Monday, April 25, 2011

At ease with the present state of being

I am very content with my life right now.

I was going through my old journals/diaries and the basic theme that kept occurring over and over again are negativity and complaints. My life isn't actually dramatically better now than before. It was just that I focused my energy on dwelling on the negative aspects of people, events and state of things. My intention was to pick out the bad bits and make improvement or eliminate them completely from my life, as if it's possible to eliminate all annoyance in life.

Yoga's very simple teaching of "impermanence" - good and bad things enter and leave us throughout our lifetime, whether we like it or not - saved me from my habit of focusing on the negative and being stubbornly unhappy for a prolonged period of time with anything that annoys me. It's incredible that such a simple realization of what should be an obvious fact has changed my fundamental way of viewing life. It has made me a lot less anxious, uneasy, and angry in general. I still get mad when people take advantage of me or misunderstand me, but I get over them a lot faster now - by faster I mean within several days rather than weeks/months, This alone has significantly improved my quality of being.

Initially, I mistakenly thought that by immersing myself into yoga teachings, buddhism and meditation, I would be able to get myself together and immediately become an organized, efficient being, able to focus on my work, stop forgetting where I put my keys, be able to inspire others like my yoga teachers have inspired me, hugely improve my relationships with my friends and family, eat healthy and lose all the unwanted weights, basically change myself in the direction towards becoming a perfect human being.

I look around my room right now and it's still a mess. I am still a hopeless procrastinator (was hoping to get some schoolwork done this Easter long weekend and I've accomplished zilch so far). On the surface I still look like I don't have all my marbles together and am struggling to figure out what to do with life.

The big difference is that I am no longer constantly feeling anxious about my current state of being. When I stop obsessing about my own insecurity, I start to recognize restlessness and anxiety on other people's faces. It's like I've had spider webs pulled over my eyes my entire life and only now have they been cleared. Almost everyone around me experience anxiety and uneasiness at least several times a day!  How could I not have seen that before! That's why people crave caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, pathologically check email on their iPhones every 5 minutes, stick earphones in their ears whenever they are not talking to someone or watching a screen of some sort, make nervous jokes if there's a silence for more than a few seconds, do crosswords/read on Kindle if they have more than 2 minutes of free time. I'm not saying these activities are good or bad; It's just that for the first time in my life, I am starting to notice the flash of unease on people's faces right before they proceed to do any of the above mentioned things. I used to think that people just get bored easily and need constant external stimulations. Now I see that people are uncomfortable with just "being", so we try to drown out that uneasiness with chemical substances and external stimulations. The thing is most of us don't realize why we do what we do.

No wonder we need yoga and meditation so badly as a society. People are initially attracted to the asanas/work out/physical stretching aspect of yoga, but our neurosis/anxiety are alleviated as a result. I thought meditation was meant to increase concentration and thus be more efficient at work/school, but I now realize it is helping me to be  more at ease with my current state of being, whether I'm zoning out, late for an appointment, being ripped off by my phone company, noticing a guy masturbating in public while staring at me (that happened yesterday, gross!), having shooting pain right after I bang my knee on a coffee table corner, etc etc.

The realization of impermanence, the body tension release from asanas, the nerve calming effects of deep breathing, and the inspiring demonstration of patience and care from yoga teachers have helped me become more peaceful. I wonder what will help other people ease their anxiety. It doesn't seem like the same formula alleviates everyone from their anxious minds. Yes, I'm saying I notice anxiety in many fellow yogis. There are some who seem to have taken on an addictive approach to yoga practice, acting all frazzled if they miss a class, or even taking 3-4 classes a day -- I'm not sure if they're trying to get sufficient work out (in which case they should probably go pick up a more cardio-intensive sport) or if they're trying to triple/quadruple their blissfulness. In any case, I should 1) continue working on my own internal calmness and 2) learn to be more at ease with other people's uneasiness.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ashtanga practice with a gimpy leg

So I went to Ashtanga practice yesterday, my right leg already feeling way better than Monday. I had to modify my triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana as well as all poses involving half and full padmasanas. For vinyasas, instead of crossing my legs and hopping back, I swung both legs to the right side and walked back to plank, and for jump forward I swung both legs to the left (instead of jumping). I looked and felt like I was doing some funky break dancing move. The day before I could barely hold weight in my right warrior lunges, but yesterday my lunges were much better. So the only things bugging me now are full knee bending (calf touching hamstring) and extreme internal rotation of leg.

