Saturday, February 26, 2011

Are you either flexible or not flexible? Is this a binary thing?

A friend of mine complained that she couldn't believe after 5 months of taking yoga classes her flexibility hasn't improved at all.

Hmm. I guess people have all sorts of expectations about yoga. Some won't try yoga at all because they aren't flexible. I commend my friend for signing up for yoga to do something about her stiffness, but I wasn't sure how to advise her. Someone from my yoga class told me she's been doing yoga for years and hadn't experienced much improvement in flexibility or in terms of asanas until she started taking this Ashtanga class, where adjustments are more "aggressive" compared to other yoga styles. It's also easier to notice baby step improvements in flexibility given the same sequence is done every class. However, she told me that if she attends class less than 3 times a week (she normally goes 5x/week), she would feel her fascia/muscles tighten right back up.

Back to my friend. She told me she's been going to class twice a week, normally a power class followed by a yin class. No one holds her down for any of the postures in these classes (whereas I'm used to my Ashtanga teacher pinning me down for at least one forward fold per class. Masochistic much?). In an yin class I took with her I could see her wiggling around in poses which are understandably uncomfortable, but the wiggling probably decreased the effectiveness of the stretches.

I don't know if it'll discourage her if I tell her what my classmate told me. Tom Myers mentioned there are two types of fascia - a flexible kind ("temple dancer fascia") and a stiff kind ("viking fascia"). That's discouraging for the stiff people. On the other hand, I have also heard about advanced yogis who started out not being able to touch their toes.

This makes me think that flexibility is a "skill" that can be improved with dedicated practice/training. In addition to repeated routine practice, one must hold a stretch to its edge and hold it for much longer than what most people are comfortable with, co-ordinating with long deep breaths and at the same time consciously willing the muscles to relax. It takes some discipline to do it on one's own. In my case, I have enough discipline to show up to class but no discipline in working hard on my own so I love it that my teacher willingly does half the work  :P

Yoga, especially Ashtanga, provides a systematic approach to improving flexibility, both in terms of sequencing of asanas as well as teacher's adjustment / pressure applying techniques. It's what attracted me to this practice in the first place (I like anything with a systematic methodology that's proven to work). However, since my friend doesn't live anywhere near an Ashtanga shala (or my studio), it's tougher for her to try out the system. Also I don't get the vibe that she's head over heels in love with yoga and wants to spend all her free time attending more yoga classes. Instead of being all overly enthusiastic and evangelical about the effectiveness of Ashtanga yoga, I should probably just back off but remain receptive in answering any questions she has about improving flexibility or about yoga in general.

Anyone reading this care to share your experience with stretching / working on your flexibility? I am very interested in hearing about your insights on this topic.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Best Ashtanga practice video EVER!!

This video really demonstrates the awesomeness of Ashtanga. (By the way, I've never realized there's so much upper body movement while holding downward dog pose). I love the kitty at the end of the video! Actually all the pets waited until the end of practice before cuddling up to the yogis... so cute! I don't even know which crazy advanced series the guy's doing on the left but it rocks! I can only hope my primary series will come close to the woman's level in this video some day (end of this year? next year?)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

We are all conditioned beings

Nobel wrote about the observation of a roomful of people looking like they do not want to be there at Chuck E Cheese. That's somewhat understandable since not many adults would enjoy being in a roomful of screaming 3-6 year olds. However, I remember going to a gorgeous vacation spot in Mexico called Tulum, which is a Mayan ruins situated right next to a gorgeous turquoise beach - how cool is that? I was a bit bummed when I saw buses after buses of tourists being unloaded at the spot, but it's understandable that tourists would want to see this amazing sight. What shocked me was the expression on these people's faces:  a large percentage of these tourists walked around the ruins looking like zombies, with a bored-looking, I'd-rather-be-somewhere-else face. It made me wonder: what, if anything in the world, will keep these zombies happy for a prolonged period of time?

I'm guessing perhaps the zombies were tired from the heat and mosquitos and too much walking and being shipped around between different sight-seeing spots. Perhaps they wanted to skip the ruins and just hit the beach (one must walk through the ruins to get to the beach). Perhaps they'd rather be back at their fancy air-conditioned hotel and use the swimming pool instead.

