewellery, and then complain you don't have enough money. Make sure to find issues to worry about if finance isn't your biggest worry.

I don't think I can change the world, but I'd like to gain insight and perhaps modify a few biased beliefs that I was brought up with. I'd like to figure out some stuff that are society norms but are not necessarily the right way to do things. I'd also like to get an idea of how to navigate myself through this imperfect world and not turn into a permanently bitter person.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

More indulgence in yoga/meditation workshops

Sarah Powers was in town this past weekend. A friend told me she really loved Sarah's yin yoga classes. I'm not a big fan of yin yoga, not because I'm all about getting a work out, but because I'm paranoid about yin practice making my hyperflexiblity worse (risking injury). I am always worried about going into a stretch pose without also having my muscles engaged to protect my ligaments from being stretched as well. Bones shrink as we age, but ligaments, once stretched, do not shorten again. In the back of my mind, I'm always wondering if I should be practicing Tai Chi rather than yoga.....

Anyways, at first I didn't think her style of teaching would suit me. However, after hearing a podcast on her website, I immediately changed my mind and decided I really wanted to meet her in person, even if only for a day. Her Buddhist teaching really spoke to me over the Internet. So I signed up for her workshop. My friend warned me that Powers speaks really slowly (ie. could put you to sleep). I actually found her pace just right. Compared to Michael Stone, she could pass as a speed talker (still slower than average people, but shorter pauses between her sentences :-)  I know you're supposed to follow one teacher, but I found the two teachers complement each other very well in helping me understand the core teachings of Vipassana philosophies. Both of them are long term meditation practitioners, so Powers also gives off this uber-serene/contented vibe, and looks straight into your eyes while giving a public talk. She mentioned that people are normally energetically on the defensive side, to protect themselves from possible (psychological) harm from others, especially strangers. Meditation works to open up that block, making long term practitioners more emotionally/energetically open to people.

Forgive me for being vain, but she must be at lest 45 years old, maybe 50 (she said she's been in the same relationship for about 30 years) but she looks maybe 32 years old. Whatever she's eating/smoking/practicing, I'll have some of the same please :)

One of the things she talked was how humans minds naturally react to the external world:
1. We receive an external stimulus: a sight, a smell, a sound, someone says something bad to us, we step on a nail, etc.
2. When the stimulus is detected, our minds very quickly evaluate it and put a label on it: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
3. We generate a reaction for this stimulus. If it's pleasant, then we are attracted to it. If it's unpleasant, then we're repulsed by it. If it's neutral, it's non-threatening but also non-interesting. The tendency is to ignore it.
4. Actions arise as a result of our emotional reaction to it.

For certain stimuli that we've encountered before, these four steps become automatic. An action happens (eg. we blurt out something hurtful when someone close to us pushes our buttons) before we even have a chance to think about it.

Powers said (and this was the most illuminating point for me) that pleasant stimuli don't necessarily mean happy pretty rainbows and puppies. Depending on an individual's upbringing, perhaps one has been raised in a way such that openly expressing happiness is threatening, so one is repulsed by that. Being cynical and depressed may feel safer. Perhaps in someone else's childhood, being judgmental, prejudiced, and competitive had always been encouraged, so that's what he/she is drawn to. Repulsion, disgust, and/or fear occurs when he or she encounters compassion, openness, and love.

So Powers refers to yoga and spiritual studies kind of a "re-parenting" process, which I thought is very interesting. I can't help but wonder what I'd be like today if I had come across this kind of teachings/philosophies, say, 10 or 15 years ago?

Luckily it's still possible to change our habits and patterns of thinking/reaction even in adulthood. As we learn to meditate, beginner meditators can delay the fourth step, meaning that instead of automatically acting out, we can pause, examine our emotional responses to the stimulus, and perhaps make our action not so habitual. This alone is difficult enough and achieving it, even if only occasionally, will make great improvements to our lives. More advanced meditators can influence the third step, meaning they get to a point where they no longer automatically generate intense emotions for the external stimuli. I'm not completely sure about this point. I thought it would be an ultimate achievement to catch an emotion as it just begins to blossom?  I guess people naturally try to fake this by suppressing an emotion that comes up when we encounter something dramatic, but suppressing is not quite the same as not having that reaction/emotion at all in the first place. The repressed negative feelings are actually what form the granthis (knots) in the subtle body in the first place.

She actually taught a lot more, but the main point is that meditation helps our minds get more focused, wakes us up from our habitual thinking/acting patterns, and aids us in gaining broader perspectives to life. So now I can't wait to do a Vipassana retreat. I'm currently on a wait list. If I don't get in, I'll have to do this a lot later, but otherwise, I'm set to go on one at the beginning of 2012. I must be one of the very few beings in the world looking forward to sitting around doing nothing except trying not to think for 10 days :) Just wait until I start to majorly regret my decision 2 hours into the sitting meditation :)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Yoga Conference part II - geeking out with yoga anatomy and physiology

After a day of nerve calming, blood pressure soothing pranayama practice with Michael Stone, I dreaded about the second day. I could have signed up for vinyasa krama, Buddhism discussion, and exercises for anxiety - all calming style classes that my body and mind earnestly craved. Instead, my inner nerd acted out about 3 months ago and signed up for the most geeky and technical classes: the science of stretching, how to heal hips and knees with yoga, more explanations about bandhas, and more anatomy and movement analysis about yoga asanas. People can be compulsive shoppers, gamblers, alcohol and drug addicts. I apparently am a pathological compulsive knowledge-acquirer. Here are some notes on what I learned:

The science of stretching (with Blake Martin, PhD in kinesiology/neuroscience):

- Blake does not like the word "flexibility". In standard fitness programs, flexibility is measured by the sit and reach test. But what the heck does this test measure? One could have one or some or all of the following: tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings, stiff upper back, stiff lower back, a gut which prevents forward folds when not sucked in, etc. If one has much longer legs in proportion to one's torso and arm lengths, their sit-and-reach score would be a lot worse than someone of the same height with much shorter legs and comparatively longer arms.  If one folds forward from their upper back or waist rather than from the pelvis, one cannot reach as far as one can than if one lifts up from the pelvis and reach forward, folding at the pelvis level instead. If one practices forward folds a lot, one can do well on this test, but the test does not say anything about the person's shoulder flexibility or back bending abilities. He suggests replacing the word "flexibility" with the term "range of motion", which is a lot more descriptive and more specific with respect to each joint.

- When one starts a stretching program (eg. yoga), changes happen first at the neuro level before the muscular level - i.e subject will improve in a particular pose, but when measured, the muscle fiber lengths haven't changed yet. One's flexibility is partly mental, partly physical. I'm not sure if this simply means that mental blocks release faster than muscles, or if the mental block must be released before the muscles/connective tissues will start to undergo measurable changes. I know for a fact that very often (not always, but often), when people claim they can't do a pose, it's a mental issue rather than an actual physical limitation, even though people come up with a ton of excuses, including the claim that they have physical limitation issues. On the other hand, sometimes the structure of bones do set the limit for range of motion for certain people. Man, it would suck to have bones that bang into each other for some movements that other people can do with no problems.

- Many of the bendy yoga poses push the body's ranges of motion past what's functional for every day activities or even most conventional sports. When we work on "advanced yoga poses" (eg. leg behind the head poses; standing on the head for long periods of time with no arm support), we should be aware that we're no longer practicing for practical health reasons, but rather for other reasons such as spiritual yearning, egotistical reasons, wannabe contortionists, or we want to become yoga teachers :) I know I try out the crazy poses because my ego wants to see how far my body can be pushed without seriously hurting myself.