Modified primary series felt kind of bleh... I'm at a point where I don't easily feel a stretch, except maybe hamstrings. Even with the hammies I feel like it's only a matter of time before I stop feeling an intense stretch in the tendons and muscles. I've been told before (not by a yoga teacher) that I have longer ligaments than average people, hence I find it hard to feel a stretch in my muscles even though my joints have been pushed to their limits. I always feel my muscles need a good stretch; I'd love it if I could tighten all my ligaments by a few millimeters (not really possible without surgery).

My mom mentioned to me that I seem kind of addicted to exercising. Hmm... yah, I guess I do appear that way, compared to those who consider a 30min walk or a 10min run on treadmill once or twice a week as adequate work out. I admit I don't frequently do girly stuff like baking, cooking, crafting, sewing, knitting, scrap-booking, finger nail painting, spas, etc. I feel for me, the "rewards" for practicing yoga far exceed any of the above mentioned activities. I'm just glad it's possible to still do some yoga with a gimpy leg. Hopefully next week I'll be 99% back to normal.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I smashed into a tree - test-driving yoga fitness in the big mountains

I've been doing nothing but yoga for the past year or so. This weekend, I went snowboarding with friends who are way better skiiers/boarders than I am, so I really had my limits pushed. For those who are not familiar with downhill skiing and snowboarding, the appeal of such a sport is similar to the adrenaline rush obtained from car or motorcycle racing, except you need to balance your body on either one or two pieces of waxed wooden/fiberglass boards with metal edges. There are people who ask me why I love snowboarding so much. Well,

1) I love nature.

2) It's fascinating that I can go from top to the bottom of a mountain, thousands of feet high, in less than an hour, simply by strapping my feet to a piece of wooden board. It's a mind-blowing concept.

3) Even though gravity does most of the work in bringing me down the hill, different types of terrains and snow textures make it infinitely challenging to stay upright on the board. Incredible balancing act is required; strong knees and legs are needed to maintain control of the board; and for someone like me who falls a lot, having to constantly push myself back up to standing makes snowboarding a full-body work out :)

Spending a day on the snowy mountain makes me feel so blessed to be me!

Here are my thoughts regarding how much yoga has prepped me for this snowboarding season:

1) Yoga has helped strengthen my arms and core so that even though I fell about a million times a day, I could still manage push myself upright from the ground whether I had my ass on the ground (Purvottanasana anyone?) or my face on the ground (chaturanga and vinyasas in general). I definitely noticed an improvement from previous years of snowboarding, where I would have no strength left to push myself back up in the latter half of the day.

2) Ashtanga yoga asks us to back off with the intensity when we have to start mouth breathing. The purpose of breathing in and out strictly through the nose is to generate prana. The bandhas serve to "lock" the prana and minimize their escape from the body. It makes me feel revitalized rather than exhausted after each yoga practice.

Yoga serves to strengthen and heal the body, so it does provide us with a base fitness good for health and longevity. However, out on the big mountains, where it's me + waxed board versus mother nature, ashtanga practice alone doesn't quite provide enough cardiovascular endurance for me to keep up with my friends. When I got stuck in deep powder, I was mouth-breathing pretty heavily when trying to dig myself out, and my heart was pounding way harder than it has for a long time (imagine you're a few feet deep in the snow, trying to push yourself back up to standing, except no matter where you push down, your arms go right through a foot of snow).

Conclusion: Yoga is great for overall mental and body health, but if I want to keep up with my ultra-fit friends and continue my recreation of going down tall snowy mountains using a wooden plank as a transportation device, I will probably have to step up my exercise/fitness scheme this summer.

3) I usually stay on wide groomed runs and avoid trees for fear of running into them. However my skilled friends love to work on their maneuvering skills within trees. To push my limits I decided to join them, and lo' and behold, I smashed into a tree on the last day (luckily not the first day). Of all the ways you can smash into trees (head-first, face-first, body-first, shoulder-first, hip-first,  jamming my arm into the tree, etc), all of which could result into a broken body part or an ugly surface bruise, my collision was quite optimal - my right outer thigh was charlie-horsed by the tree. Given how meaty and fatty my thighs are, it really was the safest way to collide with a tree (not that I did this on purpose).

If I weren't so into yoga then it would have just been a painful experience. But now that I'm obsessed with internal sensations of the body and an anatomy geek, I found it to be a fascinating learning experience.  My friend asked me if I was okay. Unwilling to admit weakness, I claimed I was fine, and somehow managed to make it all the way down the mountain by putting most weight on my left leg (luckily the dominant/steering leg). There was a dull pain when I first collided with the tree, and then I found my body took over some of the controls. I tried to figure out what movements would be okay and what would aggravate my right thigh, and turned out that besides putting weight on it, twisting my body to the left would make it painful. Luckily going down the mountain goofy (left leg back, right side of body pointing downhill) does not require me to twist my body to the left at any point. Nevertheless, I could feel my muscle fibers (especially in the left leg) automatically acting differently trying to avoid full engagement of the right quadriceps. When I finally took off my snowboard at the end, I noticed I couldn't even walk properly without a limp (straightening the leg completely or bending it more than 90 degrees would aggravate pain). Don't worry, I was still capable of limping my way to the car, carrying all my snowboard equipments, and my friends barely noticed it.

