Thursday, May 26, 2011

You can re-program any dog

I went on a camping trip with friends this past weekend and got to hang out with their dog, who is the most anxious dog I've ever met. There was one time when I had to watch the dog while my friends went away for about an hour. This dog wailed, whimpered and shivered pretty much the entire time they were gone, no matter how much I tried to pet, rub and reassure the dog that its owners would come back soon. When we went hiking, whenever it sensed a presence of another species of its kind it would go berserk, eyes bulging, barking aggressively, ready to launch at that other dog. We would have to take turns holding our dog down, either holding a death grip on its leash or sometimes even grabbing its snout until the other dog walked out of sight.

This dog came from an animal shelter and my friends suspect that it had a rough time on the streets with other dogs. That's probably why it had abandonment issues and had to act all tough to fend itself against other dogs. My friends take a patient but firm approach raising the dog. Sometimes they get frustrated but they never give up. So far they have gone through a few dog trainers and are starting group lessons for problem dogs soon.  Apparently the dog's behavior has already improved since they first brought the dog home, but they still have a long way to go. One of the trainer told them (paraphrasing a bit here), "With the right techniques and patience, you can re-program any dog."

I felt like I got smacked in the head by an imaginary hand when I heard this. I realized this is what I've been doing to myself the past few years - all these physical exercises that altered my body shape, yoga asanas and pranyama to alter body alignment, tendon/ligament/fascia arrangement, breathing patterns, etc; meditation to alter brain waves/thinking patterns, eating differently to alter the physical body, madly reading yoga/Buddhism philosophies to change the way of my thinking, all of these efforts have been attempts to reprogram myself because I disliked the old me. I hated the way I was brought up, since the upbringing shaped me into someone I despise despite my endless struggles not to obey what my parents ask of me. I have years and years of post-secondary and post-graduate education under my belt, yet I feel I possess about as much self-confidence as a confused teenager. The book knowledge I acquired helped me pass courses and get through exams, but they taught me nothing about real life, society, and humanity. I don't know why I seem to be stuck in an endless personal development vortex, never satisfied about my physical, mental, social, intellectual or professional self. This whole yoga thing seems to be my latest effort in re-programming my negative behavior/thinking patterns and my neurosis. I was kind of hoping it would just help me breath more smoothly, calm my nervous system, and then I could get on with life. But apparently yoga will not fix my broken life. Luckily my life itself is not actually broken; I'm just confused about why I hold so much angst and how I got myself into the position I am in today. Michael Stone describes it much more elegantly than I ever could: I've been living my life with my eyes closed, thinking doing well in school is all I am responsible for, while ignoring how the education system, my parents, relatives, old friends, and my culture have been shaping my way of thinking and acting in a direction that's different from what I intended. With tension in my body released through yoga, and meditation practices getting past my habitual thinking loops, older memories that I have suppressed or thought I have forgotten would occasionally surface at random times of the day, causing emotional turbulence. Sometimes I would burst into tears for no reason in the middle of the day, while going to get groceries or on my way to school.

When my friend's dog is around its owners and other human beings, with no other dogs around, it acts completely happy and relaxed like a normal dog. You cannot tell there is anything psychologically wrong with it. When another dog shows up, it's as if the dog is programmed to go into anxious attack mode. Kind of like how some innocent phrase that my mother says in a casual conversation will send me into an automatic defensive/anger mode, with me scratching my head afterwards at why this is the case. Or how I automatically cower at the presence an unfriendly, rude, and demanding person when I ought to be able to defend myself now as an educated, informed adult.  Looking at the dog, I see that deep-seeded behavioral patterns are deeply ingrained and will take a lot of patience and persistence to be re-programmed. I must have faith that with my eyes now open, my efforts in re-programming myself will help me get past the emotional wounds that I didn't even know I've had.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Discussion of ujjayi breathing, mula bandha and core-centered practice

Sorry this post is a bit all over the place. I always have the urge to talk about 10 things at once and I don't feel like splitting this post into three, so here they are, a whole bunch of topics in one. Feel free to read and comment on only parts of this post.