I have so many thoughts about this observation. Is it true that not all humans enjoy nature to the same extent? I suspect the answer is yes. I like fancy hotels too, but the sight of a pristine beach or exotic rock formation widens my eyes more. It's the other way around for some people; they get more wide-eye excited about a 5-start hotel room than any kind of nature's wonders.

So that begs the question: if these people know that they prefer the comforts of home or fancy hotel rooms, why did they sign up for this sightseeing tour? This, I think, points out a common issue in society. I'm thinking that people get stressed out at work, so they sign up for a vacation package, without reading the details of the tours carefully. Or, Grandpa's paying for the trip, so the whole family should go, knowing that the kids would hate it. Or, when in Mexico, one should go to all the must-sees, even though one cares neither for Mayan ruins nor for beaches in general. Or, how should one use up the vacation days? Everyone else seems to do these Mexico all-inclusive trips, because it's cheap, and the photos would make everyone back home jealous, so one should follow the crowd and be sheep.

Are we so conditioned that we go through our lives signing up for this and that trip/activity/process without really understanding our own needs and wants? What's the solution to this? Should we wake up, stop taking jobs we don't want, stop bringing kids to birthday parties at places we hate, and stop signing up for vacations we know we won't enjoy? Or, should we somehow learn to be more appreciative of the present moment, no matter what situation we're in? I wouldn't know how to make myself enjoy the present at the Chuck E Cheese party described by Nobel; maybe bring ear plugs, or find ways to laugh at those who are miserable, or suck it up and hypnotize myself into enjoying the situation? (Sounds like what my family tells me I should do at family gatherings).

By the way, I was so breath-taken by the pristine beach, I wished I could meld with the nature (yah I know I'm weird). I wanted to drink the sight with my eyes. I wanted to breath the crystalline turquoise essence into my body.  My legs looked like they made 100 mosquitoes rub their bellies with happiness but I took no notice of it until I got back to the hotel that afternoon.  Actually, when I do yoga, I also have a similar feeling that I'm melding with something bigger.  Is this how it feels when one is truly present? The beauty of nature and the rhythmic breathing with my body movement both seem to have the ability to draw me out of my thinking mind into the present.  Either one is good enough; it's not necessary to have both (ie. I do not need to be practicing yoga at a fancy yoga retreat in order to have an ecstatic experience).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ashtanga practice ramblings

My hammies really got stretched at practice, in multiple poses. I find it hard to balance in uttiha hasta padagustasana since I tend to try too hard in the previous pose (Parsvottanasana). Should back off a bit in pyramid and see if my UHPs would improve. At least I haven't been suffering from blinding dizziness coming out of standing forward folds recently (still dizzy, but not blinded). Had trouble binding on the left side of Mari D. I guess self-pretzeling is much harder than teacher-assisted pretzels. Binding in supta kurmasana is also inconsistent. I actually wouldn't mind doing this pose in a half-assed fashion and move on with life (sorry about the language), but my teacher's determined to get me to accomplish this pose within the foreseeable future.  Coming out of the pose and lifting up into titibasana was pretty disastrous, even with the teacher's assistance. My arms felt like jelly after trying so hard to bind. I also got corrected in my toe tuck technique for my vinyasas. I thought this was a bit nit-picking but the teacher said my alternate toe flipping method was probably the reason my chaturangas arms were uneven. OH!!! This whole time ever since I started yoga I just thought I had uneven arm strengths.

I love my Ashtanga practice - the accomplishments as well as the difficulties.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why I can't seem to stop blogging (even though logically I should)

Logically, I'm really supposed to put this blog on hold and instead focus all my efforts on my thesis projects so I can graduate and move on with life. However, I find myself having this uncontrollable urge to dump all my miscellaneous, entangled, trivial thoughts from my brain into this blog. The irrational part of my mind (for a lack of a better label) seems to find this thoughts-sorting process more important than my thesis.