Ashtanga will not be possible for a couple of days but hopefully I should be back in (yoga) business by the end of this week. I'm thankful for my friends for encouraging me to push my limits; otherwise I'd probably still be stuck on beginner green/blue runs never attempting anything more difficult. I'm thankful I have a healthy body to try out incredible/crazy activities. I used to wonder why I push myself so hard. Now when I get sick or injured, I am reminded to live to my body and mind's full potential, because I can. If I were born a really sick person, I'd live my life to the fullest of the sick body's capability, so why hold back and be safe when the healthy body is capable of so much more?  There will no doubt be a point in life when I will not be able to attempt these activities any more, but that time is definitely not now.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ashtanga practice... finally doing (almost) the full Primary series!

Ashtanga practice update in point form:

- Question: does anyone else find it difficult to hold up the arm in utthita parsvakonasana B? The arm just feels insanely heavy and my shoulder burns in this pose. I kept expecting it to go away as my shoulder becomes stronger but it's still there after many months of practicing the full pose.

- Prasarita Paddottanasana C: I thought normal human beings are not meant to actually touch their hands to the ground, or something would tear in the shoulders; but my teacher got my fingers to touch the ground with slow but steady pushing after 5 breaths. So okay, with someone pushing on my arms this can happen. But after a few assists I suddenly found myself being able to do this without assistance. Freaky!

- Mari D: left side binding is totally inconsistent (some days I get it and other days I don't); no idea why

- Kurmasansa: heel lift is consistent, but holding for 5 breaths feels impossible. I aim for 2 breaths and then just give up

- Supta kurmasana: my teacher said when he first learned this pose, he felt pain/discomfort in the upper sternum near the collar bone area. I said I wasn't feeling it when I first started practicing this pose. I'm feeling it now! Does this mean I'm getting closer to achieving the actual pose?

- Garbha pindasana: not happening unless I lose a few pounds of meat on my thighs. I have NOT lost any weight since I started yoga! Does this mean I have to start dieting?

- I just started doing the rolls (like 2 weeks ago). Can't even get all the way around in 9 moves so there's no way I'll be able to pull off 5 rolls. I'll stick with 9 (or 10) for now.

- Teacher still hasn't taught chakrasana yet; I searched a few Youtube videos today and am going to try to learn it on my own (I'm really impatient) By the way, do non-Ashtangis call urdhva dhanurasana -> chakrasana? It was not that easy to find actual chakrasana transition videos.

- In place of no chakrasana, teacher tried to teach me padmasana jump-backs today. I started laughing uncontrollably when I heard the instruction "make cleavage with your elbows" so I was unsuccessful with this move.

- Just learned setu bandhasana today. Definitely feels weird. Oh well, new pose to work on!

- Utpluthih: I can lift off the ground for a few breaths now. Exciting!!

I once had a massage therapist who pushed his forearm hard on my back and ran it all the way down the spine (perpendicular to spine). Lots of cracks and pops were generated from this technique, which was kind of scary, but afterwards the back felt awesome. I could use that chiropractic adjustment again right about now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Meditation progress

I rolled out of bed and tried to meditate this morning, for a grand total of .... drum roll....  15 minutes (sigh). Did I say meditate? What I meant was I sat upright for 15 minutes with my eyes closed. There was no meditation going on there even though that was the intention. More experienced meditators have said that it's easier to meditate in the morning, when the body is stiff and the mind is clear. For me, it's the other way around. It's as if instead of dreaming, my thoughts that are supposed to be in dreams are triggered the moment I wake up. Plus it's not even the thoughts the bug me the most. It's the fact that I can't sit still. All my body parts feel creaky in the morning. I can't hold a straight back, body parts seem grumpy and not really under the control of my brain yet. Neither my body nor my mind wants to be in a sitting position.

What about doing some yoga warm up before sitting in the morning? Tried that. I did some sun salutations before settling down onto my meditation cushion. That made it worse. I craved to do a whole yoga sequence instead of sitting.