Kino's video on "Accessing Forward Bends in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series" is a great reference video of the foundations of Ashtanga - the tristana: breath, postures, drishti. She offers excellent explanations of Ujjayi, or rather, "free deep breathing" (3:04 in the video), as well as the mula bandha, and the mechanics of a forward fold. I learned a lot from this video. Some yogis (including me) like to close their eyes during practice. Grimmly also questioned when dristi came about in the traditions. I can't comment on that because I am not familiar with the sutras or the history of yoga (I am not a diligent enough yogi >_<~), but at least Kino cleared up the purpose of the drishi, i.e., the energy goes where our gaze go. So if we look down in our forward folds, we probably bend downwards instead of forwards.

Now for a little bit of controversy. David Robson blogged about how Sharath mentioned at a conference that ujjayi is a pranyama technique to be practiced once a student reaches advanced series and not part of the Primary series asana practice. Say what? I guess there's no name to the breathing we do in Asthanga. The new official name is "free deep breathing (with sound)", like Ujjayi but not actually Ujjayi. This was in the comments section of the blog:

"A student had once asked Guruji if the breath we do during practice is like Ujjayi. Guruji didn't give a clear answer (I picture the Indian head bobble), and so the misnomer was born."

That wasn't too bad unless you're not used to being anal about the correctness of labels.

Now, mula bandha: Michael Stone (a psychotherapist who studied Ashtanga with Richard Freeman, but also studies other styles of yoga, plus he can read Sanskrit) gives his interpretation of mula bandha at about 5:25 in this video: The inner traditions of yoga. I highly recommend watching the whole video by the way. Unlike Kino who went into detail on the anatomy of mula bandha, Michael talked about not squeezing the anus or the pelvic floor, but rather a natural toning of the pelvic floor at the end of an exhale. The "bandha" is not really a lock but a yoking of attention and the feeling of the breath (he describes prana not as the breath itself but a feeling pattern of the breath, a life energy that's associated with the breath) at the end of an exhale. To be honest, I find it hard to focus at the end of the breath (still a beginner), but I understand why he teaches it this way. Mula bandha is probably a pretty subtle engagement, but as a beginner practitioner, it's hard to engage the right amount of muscle fibers, so students were just taught to "squeeze the anus". If you squeeze everything in that general area the mula bandha will be engaged. However like Michael says, it's pretty uncomfortable and students forget to breath. That I agree with from experience. I think with Michael it's free breathing first, the bandha comes later.

In my practice today I experimented with both "general area squeeze" and no squeeze in various asanasa + vinyasas, and found that Michael was correct in that it's not necessary to do the massive anal squeeze to engage the core. Poses that require a lot of core (e.g. utpluthih), muscles in the core area get engaged anyways, otherwise the pose won't happen. Mega-squeezing did actually induce extra unnecessary strains. On the other hand I noticed it was really hard to keep the uddiyana bandha engaged at all times.  I think with more practice I'll be able to engage the right set of muscles; for now I'll go easy with the "mula bandha overs-queezing", and focus on the uddiyana bandha instead.

Nobel wrote two posts on the topic of core-centered practice. My take is that for Ashtanga yoga and utpluthih (probably some other poses too) specifically train for core strength. Jump throughs are not possible without hardcore core engagement. It is totally possible to do a lot of the more basic poses without bandha engagement, e.g. warrior II, tree pose etc. However, no core engagement makes it really easy to get injured. Coming up from a standing forward fold is unsafe when core is not engaged to protect the spine. So is upward facing dog. In fact, my colleagues recently strained their lower backs from doing YogaX (a power yoga sequence in P90X) because Tony Horton didn't emphasize the concept of "sucking in the belly button", a.k.a. core engagement in upward facing dog or coming up from standing forward folds. People love him, and macho people who would otherwise never try yoga in a million years are practicing yoga because of him, so I guess I shouldn't judge. Nobel asked if bandha (core) control is necessary for safe yoga practice, how should beginners approach yoga then, if they start out having little core strength? That's when I think pilates classes come in handy. I do think it's a good idea for people to build some basic core strength through pilates before getting into power / Ashtanga yoga. However, I noticed some people in our studio would only take pilates classes and avoid yoga classes. I had a discussion with a yoga teacher friend who thinks it's because pilates classes offer straight-forward feedback - "feel the abs burning!" whereas yoga requires more body-limb coordination and upper body strength. People who lack upper body strength and who only want the satisfaction of "getting a good work out" minus the frustrations of a learning curve may prefer pilates over yoga.