I didn't really have this problem before. I used to dread any sort of writing, even if it was a personal diary. My personal diary entries read like an unimaginative child writing  pieces of assignments to be handed in to the teacher. "Today I went to the zoo with my mommy and daddy. The giraffes were pretty. We took lots of pictures. I had a wonderful day." And I would get an A+ for entries like this (hmm.. I guess they weren't personal diaries at all but actual assignments). I blame my elementary school teachers for encouraging me to write in a non-expressive and uncreative way. Actually, I don't even blame them. I don't know how they can read through 60+ of these every week. Maybe the formulaic writings were easier to mark than the ones that tried to be different but failed in terms of sentence structures, diction and character correctness (I went through my elementary school education in Taiwan in Chinese only, no English).

In high school (I had moved to Canada by then), my worse subjects were English and Physical Education. By "worst" meant I got C+'s in the beginning when I hadn't fully grasped the language and then from grade 9 and onwards I got B's. I really disliked these two subjects because of the grades I received (this way of thinking was imposed by me not my mother). Obviously (to westerners at least) this is not a healthy way of deciding what you like or dislike, but I hadn't realize this until recently. In fact, I probably got B's because I wasn't expressive enough. I remember always having trouble meeting the minimal essay length, which was usually something like 500 words. I spent a lot of efforts trying to make each sentence as wordy as possible because I didn't have much to say. I'm really regretting that practice because now I have the opposite problem: I now tend to ramble on and on in all my writings and have trouble keep my sentences concise (as you may have noticed in my blog entries ;-) .

In college, I went into science because #1: I wanted to be a scientist ever since I was a little kid. I think I imagined a stereotypical "scientist" to be a combination of an astronaut + CSI guy + The Crocodile Hunter. That would be a pretty cool job, actually. #2: My favorite teacher in high school was my biology teacher, and he said microbiology had a great future outlook so that was what I chose to major, even though I hated my 1st and 2nd year biology courses. #3: There was no paper or essay writing for any of the classes in science! So I got my Bachelor's degree without needing to write a single essay, besides the few I had to write for a mandatory 1st year English class.

And then comes graduate school, where suddenly the entire process is all about writing: statement of purpose, scholarship applications, thesis proposals, progress reports, the thesis itself, research papers, poster abstracts, formal emails (I never needed to write any formal letters to people back in undergrad either). Considering the fact that the majority of my undergraduate education consisted of memorization and regurgitation on exams, and considering the fact that I can remember hardly any of the knowledge that are not useful for my current project (sometimes even the useful info have been forgotten), I'm seriously questioning the usefulness of my education up to this point.

Seeing that I've invested almost all my efforts on my education my entire life, and realizing that it has been mostly pointless, perhaps my subconscious decision-making center is making me sort out my thoughts out before I'm allowed to use my brain power to complete my degree (or maybe I just get easily distracted. Excuses excuses). My apologies to my blog reader that my entries are often long-winded and seems to go in too many different directions without a main point. I wrote them without really having my audience in mind (sorry), bur rather to sort out my personal confusions.

Does this have anything to do with yoga? Hell yah! I just know I always have a strong desire to blog after I've done a yoga class. This was never the case with any other activities. Because of all these "limbs" of yoga that I'm supposed to read up about and associations with Buddhism and meditation and bodily sensations and yoga history and so on, I find myself needing to sort out all the rush of information of this new realm of subject that I think are so important to life yet I knew nothing about before. This gets me to thinking about the purpose of life, and what have I done with mine so far, etc etc. Damn you Yoga for opening up a whole can of worms!!!!

(Just kidding. Yoga got me through my most depressed stage of grad school. Please don't get mad at me, Yoga. I hope my future practices of You will still be enjoyable.  Amen.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Yoga / bodywork addiction - good or bad?

I don't have a disciplined 6-day Ashtanga practice.  Last year I established a semi-regular routine where I practiced some sort of yoga (Power or Hot) about 3-4 times per week. In December, I went on vacation in Asia for 3 weeks.  I had not been on a plane ever since I took up yoga, so I thought that regular yoga practice would help me settle easier on the plane since I had become more flexible over the last year. I was completely wrong. On the plane trip back to Asia, I kept feeling this great desire to stretch. I couldn't stop squirming around in my seat, doing hamstring stretches, neck stretches, spinal twists, arm stretches, you name it. I left my seat about 3 times to the back of the plane where there was a bigger floor space and did every pose that didn't look too ridiculous, including forward folds, mini dancer's pose, mild triangle, more twists, neck circles, etc.  I felt like I had earthworms inside of me struggling to wiggle their way out.  After 3 weeks of doing almost zero yoga, my plane trip back to North America felt much more at ease. I didn't feel the need to wring out all my body parts like a towel and stretch them in every direction possible.