Demystifying the Bandhas (with Leslie Kaminoff)

Leslie Kaminoff is a wonderful story teller and his knowledge of the human body is absolutely incredible. I really enjoyed the history lesson he gave us on how Krishnamacharya became a yoga teacher, when he could have become a religious leader in Southern India instead and lived a cushy life.  He reinforced what Michael Stone said about the fact that the usage of bandhas really belongs to pranayama breathing techniques rather than as part of the asanas - something that needs to be actively "engaged" while doing jump backs and jump throughs, and kind of blamed Ashtangis for confusing everyone in the West about the topic. I don't know... as I watched the video of Krishnamacharya's demo that he showed during the workshop, it's very obvious that Krishnamacharya's bandhas were very engaged. I guess instead of saying he was actively engaging his bandhas, what was really happening was that he was doing proper pranayama such that the bandhas were engaged as a result. So, since proper breathing techniques are a lot harder to master than asanas, should we actively engage the muscles of the pelvic floor and the deep core muscles when we practice yoga, while our breathing techniques are still crappy at the beginner stage, or should we just not bother? Perhaps teachers should just tell students to use their core muscles to hold up their bodies while doing asanas, instead of using the word "bandhas" at all? I do understand why he's not happy about how bandhas are misinterpreted by a lot of the yoga teachers. I think bandhas are introduced so early in Ashtanga classes because if a student stays with the system for long enough, he or she will eventually get into pranayama studies and get proficient at breathing properly while doing the Ashtanga series. Problem is most students do not stick with one practice. Many people switch styles (to, say Power yoga) when they get bored or hit a wall, but the teaching of bandhas stay with them, so they pass it on in their free style power yoga classes.

I guess the take home message is that bandhas and core muscle engagement are two separate issues. Until we have mastered our breathing techniques, don't worry about "squeezing the anus" at all times in yoga classes. I'm getting less confused about the bandhas issue now. If you are still confused, you should keep seeking out reputable yoga teachers to study with. If you practice yoga from a DVD or at the local gym, and have no plans to be obsessive compulsive about yoga like me and spend your mortgage savings on yoga workshops, then, forget about the bandhas. They are not necessary for your yoga practice.

Yoga conference part I - an unconventional path to healing

For a couple of weeks, I put myself in Personal Hell, chaining myself to a computer, sometimes getting a couple hours of productive work done; sometimes an entire day went by and I realized I've checked Facebook 50 times, checked my emails 100 times, read 30 yoga blogs/articles, with no new paragraphs added to my thesis. When it got near the deadline it all came down to "what's the minimum amount of work I absolutely need to do so I would not completely despise this piece of crap that I am putting my name down as an author?" Finally, got the piece of writing completed and handed in on Thursday evening (thank goodness for emails these days), and on Friday, headed to Happiness Land a.k.a. "Yoga Conference".

I must have done some incredible deeds in my previous reincarnation to have earned the Universe so conveniently arrange a yoga conference in my town right after my thesis deadline. First up, a day with Michael Stone. The moment I walked into the conference room, I saw him sitting so peacefully in front of the room, legs crossed, eyes closed, while unenlightened students like me rushed in, clumsily and noisily set their stuff down, realized they have forgotten some stuff, ran out of the room and back in again, slamming the door way too loudly both times, rolled out the mat so that it slapped the ground with a thump, disturbing all the other students trying to meditate, and finally settled in after ensuring everyone else's meditation attempts have been disrupted. The whole time, Michael did not even move an eyebrow hair. This made me feel like I was in good hands (while at the same time feeling like the biggest asshole in the room).

The workshop was about pranyama, but really the main message of the day was that bandhas are not something we engage and hold; they naturally happen if and when we breath properly. Mula bandha happens at the end of an exhale; uddiyana bandha can be felt as the diaphragm moves to let air in at an inhale or pushes air out in an exhale. So he tried to get us to feel our bandhas in sun salutations by inhaling our arms up, hold the breath, lift out of our spine, dive down 1/4 of the way, then exhale all the way to forward fold. I suppose uddiyana bandha happens at that 1/4 point. Then inhale half way lift, exhale fold, step back to chaturanga, inhale up dog, exhale down dog, yadda yadda, hold the down dog for 5 breaths, and then fully exhale all the air out before stepping the feet up to meet the hands.

Sounds like something Ashtangis can easily achieve right? Except I couldn't do it at all. I felt like I was going to suffocate if I tried to hold my breath for more than a few seconds at the end of the first inhale, and I couldn't fully exhale all the air out in down dog before breathing in again. Second exercise: supposedly it's easier to feel the bandhas when upside down. We're told to simply watch our belly go up and down evenly as we breath in and out while in halasana (different instruction than what my teacher normally teaches: to hold our belly so it doesn't pump up and down in this pose). So I tried to do it, and watched my navel with horror that I couldn't get my belly movement to coordinate with my breath. My ab muscles seem like nervous wrecks, sharply contracting and clumsily releasing, totally doing their own thing independently of my breath. Basically the entire morning served as to tell me that my nervous system was f*ed up. My breaths felt shaky the whole time; my muscles held tension that I couldn't consciously release; every breath retention generated anxiety.

Despite all this, I instinctually felt like I couldn't be in a more appropriate setting to heal myself.  In the afternoon, Michael spent some time talking about how the world is out of balance, how we need to wake up from our self-obsession mode, heal ourselves, and serve our family and friends who need a clear mind to help them out. It was a pretty generic type of talk that he always gives if you listen to his pod casts and interviews online, but having the opportunity to listening to him speak in person felt so healing. As if he could read my mind, he said, "sometimes we need to hear reminders like this every day". We did a couple more exercises, again serving the purpose to frustrate me with my inability to coordinate muscle contraction/movement with breath, but I think that with practice, I would be able to do these exercises in the future with better results. At this point I already felt a lot better than in the morning, with less jitter and less unease within me. He ended the workshop by leading us through a very simple inhale and exhale exercise, where the inhales eventually got much longer than the exhales. By the time he stopped counting. the shakes in my breaths were gone; the breaths and the heartbeats felt smooth and rhythmic, and the nervous system had completely calmed down. A most appropriate therapeutic session was complete. I sort of wanted to kick myself for not signing up for his other sessions the next couple of days but because I was in such a calm state, I wasn't in the mood to be so hard on myself as I normally would. A definite  sign the yoga was working!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Thank goodness for yin and restorative yoga

Been working long hours on my thesis lately. A fellow graduate says it best: it's like giving birth to an ugly baby... The labour is long and hard but you get no satisfaction in the end. I am still not done yet but I hate this piece of work no matter how many more edits I make to it. Working on something I dislike drains so much energy I couldn't even bring myself to do any Ashtanga lately. I am just too exhausted these days. So I do yin and restorative, trying to bring myself some peace and prevent total burn out. They are not black magic; I don't feel 100% restored after the class, but I do feel the grip of mental stress loosens up a little after class. For this I am thankful.

I am a little puzzled as to why people who tell me they are stressed out frantically refuse my offer to take them to a restorative yoga class. Perhaps the world is too full of false advertisements that they are skeptical about the word "restorative". Maybe they think that I "restore" by holding a headstand for 60 minutes. Maybe when I tell them the class description says that this class is suitable for cancer patients and people recovering from injury, they think I mean "cancer patients and injured people who must be former Olympians". Maybe I am just the world's most unconvincing and untrustworthy person.