Anyways, it sounds like I'm becoming totally judgmental, but I just find it fascinating trying to figure out why some people will only do restorative and yin yoga, some will do 2 hot yoga classes in a row every day, some will only do pilates, and others will only do power yoga. Hmm.. and which of these people have the strongest vs. the nicest looking core muscles? :D

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Yoga dizziness

When I first started doing yoga, I started feeling funny things in my body that some yoga teachers couldn't explain to me. I went to a doctor; he did some very basic tests and determined I had no postural hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, or obvious heart problems. He said yoga puts people's body in weird positions, so sometimes these weird things happen. If I keep practicing, the symptoms might go away. If they don't, then I should stop practicing yoga. That last phrase was kind of unsatisfying. I looked at him quizzically and asked, "Really? I started yoga for health reasons and you're telling me to quit yoga if the symptoms don't go away?" He said, "Why yes! If you decide to go sky diving and find out it hurts your back, wouldn't the best and most obvious action be to stop sky diving?" Then he promptly kicked me out of the room with an annoyed look on his face. Hmm, if sky diving gave me backaches, I would definitely try to figure out why, because sky diving is not an activity known for causing backaches, just like yoga is not known for being a health harming activity, besides physical strains caused by doing the asanas improperly or forcing the body into advanced asanas before it is ready for them, but that's not why I went to see the doctor. So I decided very early on to document these funny feelings because I wanted to figure out the causes of these strange sensations, if and when they will go away, and/or if there are remedies for these symptoms.

Here are the list of "funny feelings" I get from yoga:

1: I would get dizzy from continuous deep breathing.

One teacher said it was because my body wasn't used to breathing so deeply and was going into shock. This is probably true. After 1.5 years of practicing, I actually can't proudly tell you I have significantly improved my breathing overall. I can however tell you I am now capable of noticing how poorly I breath outside of yoga class. I remember going to a voice lesson a couple years ago (before I started yoga) and the teacher told me to observe my breath, and I couldn't do it without stopping breathing. Observing = "consciously taking over control of breathing" at the time. Now I can somewhat observe it while it does its thing and my breathing is pretty shallow and choppy if I don't consciously deepen my breaths. And you can only be conscious of your breaths for so long before your mind wanders off to something else again.

2: At the end of class, during cool down and before savasana, when my teacher would make us sit, meditate and observe our bodies (this was not an Ashtanga class), I would be freaked out that my chest, or my mouth, or a foot, or part of my face would go numb and then feel pins and needles. This is probably related to the nervous system not used to deep breathing (but how would I know when I first started?)

3. I would get dizzy and have brief black outs when getting up from standing forward folds.

My teacher told me to breath deeper, same advice that Sharath gave to Claudia ("and drink more water"). Someone else told me to engage my leg muscles more because too much blood or too little blood in the head both can cause dizziness.

4. After savasana, sometimes my legs would still be shaking as I walked from the classroom to the change room. Recently my teacher told me it was probably because the savasana wasn't long enough and my nervous system hasn't fully recovered yet. This is all very speculative and unscientific but I have no idea who if anyone does research on all these phenomena I mentioned and because it's not health threatening, I doubt researchers would get funding to study them.

When I first documented these things my intention was that they would go away, and then my practice would feel awesome and look beautiful and I would live happily ever after. Or I would get bored of yoga and move onto something else. Unexpectedly, because yoga teachers keeps asking us to be internally aware of our bodies, I have become more and more sensitive to body sensations, so even though I don't black out in class any more, I now sense a million other small aches and weirdness in m body both on and off the mat. The most noticeable observation is that my breathing sucks. I've gotten to the point when I can maintain steady long breathing for about 2 poses + vinyasas, then my attention goes elsewhere until I happen to hear my teacher remind us to focus on our breath (which he probably says every 2 minutes). This tends to happen during sun salutations, janu sirsasanas, marichiyasanas, and first 2 of the final 3 closing poses (definitely not during utpluthih). Everything else I don't remember being able to breath smoothly for long. Off the mat I can now often catch myself holding my breath, or feeling anxious, which happens so much more frequently than I realized before I started doing yoga.