Things are different at night before bed time, especially if I just came back from a yoga class. All my nadi channels (meridians?) feel open, allowing my breath to flow freely absolute ease. I don't feel any kinks in my body (guess they were all taken care of during yoga). My back has no trouble holding the spine straight; I can actually sit happily for 30-60minutes. Scary part is, I can actually sit with alertness happily even if it's 12am.

This is going to be a problem if/when I sign up for Vipassana retreat, when meditation starts at 4:30am and we're supposed to go to bed at, what? 9 or 10pm?

I was reading this article called "Can Meditation Be Bad for You?" by Mary Garden. She mentioned that  she used to meditate a lot (went on 5 Vipassana retreats.. must have had a lot of free time) and had experienced a lot of hallucinating experiences from it. At some point she finally gave up seeking for enlightenment and "returned to worldly life", when she also gave up on meditation. She also talked about cases where people became psychotic and/or committed suicide after long meditation retreats, which at first scared me a little (would I hallucinate and want to commit suicide after my Vipassana retreat?!?! Garden did mention that a questionnaire was implemented by the Vipassana retreat organizers to try to prevent further suicides and epilepsy-like episodes at retreats, but she questioned the effectiveness of the questionnaire (as a safety guard).

So I googled some more, and found forums with comments of frustrated people complaining they got rejected by Vipassana retreat organizers when they answered honestly on the retreat application that they perform erotic reiki massages for a living and use a lot of psychedelic drugs recreationally. Oh I laughed my ass off reading these comments. I think I'll be okay left alone with my brain and minimal external stimulations for 10 days, even if I probably won't be able to sit still for long in the mornings.

This quote by Arthur Chappel was mentioned in the article:

"Many meditation practitioners have complained of difficulty doing simple arithmetic and remembering names of close friends after prolonged meditation. The effect is rather like that of Newspeak's obliteration of the English language in George Orwell's 1984."

Hmm.. okay I originally started meditating to build focus and I didn't realize there would be this side effect. However, I wish somebody warned me before I signed up for grad school that spending too much time thinking about research questions may result in extreme absent-mindedness... effects include forgetting where I place my keys all the time, frequent occurrence of forgetting to place the milk back into the fridge before heading out to school, falling asleep in the afternoon and sleeping past the time I'm supposed to meet friends for dinner, started reading 5 different books but never able to finish any of them, etc.  If you take a close look at a large group of professors you'll see that some of them have forgotten to brush their hair, or how to interact with ordinary people (ie. people who don't speak academic-babble). Some of them have this absent look in their eyes not much different from long-term meditators. I guess the difference is that the professors are madly processing a million thoughts on their research question (or grant applications) at all times, while the meditators are keeping their minds as free of cluttered thoughts as possible.

I set out to meditate so my brain can be "clutter-free" and be focused on a few important matters at hand, without forgetting to brush my hair or lose my keys every day. Now it seems like it's not possible. If I meditate too much I'll lose my arithmetic skills (gasp! I need that for my analyses!) What if I keep it down to only 15 minutes a day? Would that help with anything? Give me a year to work on it and I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Yoga is not a synonym for stretching!!!!

I have a bunch pretty fit friends who bike, run, hike, swim, run marathons, compete in triathalons, rock climb, kick box, ski at a competitive level, lift heavy weights, you name it. When I told them I've switched from mix martial arts to yoga, to them I sound like I've gone from an abled-bodied person to a wheel chair- bound granny. I notice they way they see look at me, they manner they talk to me have subtly transformed. Some of them would gingerly ask me, "Is yoga enough of a work out for you?" When I replied "yes", that seemed to only confirm their suspicions that I've dropped 10 fold in my fitness level. It seems like they longer have common topics to chat with me. I've "gone to the dark side". To make me feel better, when I meet up with some of these friends, they would tell me, "Hey, I did some yoga this morning. It felt great!" Or, "I try to do some yoga after my gym workouts now; I can see it's good for me."

What the heck am I supposed to answer? Yes people - stretching is good for you - especially in the morning and after exercising. But just because you did a few stretches that somewhat resembled some sort of yoga poses (and I bet you probably held them for less than 5 breaths.. did you even breath while you stretched?) does not mean you were "doing yoga". Even if that's about as much "yoga" as you're ever planning to do, fine. But please don't assume that simple stretching is all I do in my yoga practice.

There was a guy who told me he would like to try a yoga class with me but he's afraid he would get bored. Hmm.. I've never heard of anyone who died of boredom from ONE yoga class. When I asked him why he would feel bored (if he thinks the poses would be too easy - if he has zero attention span and canNOT manage to focus on his breath), there was no clarification. Fine, I won't force anyone to endure the hardship of boredom if one feels so strongly about it.