Come to think of it, with so much mental resistance, perhaps it would be possible to go to a restorative class determined not to relax, and then complain that this class doesn't work. I should just let it be then, and keep working on my own relaxation skills, which apparently suck a lot more than my muscle engagement skills. I was recently been told by my dentist that I must be grinding my teeth at night because my fillings look worn out. He also says I suck at relaxing my jaw. Damn it, can't believe I got called out by a dentist. All these yoga and nothing to show for it but fancy asanas (/sarcasm).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The science of happiness

Did you know Stanford has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and that Berkeley hosts research for The Science of a Meaningful Life? I have been going through YouTube videos of Fred Luskin who teaches forgiveness - how to forgive, why practice forgiveness, and scientific findings of physiological health benefits of practicing forgiveness. Kelly McGonigal uses psychology and neuroscience research results to explain and support the importance of meditation and compassion. Sonja Lyubomirsky does research on happiness, and finds that genetics accounts for 50% of your level of happiness (ie. The personality you were born with); life circumstances accounts for about 10%, but 40% are within our power of control (ie. We can change the level of our happiness by changing our thinking patterns and our actions. Barbara Frederickson does research on positivity. She finds that in order to be genuinely positive (rather than faking it), we need a ratio of 3:1 for overall positive to negative thinking at all times. This is because the human tendency is to focus on the negative thoughts, so we need 3 times as much positivity to counter the negative thinking. This is not to say that we should try to eliminate negative thinking all together (is that even possible?) She finds most people's habitual ratios are at 2:1 or lower, which means we all need to work a little harder to generate a tiny bit more of positive emotions in order to stay positive overall.

Now, it may be weird to be conducting research on "the science of happiness", when the ancient spiritual texts and sutras have already laid it out for us, explaining humanity, the sources of human suffering, and how to deal with it. I agree that spiritual texts give a more comprehensive picture of the whole human condition, why we are the way we are etc. By definition of the way science is conducted (control all variables and change just one variable to see what happens), we will never get the full picture of any subject with science. However, what science does provide is a snapshot of what's going on in the modern times -- the fact that at a 2:1 positive to negative thinking rate, most people have a tendency to be a little negative even though they swear they have been attempting some positive thinking. Genetics studies tell me that my pessimistic personality has determined that I will never win the "happiest person on earth contest" no matter how hard I work on it, BUT if I try really hard, I can improve my current level of happiness by 40% regardless of my life circumstances. This is encouraging to know.

The purpose of most organized religions is to teach the simple ideas of compassion, gratitude, acceptance, positive thinking, non-harming, forgiveness, etc. The 2 main tools used by Christianity to get people to practice these ideas -- the Bible (words of God), and the act of praying -- seem to be sufficient for a small handful of Christians only. A large number of religious people accept that God would like them to practice these concepts in their daily lives, but without providing more tools, they fail at achieving true forgiveness and true compassion sometimes, which make them feel bad, so they pray for God to forgive their "sins" and give them more strength, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, so some people chronically experience shamefulness. Amazingly they keep clinging on the faith, insisting that the system is complete as-is. It's okay to keep their faith, but with a couple more tools at hand, such as practicing loving kindness meditation and some yoga, it'll be easier to open the heart.

I find the series of "forgiveness" talks by Fred Luskin particularly helpful, because I am so good at holding grudges. The explanation that all the suffering that we experience are not unique to an individual, but are all common to mankind, is very clarifying. It is also useful to realize that practicing forgiveness helps improve our own physiological health. Holding grudges punishes no one but our own body and mind. To forgive does not mean to never get worked up about others who have done us wrong, but to realize that my sufferings are not uniquely my experience but is part of humanity. No one is obliged to treat me exactly the way I would like them to treat me, not even my family, my best friend, my partner, my boss, or my server. Forgiveness means being at peace with the fact that life circumstances do not always work out the way we'd like them to. With gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in hand, life will be a happier one.

By the way, I think the way Luskin speaks would make him a very popular reverend/minister. However, he identifies himself as a secular educator, which goes to show that it is not necessary to say "these are the words from God" to effectively teach morality.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Which poses do you find hardest to engage the bandhas?

Source: Yoga Journal
I had no idea my uddiyana bandha was totally not engaged until the teacher came and put his hand on my belly in revolved triangle pose and revolved side angle pose. I normally pay pretty good attention during my sun salutations and non-twists to suck in the belly, but in these poses the twists make it feel like the belly must be sucked in already, since it's squished against the leg (sort of) right? Wrong. I felt like my gut was pushing directly into the teacher's hand and absolutely nothing happened when I tried to order my abdominal muscles to draw the belly back in. Can you imagine how pathetic I felt at that moment? I don't think the belly actually looks that big in twists, but it sure felt like I was 5 months pregnant at that instant. For the rest of the class I was totally self-conscious about my belly in all the twists, and I discovered that I could engage the bandha a little bit in Mari C and D. I don't know if it was because the twists in these poses are kind of lop-sided, providing slightly more space for the ab muscles to maneuver, or did some neural pathway from the brain become established to the abs sometime between the standing series and the seated poses.

So, cybershala, which poses do you feel the easiest to engage the bandhas and which poses are the hardest? For me the easiest pose to feel my bandhas is the 2nd last pose (not counting savasana) -- padmasana. I have heard that bandha engagement should be easy in urdhva padmasana because the organs get out of the way when upside down, but I find it the other way around.. they get in the way of my bandhas (interfering with the diaphram??)  Or maybe I'm just not used to being up side down still.

Don't even ask me about mula bandha. When I worry about it I squeeze everything down there, including unnecessary butt muscles, leg muscles, hip flexor stuff, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I don't know controls what but pretty sure have nothing to do with the perineum.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Drop backs practice report

So I've started doing drop-backs. It's amazing how quickly I've progressed in them. Not saying they're now really nice or anything, but my urdhva dhanurasanas never felt great, so I wasn't expecting to to drop backs so soon. My low back always feels funky in the pose, and I hate it when the teacher says to straighten my legs and shift my chest towards my arms. If I don't do it he'll come and help me and I always feel like I'm about to faint or drown. My neck can never relax in the wheel pose; the neck muscles feel strained whether I try to look up or look down. They refuse to relax no matter how I move my head. Stuff along the spine feels loose, as if the spine will fall apart if I try too hard (but I try hard anyways). Nobel reassured me a little when he told me deep backbends have a spinal alignment effect to them. Not sure if it was Tim Miller or Matthew Sweeney who started the saying, "Backbends are like pancakes. The first two are rubbish." That re-assured me further.

That being said, assisted drop-backs feel a million times safer and easier (psychologically) than attempting drop backs on my own, so kudos to Grimmly and all the people who work on this on their own. I think I sort of tried once at home, and I ended up bending my knees so much I ended up just going into a table top pose instead of a real drop back. Coming back up was like a swim up where I flailed my arms wildly and sort of front crawled my way back to standing, again with super bent knees... I always imagined myself looking like the reverse of Neil doing backbend dodging bullets in the Matrix, except I'm sure it looks a lot dorkier and messier.

Apparently my back is pretty open, so I "don't need to" do hang backs. Actually I just plain can't do them. With the teacher's hands around my waist, for awhile it felt like he was the soul reason I wasn't crashing straight to the floor headfirst since I felt I had zero control over my upper body weight. Coming back up is so much fun with the help of a teacher. A little pull (or pressure into the spine at the low back junction) and I pop right up. But without the teacher I guess I didn't want to look like an idiot doing my front crawl thing in class. I also was really scared of falling back down and landing on my head because my arms wouldn't be ready to catch me or something silly like that.

There are two keys to coming up smoothly: 1. walk the hands as close towards the feet as possible, "past the point where you feel comfortable with placing your hands". 2. Rock back and forth and come up on an inhale while rocking forward towards the feet. So they actually both work, and I've been surprised that some days I can come up on my own. The trick is I have to catch the momentum. If I try to come up at the wrong time during the rock, then I fall back down. My hands did catch me and save me the fate of a head concussion, so my fear was unfounded. If my back feels funny, then I'm not able to walk my hands that close to my feet, and a wide wheel makes coming up impossible.

