Thursday, November 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demystifying the Bandhas (with Leslie Kaminoff)

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

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

Yoga conference part I - an unconventional path to healing

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

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

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

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

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