Then there are those who tell me yoga is boring stretching that does not even count as a warm up, but, hey, they've heard of HOT yoga - now THAT's something challenging! Yes yes, hot yoga is great for type A sporty people who are scared of stretchy peace-talking chanting meditation yoga. Why don't you actually try one class out? I'll even suck it up and go to a Bikrams class with you! And no, hot yoga is not the best type of yoga for improving flexibility, because your flexibility only temporarily improves in the heat -- try Yin and Ashtanga! And you need to stick with it! ONE class will not open up your hips permanently!

Can you tell I'm frustrated today? :P  Guess I'll keep on working on my utplutih, where I noticed observable improvements in my arm strengths over the past year, versus the crap push ups I've been doing with my friends for years which got me so far but didn't help me do proper chaturangas when I first started yoga.

Inhale... breath in fresh air and happy thoughts. Exhale.... let go of anger and judgement. I feel better now, thanks for asking :)

Taking Sharath's led class through live stream

I learned about this Sharath's led class on livestream through Claudia's blog post . I wasn't gun-ho on doing the class but I did set the alarm clock just for the heck of it (you have no idea how many mornings I have unconsciously switched off the alarm, went on sleeping and ended up late for school). I didn't think I'd wake up for it but turned out I did (3:30am west coast time!) Being somewhat lazy (understandable at this ungodly hour of the night), I just wanted to turn on the computer to see a bit of the streaming video then head back to bed.

I got to the website at around 3:27am. The screen was still just a Jois Yoga logo but the audio was on already. I was hearing excited background chattering in the NYC yoga room. Somehow this got me really excited too. I felt like I was participating in some epic event. Knowing that there must be some other hardcore Ashtangis in other parts of the world following this streaming video in their own homes at the exact same time made it feel special too.

Then at 3:30am, the visual came online. There was the smiley Sharath, sitting in padmasana on a high chair, addressing a roomful of eager looking yogis. I just realized I've never taken a Primary series class with anyone other than my teacher! Can I even follow this class? Will there be technical difficulties with the streaming? Turned out I was way too much of a worrywart. There was zero technical problems with the streaming; multiple-cameras provided different views of the yoga room, which was awesome. Sharath counts way slower than my teacher (which made this led class tough at times) and offered almost no instructions on how to get into any of the poses, but I was fine most of the way through, besides the stuff I can't do yet of course. Overall it was a super cool experience and I have learned a lot, which made it an experience well-worth the suffering from lack of sleep the rest of Friday.

In my class I'm always staring at people's backs or staring at the wall if I'm at the front row. This was the first time I got a front view of a primary series practice. Also, my observation of Ashtanga practice have been restricted to either beginner practices (most people in my class have been practicing for less than 2 years) or expert practices (demos from my teacher, plus Richard Freeman and Kino McGregor DVDs, who are all super bendy and nearly perfect in all their poses). I didn't have a reference point of what intermediate level practices looked like until today.  I was amazed that almost the entire room could bind in Mari D and get into supta kurmasana (or at least people in the first few rows whom the camera focused on). I really enjoyed watching different variations of vinyasas: how most people, or at least ppl in the front rows, had no trouble with the jump throughs. It was also cool to see some of the super strong people who could hold a high utplutih through the slowest counting I've ever experienced, but were not able to do all the poses perfectly (again, I had no reference point until now).

Here are a few things I have learned from participation in this led class:

1. It's not necessary to tie my hair up and pin them back with 50 bobby pins, or wear body-squeezing Lululemon yoga-wear to prevent all the jiggly parts from hanging out while doing yoga. I was in my loose pajamas and was still able do the practice, albeit having uncombed bed hair in my eyes the whole time. Now I'm not going to show up to class looking like I just rolled out of bed, but it's cool to know that technical sweat-wicking clothing is not absolutely necessary for yoga (sweaty t-shirt still interfered with some of the binding poses though, but I couldn't really bind for most poses at this hour anyways).

2. If I don't put 100% effort into it, the primary series is, surprisingly, not an insanely tiring practice, especially if I skipped all the arm balancing poses, hooray! (I was too sleepy to pull them off). No wonder I always walk out of my yoga classes feeling utterly exhausted while some fellow yogis look like they've barely broke a sweat. While I do think I need to ease up a bit, I'm happy with the quick progress I've made in this practice. I figure once I get over the initial muscle-building pains, chaturagas, navasanas and utplutih will eventually feel less like self-torturing moves right?