So now I'm at this inconsistent stage where sometimes I can come up magically on my own no problem, and other times I get stuck in my wheel and can't come up without assistance. Neither the forward bend squish nor the fold itself after the drop backs ever feels long enough, and I can feel my spine screaming "I'm here! Feel my presence!!" at me for the rest of the day. It's not pain.. it's just.. very energized, but not necessarily in a happy or unhappy way. Seriously, who needs a chiropractor if you can just do wheel pose and drop backs? I wonder what chiros think about setu bandhasana and headstands. Setu b. feels super intense right now, probably not from physical strain but from shock. I'm trusting the practice and hoping it'll strengthen my neck and make my neck strain go away. Also hoping matsyasana and uttana padasana will strengthen my mid and low back, because I do not feel peace and calm in these two poses.

Anyways, just a boring recording my practice report. I hope the poses I mention will get easier and my spine will thank me later on. Right now it's questioning what the heck I'm doing to it and the rational brain isn't really sure if what I'm practicing is exactly healthy for my body. I kind of have to have faith, keep at it for a few months and then see what happens.

Friday, August 12, 2011

More about the yoga industry and good yoga teaching from a more qualified speaker :)

I do have more to say about this topic, but first, let's hear from a senior yoga teacher's view of yoga :)

Part 2: What is a popular yoga teacher vs. a good yoga teacher?


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A biased view of the yoga industry from someone who's glad her writings don't count for marks any more :)

I have been wanting to write about this topic for a long time but everyone else seems to be able to address exactly what I wanted to talk about, with much better understanding and much more eloquence. Nobel talked about yoga teacher training and the yoga version of the American dream. Grimmly also wrote a post about yoga teacher training. "It's all Yoga, baby" wrote about New York Time's interpretation of Ana Forrest vs. John Friend vs. Tara Stiles. As far as I know, these three styles are pretty accurately and succinct described in this post. Her previous post of NYT's overall portrayal of yoga points out how mainstream media's skepticism about yoga can negatively influence people who are thinking about trying out yoga, or are currently confused by yoga.

I've been pondering about yoga and capitalism. In the early days, students who really wanted to learn yoga had to go beg the teacher to teach them. The guru would make these bright-eyed hopeful students go through crazy difficult tests to confirm their determination for this practice. I guess when the (western) students have experienced the benefits of the practice, they want to share it with people back home. They knew such a disciplined practice wouldn't appeal to the masses, so they've modified and marketed yoga in a way that people would want to try it out. There is nothing wrong with that. I think anyone who has tried yoga has received benefits of relaxation, improved breathing, more limber body, and more. The thing is, when yoga turns into a business, rent and electricity costs money, and studio owners end up having to recruit more and more customers by whatever means they can to pay the bills as opposed to teaching it in the strict traditional form. People would only pay so much money for practice, so all these other things are born - clothing lines, jewelries, expensive mats and mat cleaners, and - teacher training! Initially meant to uphold the quality of yoga teachers, in a capitalist society this screams "career opportunity", and everyone jumps at it, because seriously, being a yoga teacher and make other people feel good feels 1000 times more meaningful than, say, a bank job where you count other people's cash all day, or a secretarial job where you do the most boring administrative paperwork stuff for the rest of your life. Most friends I know with traditional jobs often talk like they work in a prison, or just avoid talking about their work at all.

So then we get into this situation where the market is filled with well-intentioned yoga teachers who have practiced yoga themselves for barely a few months. The market demand for yoga classes are so high that sometimes these teachers end up teaching full time and have no time for personal practice. We get students who take classes with these teachers for awhile, who want to dig deeper into yoga, but the only option to go deeper seems to be to sign up for $3000+ teacher training, because a lot of these teachers are too inexperienced to offer adjustments or teach headstands (for safety/liability reasons I'm glad they don't). What a brilliantly crafted money-making business plan (that I think happened somewhat accidentally)!

Yoga nowadays is kind of like Christianity. It is spread broadly by people who have felt the benefits of the practice but don't fully understand the history and the deepness of the tradition. You get a lot of teachers who take bits of what they like about yoga (or what students might prefer) and sell them to students, while ignoring bits that they don't quite understand/believe in themselves, as well as parts that might clash with conventional beliefs and personal comfort zones. Don't like talking about spirituality? OK, we'll take that out of this yoga class. Jump backs and jump throughs frustrate students? No problem. Just don't introduce them in class and students will never know they existed. Feet together in Samasthiti feels unbalanced? Let's teach people to stand feet hip distance apart instead. The teachers who first started teaching this way understood the intentions behind the modifications, but new yoga practitioners subsequently taking teacher training programs don't seem to realize these are modifications (partly because they can't do the full form themselves, which takes years to achieve) and teach them as strict rules instead.

What ends up happening is a lot of confused yoga practitioners. I attended a yoga conference last year when barely started practicing yoga, so some of the classes and variations were kind of confusing to me. What was really daunting for me, was that about half the attendees claimed to have gone through some sort of yoga teacher training program, yet they seemed more confused than I was. It made me really appreciate having encountered a great teacher at the beginning of my yoga journey. My yoga teacher is a total stickler for teaching the original Ashtanga form (e.g. hands together in warrior I even if one has tight shoulders, grab the toe in trikonasana even if one has super tight hips, etc). I wondered for the longest time why he doesn't teach the modified forms like all other teachers seem to do.  Some students (and even yoga teachers) stay away from his classes because of this reason. It took me awhile to realize but now when I encounter variations, it's obvious to me (without anyone informing me the reasons) that they are modified forms to make beginners' lives easier. I've heard some teachers complain that Ashtanga doesn't seem to teach a lot of alignments. I've been to classes with a ton of verbal alignment cues, but half the cues didn't jive with my body. Even when the cues felt helpful, I saw a lot of people in class still had crap alignments, and the teacher didn't do anything to physically assist anyone (which Ashtanga teachers tend to do). Since the results are about the same, the preference is up to the students then. It's good to have a choice between the preferred method of being taught.

In the beginning I totally disagreed with reformulating yoga into marketable products (anti-gravity yoga, yoga for runners, yoga for weight loss, yoga with live music, etc). Now I no longer think it's wrong, because just like it always has been, the mass public doesn't want to be put through a disciplined spiritual practice. They want to entertained and to feel good -- instant gratifications. Maybe I'm a bit of a weirdo but it's happened so many times that when I went out friends for a drinking gathering, I would join them for a few drinks, but as I noticed people started behaving funny as a result of intoxication, instead of "catching up" I wold stop myself because I didn't really feel like becoming the same way (plus I get a headache right away from too much alcohol anyway). When I attend a yoga class with good music and lots of feel good messages but no challenge, I feel entertained but at the same time I would sense that something is missing. When the sequencing of a yoga class doesn't feel quite right or if a class is all about getting a work out I also become very disappointed. However other students seem to enjoy the class no less. Perhaps I'm just too hard to please?