I didn't go back to yoga class right away and recently I'm just slowly building up my yoga practice to 2-3 times a week.  Now I feel and probably act like a squirmy earthworm again whenever I'm sitting still. Doing mild stretches just makes me want to stretch more. I blame it on the excellent Thai massages and deep tissue massages and Ashtanga adjustments I've been receiving the past year. I feel like my body is suffering from pamper withdrawal.  It's demanding more frequent deeper stretches, more yoga poses, and quality massages. It's as if I have a drug addiction. I'm worried if I keep on doing yoga, am I just going to become more and more flexible, and is my body going to scream at me if I don't wrap my leg behind my head at least once a day?  I thought committing to a more frequent yoga practice was the establishment of self-discipline, which would be a positive thing; but this feeling of yoga / bodywork withdrawal is kind of concerning.

For those who have practice yoga regularly for a few years (or decades), do you experience the same thing if you take a break from yoga for an extended period of time (say, a few weeks)? I look forward to hearing your opinions/experiences.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tibetan Meditation (2) - Projections

I was going to talk about meditation on realization, but to be honest, I couldn't focus at all during the meditation.  The meditation technique itself is simple. Before meditation, ask a higher power to guide you through this exercise. Then, meditate on a simple topic. In the workshop, we meditated on the concept of "I". In your mind, ask yourself what is the true nature of "I"? Really think about it. Debate the topic in your head. According to Reema, your mind will eventually come to a conclusion. Then hold on to that conclusion until it settles with you.  This is the Lamrim meditation, designed to help you realize the wisdom that's already within you.

Reema mentioned that if we go through all the meditation techniques, meditating on love and wisdom, one will eventually reach a state of constant bliss. However, being at bliss with oneself is not enough; upon realizing all the truths the it will become unbearable for the meditator to see others suffer and will have great desire to want to help others out, until everyone is relieved of suffering.

I think this explains why some people who are really into spiritual studies and meditations have this airy fairy smile on their faces and why they have this huge desire to travel around the world and teach what they have learned even though most people don't take them seriously at all.

So why couldn't I focus during this particular meditation? She mentioned at the beginning of the workshop that one major realization we will eventually come to is emptiness. The world is actually just a blank sheet of paper.  What we see in the world are our own projections, based on our thoughts and past experiences.  I think ever since she said that, my analytical mind has been going on overdrive debating on this topic of emptiness and projections instead.  

Is the world really a blank sheet of emptiness and everything is our personal projections? I don't know. I've been hearing yeses and noes in my head the entire week (maybe I'm still under Reema's hypnosis?)

As a molecular biologist, I know that our DNA contains the instructions to construct every cell in our body.  My DNA is 99.9% identical to every other human's DNA, so of course we're all extremely similar, with minor variations in our body proportions, skin colors, metabolism speeds, IQs, health issues, personalities etc.  We seem to have different degrees of the same fallacies.  Very few people seem to be able to come up with "new" thoughts. Every time I think I've come up with a brand new profound idea, I find out that Aristotle or Socrates or Confucius or some other ancient full-time thinkers had already thought of it thousands of years ago (darn those people for stealing my million dollar ideas!!  :P )

So, in that sense, we're not really "blank", are we? We're pre-programmed beings, with built-in capabilities and potentials that can be realized with training and practice.

I guess I'm trying to figure out why I went to the meditation class to begin with
--> to relieve mental anxiety. I guess I should have just meditated on my breath to stop my mind from over-analyzing instead of meditating on realization. Oh well, too late.

So what's the source of my anxieties and sufferings? I guess I currently have two main things -- relationship with family, and trying to figure out what the heck I'm doing with my life.  I guess that's when this teaching of projections really came in handy. I don't know how many years I've been on an auto-pilot mode.  It's always the same pattern every time I have to hang out with my extended family:

1. I feel like everyone is always try to give me advice and tell me what to do for every situation - from Chinese etiquette ( "always fight for the restaurant bill") to how to park my car.
2. I keep quiet, but feel rage and annoyance build up
3. They point out more things (I should eat less sweets. My sleeve is folded funny. How old am I, 5?)
4. The annoyance builds up to a point where I stop listening to anything else they try to say to me and I look like an angry person.