3. I was surprised how much people fidget during savasana. One woman even refused to do it at all. She just rolled up her mat and sat cross-legged instead. My teacher always says, "Resist the urge to fidget  around during savasana". I took it to mean that we shouldn't even wiggle into a more comfortable flat back lying pose, which is kind of tough, but now I see that people actually roll around and do all sorts of major limb movements, very obviously not emptying their minds in this pose.

4. I have so much respect for Sharath and all the Ashtanga teachers. I can't believe Sharath's been doing this almost all of his life. Takes a lot of commitment to just count for people day in and day out. I originally had the plan to just watch the video instead of doing the class but I ended up doing the series because it was so boring to do nothing and watch, at least for the first half of the series. The second half was more interesting because starting at Bhujapidasana I began to see a lot of variations in how people got into the poses and the poses themselves. I also noticed how Sharath kept on scanning the room with his eyes the whole time, even while he was supporting someone in a pose.

5. There was a petit young women in blue pants who didn't seem to have as much strength as everyone else in the room to do all the poses, but eagerly kept up anyways, which I found admirable. In a roomful of yogis who all seemed to be able to pull off sirsasana, she stood out as the only person who kept kicking up with one leg to get up to a headstand. Now, if I were a beginner (I still have trouble with consistent headstands actually, but I've been taught never to kick up), I'd be pretty intimidated about getting Sharath's assistance, especially among a roomful of advanced yogis. However, this girl seemed to be totally ready for Sharath when he finally walked over to bring her into a headstand. After the practice, the girl walked up the front and cuddled up to Sharath while he was giving his closing lecture; that was when I finally saw her face and realized who she was and how young she was.. Sharath's cute little girl is perhaps only about 10 years old? Kudos to her for completing the 90 minute practice!

Anyways, I probably wouldn't do it again next Friday, but I'm glad I woke up and tried out yoga with the guidance of the head of the Ashtanga Institute in the middle of the night :)  Oh, one more little thing for my personal reference: karnapidasana felt especially difficult at what was it, 4:30am?  Maybe I was too sleepy to command my body to move properly, LOL. Maybe this means I'm not ready for Mysore, India yet :P

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thoughts on the pursuit of spirituality

I know it's not a popular topic among my regular blog readers, but I can't help it: Matthew Remski of Yoga 2.0 wrote a brilliant article questioning spirituality at Elephant Journal, which elegantly put together so many issues I've been thinking about lately. Please feel free to skip my brain-dump until I start reporting my struggles with supta kurmasana again :)  (Maybe I'll actually get this pose by the time I finish dumping my brain?)

Remski talks about Jill Bolte Taylor's story of "A Stroke of Insight", where this Harvard trained neuroanatomist had a massive hemorrhaging stroke that damaged the left brain region, which governed language ability, logic, time, and the boundaries of the body. Instead of fear of death and excruciating pain (or maybe on top of that?) she experienced euphoria and oneness with the surrounding. Remski compared her experience to that of Geshe Michael Roach, who also seemed to have experienced out-of-body type euphoria through persistent meditation practice. A third case was Charles Buell Anderson who seemed to have some sort of "wireless connection to god". It seemed that he obtained spontaneous ecstasy and joy by "actively destroying left-brain logic and grammar". For all three of them, being boundary-less seemed euphoric, while coming back to the body appear to be of great suffering. Remski puts the three cases together and asks if these people actually temporarily achieved samadhi or made actual connections to a greater deity, either through an accidental stroke, or using rigorous mental exercises? Alternatively, is it possible that the rigorous meditation exercises served to dull (or even damage, similar to a stroke) the control of the logical left brain, allowing the right brain to go wild, in which case, these people became temporarily delusional rather than achieving enlightenment?

Awhile ago I read The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures by Nicolas Wade, which hypothesizes that spirituality is an evolved biological trait that helped bind society together. People who developed spiritual tendencies were more likely to believe that there's a greater purpose for living and were willing to stick together and work as a team. Those who were more willing to work as a group were more likely to survive than the nonspiritual loners and therefore the spirituality trait got passed on down the generations to today.

Remski calls for scientific research on this topic. Now I'm no neuroscientist, but it's possible to get experimental support for the case of left brain suppression. If we can can pinpoint the areas of the left brain that gets suppressed and areas of the right brain that gets activated consistently when advanced meditation experts experience euphoria, and can reproducibly induce samadhi in lay people, then it's strong support that spirituality is just the product of messing with the brain. I'm not saying the experiment is easy or clear-cut, and I have no idea if currently technology permits this kind of experiment to be done safely. I'm just saying the hypothesis is testable.