I guess I like things I do to have meaning, and Ashtanga seem to be so well crafted that every pose as well as the details of the sequencing have reasons to back up this practice. Not everyone needs every activity they do to have meaning. Not everyone wants to read into the history of yoga. Not everyone wants to have the basic alignment for each pose memorized. Hence the yoga industry shapes itself to fit mainstream crowd's desires. I am just glad that I came across a yoga style that suits my personality and that the system is rich enough for me to explore for many years to come. I've heard people complain that yoga should be cheaper and be available to more people, yada yada. I wonder if they really mean that everyone should be taught basic breathing techniques and basic stretches, because not all yoga styles are the same. I think at the rate that current teacher training program churns out yoga teachers, we would soon have enough yoga teachers qualified to teach exactly such at every school, hospital and community center. This would indeed benefit the public at large. However, for a deeper yoga practice, it is up to me to put in the effort to go find the right teacher for proper guidance. To be able to study with a good yoga teacher is a privilege rather than one of the basic human rights. I must remember that.

Also, there's nothing wrong with doing yoga for social and entertainment purposes. Ashtanga will always be my grounding practice, but I am still allowed to attend other styles of yoga for fun!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The nature of Ashtanga yoga

Nobel recently blogged about how his friend doesn't get why Nobel's goal in practicing yoga doesn't seem to be to master all 6 levels of Ashtanga. Megan recently blogged about waiting to hear about results from biopsies and medical test with the possibility of having cancer (sending her well-wishing thoughts). In my previous post, I wrote about how I am coming to the realization of peculiarities in my old habitual behaviors, and one of the commenters, Alison, suggested that perhaps I should look into restorative and yin yoga, since Ashtanga seems to be stirring up quite strong emotions and reactions in me.

If she had suggested this to me a year ago, I might have seriously considered her advice and switch to a calmer, more reflective yin practice. For those who have not tried practicing Ashtanga regularly, on the surface, this style of yoga appears to be a fast-paced, dynamic, heat-generating work out. Indeed, in the beginning I totally exhibited type A personality, coming to the led primary series because it challenged me more than any other yoga classes. I enjoyed the masochistic aspect that my back would ache and my arms would feel jelly the next day. Once I tried to practice two days in a row and the second day's class felt miserable. I had to do all my vinyasas on my knees. The teacher kept mentioning this was meant to be a 6-day practice and I thought he was nuts, that only exceptionally fit people could pull it off. The teacher did keep repeating the fact that this series is meant to be therapeutic, which made no sense to me at the time (which part of having my ass kicked is therapeutic??) Somehow I chose to trust the teacher because he sounded very sincere. I decided to give this class a year and see if my lower back would heal and stop aching at some point, or else I was going to move on to something else.

Well, 1.5 years later, the primary series no longer feels like an ass-kicking work out. It's still not a walk in the park, but it feels more like a full body opening stretching sequence than a heart pumping, muscle building exercising sequence. My heart rate does go up a bit while doing the sequence, but in terms of breathing, I feel no other yoga classes can bring me to breath so deeply for such an extended period of time. My teacher didn't lie; in terms of breath work it really does feel very therapeutic. I now practice Ashtanga for its calming, therapeutic effects more than anything else. So, even though it does build strength in the body, it's not the main reason why I practice Ashtanga.  Even though it doesn't burn as much calories as my previous exercise regime (I am fatter than I used to be), I am sticking with this routine until my mental clutter improves and I free up more time to exercise for the sake of exercising.

I have been thinking about yoga and spirituality. Why are some people totally fine with pursuing spirituality by long hours of sitting meditation, never having the desire to try yoga or even other forms of exercises? How come yogis seem to squirm like worms all the time and the only way to calm down is to contort their bodies into pretzels? Perhaps David Garrigues explains best in his blog post: "Ashtanga is for the hungry, the ones who have something gnawing inside, the ones who honestly aren't happy accepting complacent norms. Ashtanga is for those who are alive with intense feelings that there are worlds to discover, worlds that are found by reaching passionately inwards for expression that will contribute to personal and collective healing. "

I don't feel yin yoga works the same as Ashtanga, nor does "Core Power yoga" or Bikram or Iyengar or Anusara yoga. Don't get me wrong, I am not against these yoga styles and I think they have helped many people. I do feel I would benefit from sitting meditation, but it's the Ashtanga practice that calms down the "gnawing inside" so I can sit still for longer. I've heard there are people who practiced up to intermediate/advanced series, and then realized they actually only need to do the beginning standing series and the closing series in order to calm down and benefit from the practice.

I feel Ashtanga is very vast and deep. Devoting 1+ years to familiarize myself with the primary series is the best thing I could have ever done. From here, I can also choose to do just the opening and closing sequence, and focus on the meditative aspect of yoga; I can just practice the primary series; I can move onto the intermediate series and keep going until I reach my body's limits; I can always fall back to the primary when my body becomes injured, when I grow older, or when I am mentally drained/stressed out. I used to analyze every issue to death, thinking I have to understand everything / rationalize everything in order to find peace/resolution. Now I feel like peace comes from calming the breath, emptying the mind, and letting go of things we can't change. This realization is more useful than any psychoanalysis or any amounts of knowledge/information with which I try to cram into my brain.

I may have problems in life, but practicing Ashtanga helps me experience moments of calmness during the day. It helps clear my mind and put things into perspective, realizing what's important and what's minor. Do other yoga styles achieve the same? It might for some people, but I plan to write a whole post about my thoughts on the current industry of yoga.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A blog post all about my spine

It doesn't matter what style of yoga you practice; a major body part you work on is your spine. From gentle cat-cow warm ups, to downward/upward facing dog, to sun and moon salutations, to headstands and shoulder stands,  to crazy leg behind the head poses, most yoga poses move the spine in all sorts of directions, in much greater depths than most sports and activities ever require. There are apparently 5 major ways to move your spine: flexion, extension, axial rotation (twists), lateral flexsion (side bends), and axial extension (lengthening). Before I started yoga I thought I had a limber body. Now I feel like I'm finally using my spine the way its intended - built to be curved in so many ways, as long as the muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments etc coordinate with the vertebrae.

When I started yoga I came to heal my spine. My lower back was hurting me, and when I first started Ashtanga it felt worse. I couldn't tell if I was doing the poses wrong or if my lower back was just weak. I asked the teacher and he said my poses looked okay and he didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing. Primary series was supposed to be therapeutic right? So I tried to suck in my belly button more whenever I felt discomfort in the lumbar spine, hoping the sensation would go away soon. Either that or I would have to quit yoga and switch to some other activity. Thankfully, after 6 months the lower back weirdness went away. So it was indeed a weakness and the primary series helped strengthen my spine in a major way.

Then there was my neck. Ever since I started yoga, I noticed I had a neck ache. I went to see a massage therapist which helped make it better. However after a month the achy-ness came back. I learned it was probably due to the turtle haunch position that I have been assuming in front of my computer screen for the past 10 years. I went to see a chiropractor, which tried to fix my imbalance in terms of left twist vs. right twist, but I felt it was such a money scam because he only worked on me for about 20 minutes at a time and charged me $40 per session, and asked me to go back for 8 more sessions. My yoga teachers adjusted me more than the chiropractor during a 75 minute yoga class, and I pay way less for a class. I tried to lengthen my neck whenever I notice my turtle shrug, but the discomfort persisted. Then I noticed headstands made my neck uncomfortable so I had to stop practicing that at home. I still did it in class but usually only for like 5 breaths and often with the teacher supporting my legs. I notice my neck felt worse when I tried to assume thumb drishti in trikonasana and utthita parsvokonasana, so I stopped looking up in those poses and just focused on lengthening my cervical spine.

Recently, my teacher has been coming by, putting fingers on my back and telling me to engage my lats and pull my back muscles down the spine. Hmm, I can't seem to engage my lats at all. I consciously pull them down for a few breaths, then the next time I check my shoulders are up to my ears again. Sigh. That must be the reason why my neck hurts.