Luckily I could't get the "everything you experience in the world is just your projection" idea out of my head, so I was able to back off a bit from my attachment to my emotions, and kept listening to what they were saying. Turns out when I listen to people talk with an open mind, I hear different things than when I listen while feeling angry/hurt/annoyed.  What I heard was that everyone else in my family was also suffering when others would not behave as they expected their projections of how the world should be. And oh my, their projections of the world are so wildly different from my projection, with dramatically different rules and etiquette (none are set by current law; some are even out of date with current social trends in society). When they try to tell me what to do, it's just them on autopilot mode as well, thinking I need all the guidance I can get as the youngest kid, not because they actually know everything better than I do. I have the freedom to listen and not react, and I am not required to do everything as they say.

I guess the workshop was useful after all. Maybe meditation on the "I" for 30 minutes had helped too, even though I had thought I failed to meditate at the time :)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Ashtanga yoga practice report

Kurmasana and supta kurmasana are not my favorite poses among the Primary series. I feel pretty ridiculous, not to mention trapped in these two poses.  In martial arts, one of the major joint lock techniques is the "arm bar" -- locking of the elbow.  The idea is to apply pressure to your opponent's straight arm, about 2-3 inches above the elbow, pushing down while forcing the forearm to go in the opposite direction of how the elbow is supposed to bend normally.  When applied correctly, I've been told it only takes about 7 pounds of pressure to break the arm (don't quote me on this one). The first time I tried kurmasana, I felt like I was essentially giving myself a double arm bar using the weight of my own legs. Can you hear me scream "Panic!" and "Dislike!" in my head?  I guess the upside is that if I ever decide that I hate my arms so much I don't want them any more, I've now learned the perfect yoga pose to break them off, without the need for any external help! Hooray?

Supta kurmasana is even more ridiculous. I guess there is no longer an arm lock component (since we can bend our knees) so at least this pose doesn't scream "danger" to me. However, as if having my arms stuck under my legs do not make me feel trapped enough, I'm supposed wrap my arms around my elephant-sized legs and hippo-sized arse and clasp my fingers behind my back?  Just in case I can still manage some sort of faint breathing, I now have to hook my feet together at the ankle and try to put them over my head, so my face can be pushed further into the mat and cut off all air sources? Nice. A yoga pose for self-suffocation.

As you can imagine, I don't practice these two poses at all outside of class. Okay that's not true. I've tried them at home but felt ridiculous, or rather, labeled them ridiculous and hence felt that way.  We don't really do these 2 poses in class that often, but whenever we do them, my teacher often likes to come over, adjust my shoulders, try to stuff my arms further under my legs, and then walk behind me trying to get my hands to bind behind my back, with no success. With my face pressed into the mat, I can only manage a muffled whimper rather than a formal complaint.  This situation brings up in my mind an image of myself as a helpless turkey being stuffed and tied up, and I burst into laughter at the silly image. Well... the pose doesn't really permit me to laugh out loud, so imagine the whole stuffed turkey vibrating from stifled giggles. Sigh...  I must be the most ridiculous looking yogi in the classroom.

How I picture myself in supta kurmasana (minus the garnishes)
Anyways, with this much negative feelings towards these poses, I figured I won't experience much improvements with them any times soon. Surprisingly, at practice the other day, I felt that my heels could come off the ground briefly in kurmasana, with no pain on my elbows! Actually I've always experienced no pain with my elbows; I just imagined they would be painful if I applied more pressure to my arms with my legs. Again the teacher came to try to bind me in supta kurmasana, and this time, my fingers touched! Nope I have not lost any weight. Perhaps my legs have become squishier?