What does this have to do with us, practically? Well, um, if they prove that spirituality is just a by-product of the brain (not with a single experiment of course, contrary to what media likes to report with screaming headlines over "scientists' unanimous conclusion" based on one single scientific paper), but if a series of experiments exploring this issue support the point, then there's going to be major unrest in society. But don't worry; experimental results are never as expected. Experimental design is just as important as the results. Is my perceived samadhi same as your perceived samadhi? Does the brain state of hardcore praying to the Christian God look the same as hardcore Tibetan buddhist meditation, vs Zen Buddhist meditation, vs. Vipassana meditation for that matter? Should researchers focus on brain regions or types of brain waves generated? If the experimental design is flawed then the conclusions are not trustworthy. The experimental results are usually more baffling and introduce more questions than initially anticipated anyway. Then scientists have to struggle to come up with 100 theories to try to explain the findings, and then more studies go on for decades. I've learned the hard way that when one embarks on a scientific journey to hunt down an answer, one could spend the entire career coming up with more questions and never reaching the answer they initially seek even at retirement. I'm not sure if I have the persistence and tenacity to choose this career.

For me, yoga teachings helped me get deeper in touch with my body, and taught me to calm myself down with a few deep breaths whenever I experience anxiousness, as anxiety, anger, fear and all states of mind are impermanent. After a period of yoga I found I could work my anxiousness out of my body and manage to sit still for a period of time without fidgeting. So then I started meditating. Not that I can keep my mind still for more than a few breaths at a time, but I find myself craving to practice meditation more often. I also want to read up more about the other limbs of yoga, to figure out this spirituality thing. Instead of being able to focus and work on my tasks at hand, I just want to spend all of my time practicing more yoga, reading more about yoga, learning more meditation and pranyama techniques. All this because of how good I feel after yoga practices and meditation sessions. Is this any different from sugar addiction? It's not quite as severe as a heroin addiction, but it's an addiction that interferes with daily mundane tasks nevertheless.

Not all advanced meditation practitioners achieve a state like Michael Roach and Charles Buell Anderson. I'm not saying their meditation practice actually damaged their brains. It's a tough struggle to decide how much you want to fit in with the social norm and how much you want to say "the hell with it" and pursue an extreme path to happiness at the expense of people giving you odd looks or calling you coo-coo. It's easy to say we just want to achieve a "balance", but is your balance same as my balance? Why do we pursue anything that we do? They say the pursuit of happiness is what drives everyone to get out of bed in the morning. Sure, some people end up stuck in a job that they hate, in a relationship that's not working, with children that they have to feed by keeping their hated jobs, but initially, we all find a job in order to make us money which is supposed to allow us to buy stuff that will make us happy. We pursue romantic relationships because that's supposed to make us feel loved and whole (or fun and exciting), and we have children because kids are supposed to bring us joy. So when things don't turn out they way they're supposed to, the spiritual teachings remind us that everything is impermanent, be grateful with what we have, and don't base our happiness solely on trying to please other people, etc etc. These teachings on their own help make life bearable, but here you have two gurus who have obtained the psychic power to invoke euphoric states at will! Their spiritual teachings no doubt also help them to not get upset by conventional criticisms towards them.

Sorry for being long-winded again. Basically, should I keep on practicing meditation, pranyama, yoga, chanting and other spiritual activities that are no doubt strengthening the spiritual neuro-pathways in my right brain, knowing that these activities make me happy, at the expense of non-yogi friends distancing themselves from me? Or should I reduce the amount of spiritual pursuit (or happiness brain exercise, if spirituality doesn't actually exist), so I can better relate to my old-time weekend-alcoholic friends, couch-potato friends, iPhone-addict friends and fitness-fanatic friends (as Evelyn discussed in her recent blog post)? If I firmly believed in an Almighty God, and that my existence is to serve and honor God, then there's no question that the pursuit of spirituality trumps all other activities. The biggest problem I have with this way of thinking is that so many religious people swear by this, but they do not constantly inquire within themselves, seriously asking the question: "Would my beloved God really approve of my actions (start a war, condemn people who think differently from myself, etc)?" Oh man, I just realized I can write another post on the topic of human-to-God communication mechanism. I better stop here before I go on for another 10 pages.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Genes, Time, Immortality, and Consciousness

Deepak Chopra discusses genes and DNA with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, Harvard neuroscientis/geneticist.

So I guess consciousness is encoded in the DNA too. Even though the body dies, the genetic message is passes on to the next generation with some recombinations from mom genes and dad genes. Human beings used to be short-lived and had children as soon as we were biologically able to do so. Now it seems like the more educated want less kids (if any) while those without the opportunity or desire to pursue a lot of schooling continue to have many children. Some people say that intelligence is being negatively selected. That doesn't really mean anything because the way it's going (hopefully), more education will become available to more people in the world, so in 30 years maybe university education will be free to everybody in the world. Also, super-smart parents don't necessarily always produce smarter kids (although if they have lots of children than the chances of some of them being super smart might be quite high).