I am just noticing recently that I don't use enough of my back strength in matsyasana. When I engage my back more, uttana padasana suddenly feels a lot harder (I've been arching my back and not engaging back muscles in these 2 poses all this time). So suddenly I am feeling a new sense of strength building in my spine. My headstands are feeling better in the neck, and in setu bandhasana, I am finally taking my elbows off the floor and crossing my arms over my chest. It feels pretty creepy but I can feel strength building in my neck as well. I am really hoping this period of neck strengthening will get rid of the neck discomfort once and for all.

Backbends: now that I am starting to attempt drop backs, I am feeling weirdness in my lower back return. Actually, a few posts back I complained about lumbar spine weirdness in urdhva dhanurasana. So it went away for awhile and I thought I was done with low back strengthening, but I guess I'm not done. I look at my own wheel pose in the mirror and it has such a mild arch, despite how intense it feels. And then I look at pictures of yogis grabbing their ankles in their wheel poses, and I wonder exactly what needs to stretch to get to that point. Kino's article and video suggests that we hang over upside down without touching the mat for a few breaths; I'm sorry but I don't have enough strength to hold it half way. I am either upright with a little back bend or I'm all the way down. There's no in between. Does it mean my back is just too weak?

So many people I've seen come to yoga with a haunch in the shoulder/upper back area. When I look at the pictures of long term ashtanga practitioners, they all seem to have a straight back, and when they bend either forwards or backwards, they bend right at the waist, instead of rounding at the thoracic spine. I don't know if this is the case, but has all these forward bends where the teacher has been helping me flatten my spine on my legs resulted in shifting of imbalances to the upper (neck) and lower (lumbar) part of the spine instead?

One thing's for sure: I definitely need more back strengthening and continue to engage my trapezius and lats to keep my shoulder blades down the back. The fascia and the connective tissue stuff I have no control over; they'll just have to keep restructuring on their own. I wonder if non-Ashtanga yoga styles also re-work the spine in the same way, since most yoga styles I know don't emphasize forward bends.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back to led practice

Yes, today is a moon day, but I practiced anyway because well, that's when the led class happens. It felt really good to be grounded by my regular practice again, but the entire time I sort of wondered why the heck did I go sooooo fast in my Mysore practice last week? I totally thought I was keeping time to my teacher's normal counting. Either my teacher normally counts faster and he chose to count more slowly today, or alternatively, the burden of counting on my own felt so daunting I just rushed to get it all over with.

It's interesting how the mind works. Today I felt like my mind relaxed and allowed me to focus on how each pose felt at the moment I was holding it. In the Mysore practice it seemed like all my mind could do was to hear my breathing and do counting, that was it. Anything other tasks would become over-burden for the conscious brain. As I got into my janushirsansa b and c, I couldn't help but to wonder: did I even do these 2 poses in my Mysore class? I'm pretty sure I must have done them, but I have zero recollection of feeling my heel pressed into mula bandha, or the toe crunching / achilles tendon stretching sensations that I felt today in class. Did I bother going to my edge at all in my Mysore practice? I think the only perception I could manage besides remembering the sequence was that I felt no pain sensations.

It seems like a significant part of the practice of yoga is to understand our inner workings of our own minds. With this little Mysore back to led practice experiment, I discovered I have major blind spots in my brain. When the brain is occupied with being in an unfamiliar environment and new tasks, it drops the perceptions of less important things, like the details of how each pose feels in different parts of the body. Even though my focus on breathing was much better in the Mysore class (because it was what I used to pace myself) than in a led class, I felt less calm after the practice (more calm than before I practiced, but less calm than practicing at my usual class).  I wonder when I will reach a point where I feel completely at ease and be able to fully enjoy the practice without being my own yoga police, worrying if my bandha's engaged, if my legs are straight, if my neck's crunched, if my shoulders are away from my ears, if my side bodies are lengthened, so on and so forth. I fantasize about a perfect practice with no extraneous muscle strains, everything stays aligned, jump-throughs don't feel like dragging a bag of heavy bricks across the mat, and my breathing feels super smooth. It's something I would like to work towards.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

My first Mysore class experience

So I recently went to my first ever Mysore class. It felt sooooo different from a led class. It was so hard to concentrate on my own practice when everyone around me is doing something different! I kept miscounting my surya namaskara Bs (accidentally making some of them into surya As). I would also skip a pose, then realize it a few poses later, do that pose, then go back to what I was doing, totally re-ordering the Primary series. I was also totally not used the teacher's adjustments. My usual teacher normally starts with a gentle push, and then deepen the adjustment, holding it for 3-5 breaths, for both sides. The teacher at this shala would give me a 1-2 second squish one side only and walk away. For Mari D I got a non-gentle double shoulder grab - upper body deepening twist that was neither painful nor unsafe, but still left me kind of surprised. I guess I've been too pampered and spoiled in my regular led primary series classes. Supta kurmasana was a towel grab rather than a bind, but this teacher gave a pretty strong adjustment that got my feet crossing above my head, and that felt good. In supta padangusthasana A, usually I pull my leg down to my face, but this teacher held my leg straight in the air and made me come up to meet it. Made the pose feel totally different (ie. much more challenging, which is probably exactly what I needed).

I guess the idea of Mysore classes is to go at your own pace, spending a few more breaths in poses that need more work, and even repeating things that need work. However I felt totally insecure without a teacher verbally going through instructions on things to watch out in each pose, or what was supposed proper pace. I'm too used to being told what to do, so I ended up rushing through the entire series due to nervousness. I think I caught up and surpassed several people who started much earlier than I did. I might have also completely skipped a few poses by accident, but there would be no way to know because I had no memory of what I did and did not do 2 poses earlier, and the teacher wasn't really watching me (the shala was pretty happening). I think I also might have started counting my breaths while I was still getting into each pose, so probably I only held each pose for about 3-4 breaths.

Overall it was a very rushed practice at the fault of no one but myself. It was fun watching people do intermediate poses at close proximity. Hey, don't judge me for my drishti violations; it's my first time experiencing this so I just had to check out poses I'd never seen in real life before. It'll probably take awhile before I get used to Mysore style practice; for now I will stick to led Primary classes (and my regular teacher's handholding style adjustments, hehehe).

Update: I want to stress I'm not dissing Mysore style of practice. This is just my personal experience after over one year of led primary practice with the same teacher. I would happily switch to a Mysore class if my regular led class 5 minutes from where I live no longer becomes available to me.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Recent asana progress summary

Sirsasana - can do it at home okay, but in class I'm having trouble doing it towards the end of class. Takes me quite awhile to mentally prepare before going up, and once I have the pose I can't hold it for long, for fear of falling over and just not enough stamina or something. Claudia talked about 2 kinds of sirsasanas in her blog. I think I like the bregma version at home. In class I seem to do the crown headstand, or whatever version that will permit my feet to lift off the ground and provide a drishti so I don't get distracted by classmates behind me. Balance is a bigger issue than back curvature at the moment. Teacher told me to have my elbows closer together (because apparently they move apart once I'm up in the air. Who knew?) and that helped.

Jump backs - played with blocks today. I can get my legs off the ground with blocks under my hands for added arm length, yay! However, once I'm in lolasana I am completely stuck. I have no momentum for jumping back. Apparently I'm supposed to bend my arms to shift my center of gravity... hmm.. not happening right now. Arms are still not strong enough and ass is so heavy any shift in center of gravity (ie. shift of pelvis in mid-air) results in my body gets confused about what it can and cannot do. 2 solutions -

1. Keep practicing for many more life times.
2. Reduce size of ass (harder to achieve, but I think it'll be sooooo effective). I need a junk food police to hang out with me 24/7.

