Saturday, December 31, 2011

The effects of yoga

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 Reflections

In 2011 I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Things to think through over the holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

More indulgence in yoga/meditation workshops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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