After class I went to the teacher to get my acknowledgement like a good golden retriever, and he said he was glad that prasarita padottanasana B and C have been helping me getting into the pose (by opening up the chest and shoulder muscles). What?! I never realized the connection between those poses and supta kuramasana! Sneaky Ashtanga system.. helping me improve in poses I dislike without me actually practicing them. Let this be a warning to you all: if you keep doing the entire Ashtanga primary series, regardless of your current flexibility levels, you'll accidentally get better at poses that you've never planned to master!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tibetan meditation (1)

I attended a Tibetan meditation class over the weekend because I know next to nothing about Tibet, and wondered how Tibetan lineages differed from Indian lineages of yoga, meditation, and Buddhism. I was also curious about what kind of meditation technique would make Tibetan monks the "happiest people on Earth". It appears that between the 11th and 14th centuries, the Tibetans translated most of the available Buddhist texts at the time into Tibetan. Some of the original Sanskrit Buddhist texts were subsequently lost during various wars; hence a lot of these lost works survive only in Tibetan translation. Therefore Indian Buddhism/yoga and Tibetan Buddhism/yoga essentially came from the same lineage.

Previously I tried to do some internet research about Tibetan Buddhism and got super confused about all the scandals of various Tibetan leadership figures, strange creatures worshipped by various sects, bizarre rituals of secretive Tibetan monks, and disagreements between different Tibetan sects. I'm glad this teacher was able to cut through all these complications and instead introduced to us some simple concepts from the Tibetan teachings that can help us with our disappointments and anxieties about life.

The teacher, Reema Datta, introduced us to the Four Powers:

1. The Power of Truth

Recognizing that the world is just our mental projection. What we perceive as something bad happening to us is merely a result of what we did in the past (ie. bad karma from perhaps a few life times ago).

So, if we want to stop bad karma from propagating, there are steps to help us out. Step 1: identify something negative we have done recently (eg. arguments with a loved one; cutting someone off in traffic; failure to keep a promise with a friend, etc).

2. The Power of Regret

Sincerely regret this negative action. Don't get all guilty, just honestly recognize it as a negative action that we shouldn't have done and wouldn't like if other people do it to us.

3. The Power of Resolve

Promise ourselves not to do this again, for a realistic amount of time that we can actually achieve, like: I will not argue with my mom for 3 days. Why 3 days? Because realistically I might break this promise if I set anything longer, and that will cause more bad karma for me.

4. The Power of Action

Dedicate an action to "burn off the bad karma", eg. an asana practice, or clean the gigantic pile of dishes in my sink, or vacuum the whole house. Mindfully set the intention, and then perform the action with the dedication in mind.

This to me sounds like the Buddhism version of a Catholic confession, except we are confessing to ourselves; what holds us accountable are consequences of karma in the future rather than an eternity in hell. In addition to the four steps, the teacher said we could ask a higher being to help us out. This higher being could be Jesus, Allah, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, our favorite grandpa -- anyone we regard very highly and look up as a role model. She asked us to visualize this "higher being" in our mind when we make our confessions and think our regrets. Then imagine this higher being agreeing to help us out.

Last year when this teacher led this negative karma burning session, she led it in a way that I actually saw (with my closed eyes) a white light and a holy-looking being nodding at me. That was seriously a cool experience. I finally understand why some people are so devout with their religions. A acquaintance of mine said when she was praying at church one day, she saw Jesus appearing in her mind, asking her to follow him. She bursted into tears, and since then has decided to become a nun. I would never have believed her if I hadn't gone through this experience myself. That being said, if this visualization happened to me when I was going to church at a younger age, I'd still be a Christian now.

This year for some reason my mind wasn't as settled at the workshop so I couldn't get into "the zone". Some people are very suggestible and can easily be hypnotized. For me it's much tougher because I am so skeptical. But in "the zone", somehow the brain relinquishes control to someone else's voice, and whatever that person suggests, the person complies. It's quite a nice feeling, especially when the voice is asking the brain to relax the body, to visualize a loving holy being surrounded by white light, and to feel security, bliss, joy, pure happiness. My brain was like "O-K! Let's make it happen." I wonder why we can't easily self-hypnotize to induce this kind of experience. Perhaps the consciousness doesn't like it when the subconsciousness goes off and creates these imaginary things so it normally suppresses it. Perhaps it's a skill that just requires a lot of practice to make it happen. I never took Psych 101 so I don't really know how the subconsciousness works.