Forearm stands and handstands - yes yes I know they are not part of the Primary series, but I've been playing with them since I've discovered that achieving them is possible within this life time. Too chicken to do either of them without a wall within reach yet. I feel like my lower back isn't stable enough for me to hold these poses on my own, but it could be more of a mental block than a physical issue.

Urdhva dhanurasana - again, lower back feels unstable. I can feel stuff is moving around in the lower back spinal area, and that creeps me out. Can anyone share with me their experience working on this pose? I can't figure out if it's my spinal discs moving around or if it's my ligaments or whatever else is holding up my spine in that area. I can't distinguish actual pain sensations from soreness/discomfort from strong emotional feelings in this pose.

Chakrasana - exactly how important is the correctness of this move? I've been doing a judo/kung fu backward roll, using all momentum and trying to stay off the head completely. I think the "correct" way of doing this is actually going on the crown of the head a little bit. I haven't gotten any corrections yet, probably because the teacher thinks it's better to try to do some version than not to try it at all.

Bakasana - I seriously thought I'd totally have those pose down after 1 year of yoga practice. It's still difficult after 1.5 years! Another ass-heavy problem? I think I can hold the pose for about 3 breaths before my knees start sliding down my arms. Maybe it's a legs-are-too-heavy problem too.

Supta kurmasana - I can bind finger tips now! This is happening after I've been instructed to bind my wrist in all marichyasanas rather than just clasping my fingers together. I'm literally pulling my hand slightly out of its socket in every bind.. is that healthy for the joint? I can also cross my feet above my head, but not at the same time as binding my fingers. It's one or the other right now. Doing both simultaneously is considered as multi-tasking and too complex for my body/brain to handle.

General body issues - hips often feel over-stretched. Upper back between the shoulder blades are often sore; lower back feels a little lose, like it could use more strengthening. Sinus often feels kind of blocked. Neck always has issues. muscles around elbow area do not like the amount of chaturangas I put them through.  Gee, with this much complaints, my non-yogi friends for sure would advise me to stop with all this yoga madness. I'm hoping when I read this entry 6-12 months from now I'll be able to answer all of my own questions and provide better insights into whether or not my body issues have improved.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Precious spine

My mother slipped in the bathroom the other day, causing a compression fracture in her lumbar spine (L2 looked like it was squished in half, and L3 looked a little chipped too). It's a pretty sucky injury all right. It hurts like hell and my mom has very low pain tolerance. There's not much the doctors can do besides prescribing pain killers and bed rest.  I actually thought she was going to be in the hospital for weeks because in the beginning it looked like any jerky movements caused her terrible pain. However within a week she was able to get up on her own with the help of a walker and walk around for a bit, so they kicked her out of the hospital.

Actually the nurse didn't think she could get out of the hospital so soon. My mom screamed like she was on fire whenever anyone tried to move her (change her clothes etc), which probably scared the staff, especially the intern/student nurses. Whenever she screamed like that, they would give her a morphine shot, which would calm her down but made her feel dizzy, nauseous, with no appetite the entire time. The hospital food looks disgusting and tastes bland, and other patients living on the floor are also loud,  sick, and strange, so I don't blame her for wanting to get home as soon as possible. So when the occupational therapist decided to give her a functionality test to see if she could sit up on the bed and use the bathroom on her own, she performed her hearts out and passed the tests with flying colors. She got to go home sooner than everyone expected. The doctors and physiotherapists were amazed at her progress.

Once she got home, I was amazed at how much she could walk on her own, sometimes without a walker. The bed she owns is much softer than the one in the hospital, but when I asked the doctor and the occupational therapist they told me that the hardness of the bed doesn't affect the rate at which her back will recover. However, I really wish the hospital physiotherapist had worked with her better on figuring out how to move to avoid causing pain. It looked like my mom is not very body aware, nor is she very good at taking suggestions. The most difficult movement for her seemed be to going from a horizontal lying position to a vertical sitting or standing position. From sitting to standing was only difficult on the first day home, and afterwards she had no problems with the support of a walker. There would be ways she moves that would cause her to scream like she broke her back again. But after a few tries she'll find a way to sit up that seems to be non-painful at all. The occupational therapist prescribed some props that we brought home (basically a walker, handle bars for the toilet, and a shower chair). I later got a her bed rail as well. When she had trouble getting up she would demand that she needs a special bed, when really all she needs is to move more carefully. I sound unsympathetic but it looks very obvious that she twists her body unnecessarily, when she should swing her legs to the ground with as little movement in the spine as possible, and push herself up with her arms and hopefully core strength to support the spine. I wish I have physiotherapist and yoga teacher training so I can instruct her on better ways of getting up. Right now I suck at providing clear instructions and she doesn't seem to have very fine muscle control in her body. She gives me weird commands like lifting her up from the armpit, which I tried, but she's too heavy and it just doesn't work at all. So she would take a couple of Tylenol pills, wait 30 minutes, and get up totally fine. I can't tell if it's the pain killer working its magic, or she just figured out a better way to move to avoid pain.

Seeing my mother's injury makes me glad for my spinal health, but also made me went out and bought calcium supplement pills right away. It's going to take her a few months to heal, but actually a compression fracture is better than other types of injuries (like a hip fracture), so in this sense my mother's lucky. The doctor (not a very sympathetic one) told me "at least it's not bone cancer". Uh, that's comforting Doc. My dad who's a retired radiologist was able to tell me a bit more (we had to beg to be allowed to see the X-ray). He was glad the vertebrae were not out of alignment, nor did the spaces between the vertebrae look compressed, so comparably this was not a really terrible injury. Radiologists however are only concerned about diagnosis and know nothing about treatments or physiotherapy, so my mom's on her own for recovery.

This is actually the second time my mother has suffered from a compression fracture, so she's kind of "experienced". Last time the fracture happened at L5 (above S1) and hurt way more. Also, last time she was in Asia, so they were all generous and let her stay in the hospital bed for as long as she wanted with no physio exercise prescriptions. After a couple months her leg and back muscles were so weak it was impossible for her to sit up or walk at all. So overall it took over 6 months to heal. I'm hoping this time it heal a lot faster since she's being encouraged to sit and walk a couple days after injury. Another tidbit for you anatomy geeks - compression fracture (or probably any kind of spinal injury) hurts more at the joints - eg. between the sacrum and lumbar, between the lumbar and thoracic groups, etc. At least that's what my dad says (so theoretically L2 is a "better injury location" than L5???") Hmm, it's not like you can control where you injure yourself anyway.

Anyways, moral of the story: keep doing your yoga to strengthen your spines, prevent osteoporosis, and learn finer muscle group control, so that if you injure yourself, you'll have better skills at modifying your  movements to maximize efficiency/healing and minimize pain/further injuries. I believe that meditation and deep breathing can help with pain management as well. I am going to spend the rest of my life loading myself up with as much health-related information as possible because the doctors and physios aren't always informative or helpful. They are loaded with information about diseases and injuries, which are very useful, but they aren't necessarily experts on wellness, especially when most of them aren't very familiar with yoga. I briefly thought about physiotherapy as a career, but seeing the hospital physio changed my mind. She was very grumpy, and didn't really offer my mother much exercises. It seems like yoga exercises are much more fun than physio exercises anyway. Take care of your spines, yogis!!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What is it that you ultimately want in life?