I guess the benefit of yoga is to have the ability to do a mental body scan often during the day, and whenever I feel anxious, to catch myself and start breathing deeply. Also, if I can notice body strains when it happens (e.g. poor posture sitting in front of the computer), I can correct myself before it becomes a big enough problem that I need to go see the doctor.

As for breathing, believe it or not I still feel funny when I breath deeply through the nose (oh I used to mouth breath a lot). Maybe a couple more years of yoga and it'll start to feel more normal?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How yoga helps me appreciate my body type

I'm a pretty idealistic (read: unrealistic) girl who spends the majority of her day fantasizing about alternative realities (precisely why I need yoga, Buddhism teachings, and Eckhart Tolle to help bring me back to the "Now"). The body type I dream to possess is tall, slender, lithe, with mile-long model legs and narrow, dainty feet that fit into store display size 7 strappy sandals. Something that looks like this model. Yes, I want to look like a human clothes hanger that may be blown away on a windy day.

In reality, my genetics have given me a long torso, relative short legs (I usually have to hem all pants that I purchase or buy the "ankle length" jeans), large ass, thunder thighs, ultra-wide size 9 feet that cannot fit into half the shoes I try on in stores (most shoes do not have an "extra wide" option). Strappy sandals are out of the question for my feet. Skinny jeans will never be part of my wardrobe. This is quite depressing. Luckily yoga is helping me discover some advantages to aspects of myself I normally despise with vengeance.

Below is a list of body parts that yoga is helping me appreciate.

Short legs - facilitates wrist binding in paschimotanasana C.

I actually would rather have long model legs and never be able to bind in this pose. It's not like any time I have to spend the money to hem my too-long jeans I can just drop to the floor, demo the pose and get a discount. It makes me laugh when people who do have the skinny-jeans ready gorgeous long legs express genuine frustration that they can't do this pose. Seriously, appreciate your gorgeous legs that people admire in awe whenever you're not in an Ashtanga yoga class! But I guess that goes the same for me. I should enjoy the rare opportunity in my life when I can gloat about my ability to bind my wrists as a direct benefit from possessing stubby legs.

Meaty gluts - provides cushioning and facilitates balance for navasana, upavistha konasana b, ubhaya padangusthasana, and urdhva mukha paschimottanasana

My skinny shalamates with tiny bums were complain about tailbone pain in these poses. I tried rolling slightly forward and back, tilting my pelvis in various angles and found myself unable to have my tailbone make contact with ground due to the amount of meat cushioning my derriere. Despite the fact I envy small bums I am very happy not having tail bone pains doing these poses.

Fat calves - facilitates landing after supta konasana. (From this pose to this pose)

I just learned this pose recently. The teacher told everyone to hyperextend their legs and land on their calves. The sounds of everyone else's heels banging against the ground made me and my teacher cringe. This is about the only time in my life I appreciate having fatty calves (and hyper-extendable knees). Normally I try not to look at my calves. If I unfortunately notice them, I stare at them with hatred, secreting wishing my laser-sharp gaze would melt the fat. Alternatively, maybe if I massaged them hard enough the fats would break off and get metabolized. This is wishful thinking by the way.

Thunder thighs - it's a little difficult to come up with reasons to love these things. They serve to hinder kukkutasana and binding in supta kurmasana. Hmm... maybe they make binding in marichyasana C more comfortable (again, cushioning effect)? Forward folds are also more comfy because my belly gets to lay on cushy meat rather than bony legs? Wow, I'm really stretching to make up reasons to love my thighs. Thunder thighs are hard to love.

I'm trying hard to work with the body type I've been given by my genes. My arms will never look good in Kate Middleton's lace-sleeve styled tops, but Michelle Obama arms aren't impossible for me! Not that I really want arms like that; it's just the built is possible for my body type. My mom complains that I exercise too much and look like an athlete (not desirable for Asian women). Well, I simply don't have the skinny Asian body type. I have a choice between 1)long-term starvation, 2) exercising and looking muscular, or 3) not exercising and looking pudgy. Already tried the 3rd option and hated it; never succeeded with starvation (I think I would need 24-hour manned surveillance), so it's number 2 for me! Going to yoga class in a few hours!

p.s. Check out Gisele Bunchen doing Urdhva Dhanurasana. Look at those mile-long legs. She's going to have so much trouble walking her hands all the way to her heels :D :D :D