I'm wondering if the DNA that drives some people to keep pursuing further education, to be obsessed with wellness (exercise, yoga, cleansing, life balance, meditation etc) have genes that are so selfish they just want to keep improving themselves and live on forever rather than recombine into the next generation? What I mean is, raising children takes time away from continuous improvement and education of the parent, so these people have lower desire to have kids?

What I'm speculating is totally unscientific (ie. no supporting evidence). I'm just curious because I find it fascinating that I have all these weird thoughts while a lot of people I know just ponder about what they're going to do the next day. If I can have less of these weird thoughts, I might be more productive at work. I do find some yogis with fascinating thoughts too though, and that makes me happy I'm not the only weirdo out there :) I really celebrate those who think differently from the norm.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

What is consciousness?

A conversation topic came up at dinner with geeky science colleagues about a future of uploading human consciousness to a computer or a robot body as a way of living forever. I guess non-yogis and non-dancers -- basically people who are not intimately in touch with their limbs -- still think of their bodies as a vessel that serves to transport the brain from place to place. They think of the organic flesh and blood as a burden and would happily replace them with robotic body parts instead, thinking they will serve as enhancements, allowing them to move faster and better (I am not sure if athletes are willing to take enhanced robotic limbs if it'll improve their performance. I suspect some might).

So, what exactly is consciousness? Can it be separated from the neurons and get "uploaded" into a machine? Before I started yoga I did a variety of sports and exercises for the purpose of health, ie. if I don't exercise regularly then fat will accumulate in my blood vessels; my body will get stiffer and I'll easily injure myself doing simple every-day life activities (eg. carrying grocery, catching a bus, trying to reach something from a high shelf, etc). I guess if physical health is the only reason that we exercise, then replacing our aging flesh and bones with robust machine parts can indeed be a viable option.

But wait a minute, even assuming consciousness can be separated from the body, would my consciousness want to live in a machine? We've evolved to derive pleasure from eating and the human touch. I suppose one can implement artificial tongue and skin (and even the equivalent of sexual sensory organs if you will) on the robot so that pleasure can be maintained, but would life still be the same? Now, as yogis, we have learned to savor the sensations from the inner parts of our body as well: the expansion and of the lungs as we inhale; breath leaving the nostril as we exhale; we have learned to use rhythmic breathing to calm our anxiety and the busyness of our thoughts. Transporting our consciousness to a machine solves the problem of aging bodies, but how does it deal with our messy consciousness and subconsciousness?

I suppose if we can pull consciousness out of the brain, it should also possible to sort out our thoughts before we upload it to a machine. But what would a sorted mind look like conceptually? Would it be like a file cabinet where each thought has been given a label and sorted alphabetically (and by color, by size, plus some other classification scheme)?  Are emotions part of our consciousness? If we remove all of our emotions and feelings would we think more clearly? Would that still be considered as living?

Maybe I've gotten less imaginative, or maybe I'm too caught up on the details, but I can't imagine a good life living inside a machine. I guess if I became quadriplegic then I wouldn't mind getting replacement limbs that my brain can control again. However I'm not sure what total body replacement will "feel" like (am I too attached to my central nervous system and my breath now that I've become a yogi?). The technology of an artificial heart is already available, which means that some people are currently walking around with a machine controlling their blood flow, ie. they live without heart beats. That's such a strange concept to me!

I think people who think that uploading their consciousness to a robot, or even the internet is an appealing idea to extend life may not be intimately in touch with their bodies (which tend to be true for intellectuals and those who are happy with desk jobs as a career). But then again, I am not 80 years old with a broken hip. However, by the time one reaches 80, it's not just the body that deteriorates; the mind deteriorates too, as a result of agin neurons. So, if we want to transfer our consciousness to a medium that's more superior than our organic flesh, is it best to do it when we're in our 20s? But that's when our bodies are at their prime. So... this would be an option only for the handicapped and people who hate exercising and doing sports? Too many streams of thoughts going on in my mind right now.

What are your thoughts on the concept of consciousness? If you can somehow pull it out of your brain and transfer it somewhere else (or into someone else), would you do it?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Gmail Motion

If this technology were real, Google would be contributing to health care in a major way. Everyone would get their 30-min per day of exercise just by answering emails, and all desk job workers would suddenly see a reduction in back and neck pains. Chiropractors and pharmacies would see a drop in their business.

I'm overdue for a yoga class.