Nobel blogged awhile ago about about his idea of an ideal life, which is to be a yoga bum, ie. get paid big bucks to practice yoga every day and to blog about his yoga practice. Now, Nobel, do you want some third party to pay you to live life however you want, or do you wish you were born into a rich family so you can be a yoga bum, or do you wish you married someone with a massive bank account, or win the lottery, or obtain a large sum of money by some other means (eg. find a bag on the street containing $10 million)? I kind of assumed that you were wishing for the first option, ie. somehow someone out there would consider your yoga practice as beneficial to the world and pay you money for doing it. Hmm.. I don't know about $100,000/year, but for countries with universal health care, I think governments should encourage people to choose a healthy living, which would minimize the overall cost of medical care budget, by providing incentives such as bonus cash for those who do eat healthily and do yoga (and other forms of exercises in general). Yah I know, wishful thinking (but not completely impossible).

I joked that my dream life is to play dress up every day, party lots, and occasionally do charity work, you know, the Princess Di, Duchess Katherine, or Paris Hilton life (Paris actually does get paid to show up at various clubs to party). Nobel pointed out that my concept of a "bum" life is "interesting". I got a bit confused there, and then I looked up the definition of a bum: person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer;idler. Hmm, I guess I am too chicken to be a bum forever, because I'm paranoid that the world would progress and I would fall behind. I've been an obsessive compulsive knowledge / skills acquisition freak all of my life. I'll read almost anything that's in print. Every time I try a recreational activity I dream about becoming extremely proficient at it. I practice yoga as if the teacher's going to beat me with a cane if I don't try my hardest. I feel like if I don't push myself to my limits, I'm not living up to my life's full potential, and somebody will be disappointed in me.

So now you know my greedy desire for wanting to acquire all possible skills that humans can do and all knowledge of human beings (like in the movie trilogy "The Matrix" where I can upload all of Google's databases and all encyclopedias ever written into my head). Does this make me weird? I think the typical dreams of people are to become billionaires, own multiple servants and a giant mansion, luxury cars, fancy yacht, and travel the world on their personal cruise ship while being served with gourmet French cuisine, or something along that line. My biggest desire is to acquire skills? I gotta step back and do some self-psychoanalysis here.. does this suggest that I'm deeply insecure about my intellectual worth?

I guess we're generally seeking to live a long and healthy life, feel safe and secure, satisfy our senses, feel a sense of control (of ourselves and of the environment around us), connect with other beings (but at the same we like to be better than other people, Darwin's theory at work on Earth), and of course to satisfy our endless miscellaneous arbitrary desires. An ideal life would be to become better than everyone else, have everybody adore and admire you, and have all your endless desires satisfied one after another. Sorry I'm not very poetic about it. I started writing a list of things I wanted: travel, a sexy, smart,  understanding and loving life partner, charity projects I want to do, pet science projects I want to do, and then I realized the list could go on and on forever, because of my insatiable greediness :P  The bottom line is, being a bum forever is not an ideal life for me. Maybe my dream life is to become Superwoman, but without having the responsibility to solve every problem in the world. I would only work on the problems I'm interested in. Hmm.. so a selfish Superwoman then :D

I think my ideal life is to have endless possibilities in what I can do, and to have the freedom to choose to do a subset of them, with minimal troubles and obstacles. I think I've got the first 2 parts down, which makes me a very lucky person. The skill acquisition part I guess is my attempt to be able to deal with these troubles and obstacles. I should also add that I am working towards feeling comfortable about occasionally being a bum. The practice of yoga aids with achieving equanimity, which means I better keep doing it then!

What about you? What is your dream life? Can you narrow it down to a few specific things that you absolutely must have, or are you like me, greedily wanting to keep all possibilities open but have the freedom to choose what you want? Or would you want to be a bum (in a fancy palace of course)? :)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Yoga Teacher Training

Nobel talked about teacher training in his post, wondering if "yoga teacher certification" may give students the idea that a the learning yoga knowledge is terminal and that a 200YTT certification makes someone a "yoga expert".

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As I mentioned in my very first blog post, I started yoga because a number of my friends suddenly got their yoga teacher training completed at around the same time. You don't really hear someone taking up jazz, golf, crocheting, taekwando or whatever, and suddenly announce they are getting certified to teach that activity. What's special about this "yoga" that makes people want to teach it? I always thought of yoga as just simple stretching exercises. My friends' actions made me think that there might be more to this activity. Other people sign up for yoga for health reasons. I signed up for yoga as a Sherlock Holmes wannabe, wanting to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. From the very beginning, I didn't just try to learn yoga; I started analyzing yoga teachers and the whole logic to a yoga class even before I got used to placing my limbs and spine in positions they had never been placed before. At the time I didn't realize there were so many yoga poses, so many yoga styles, or that each each pose contained so much alignment information (you mean it's not just copying what the teacher demos?), or that yoga teachers knew so much about the human anatomy, or that there was a sequencing logic to a yoga class. Talk about overwhelming oneself with information. Each yoga class I tried was so different from the other class (I alternated between hot yoga, yin, pilates, Kundalini, hatha, power, and Ashtanga my very first month into yoga, because I had no idea what the heck I was doing), and I couldn't easily figure out a simple logic to it. I was absolutely fascinated by the complexity of yoga.

Only a few months into yoga, I attended a free information session for a one-month intensive yoga teacher training program with at a studio at the far side of town, not because I wanted to become a yoga teacher myself, but because I was on a mission to find out what it takes to become a yoga teacher. I was expecting them to tell me I should practice for at least 2-3 years before I sign up. I was shocked when this teacher told me anyone can sign up for teacher training. I asked her how could I expect myself to teach people if I couldn't even do the most basic arm balance poses like bakasana. The teacher smoothly answered, "Maybe you'll be able to get into one during this teacher training". Hmm.... I have no doubt she would be able to teach me all the theoretical stuff about yoga, and I am confident in my memorization and understanding skills. But some poses take a lot of practice in order to get the strengthening, balance, and flexibility in place. How could she be confident that I would gain enough strength to do those poses within one month?  Ironically, her attempt to ease my concerns made me more sure that teacher training was not worth my money at that time. She reassuringly told me, "Don't worry, you won't have to learn how to put your foot behind your head". Why not? I thought at the time. For $3000+, shouldn't I be able to learn how to do almost every single yoga pose? 

At the time I did believe that all certified yoga teachers knew all the poses. Now I know that you can have a great asana practice yourself but suck as a teacher, and you don't have to pull off perfect asanas yourself in order to be a great teacher. I've been to simple hatha classes without any advanced balance or strength poses, and walked out of class feeling that my body had a well-rounded stretch, my core was sufficiently challenged, and my energy were properly balanced. I've also gone to power classes where I got really aggravated because I couldn't breath with the teacher's "choreography", or I was asked to attempt an advanced pose when my hamstrings weren't sufficiently prepped top open up fully in the  warm up sequences leading up to the pose. Teacher training program can only teach you technical stuff and give you some basic tips on how to lead a safe, logical yoga class. But amazing rock star teachers shine through with their own unique charisma, through a combination of teaching experience as well as their innate ability to connect with students and inspire. With Ashtanga teaching, the sequencing of primary series already makes mechanical sense in systematically opening up the body, where the beginning poses prep for later poses. The greatest challenges are to figure out how to engage the students and keep them interested, and how to lead beginners who are stiff and not very body aware through the sequence without having them feel defeated and over-challenged.

After all the serious investigations and analyses I've secretly conducted, violating drishti focus every class by curiously watching how my teacher adjusts other students, observing other students' poses, analyzing what are the alignment corrections for that particular version of the pose, what are the modifications that can be provided for that particular student, trying to figure out why the teacher would choose to adjust some students but not others, I think I am finally ready to stop being a busybody and  settle down as a yoga student to focus on my own yoga practice. Yah I know, I'm weird this way :)

p.s. To learn how to put your foot behind your head at no cost to you whatsoever, see this video for instructions. It worked for me! (after a few months of hip opening poses practicing yoga. My hips were pretty open to begin with though.)