Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back!

Thoughts after 1 week away from my blog:

- It was tough, but probably wouldn't be as tough as an attempt to leaving Facebook for 1 week
- I ended up doing more tweeting on thoughts on yoga
- I sort of succeeded in resisting to read people's yoga blog, but probably only because I don't have a neat one-stop shop Google Reader set-up
- I couldn't resist going to Elephant Journal to get my "fix" on yoga-related articles
- I saved a little bit of time, but I still found other ways to procrastinate.

Conclusion:
It's not about cutting down blogging time or blog reading time. It's about getting my mind to focus so I don't substitute one time waster for another :P


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Asana progress: my teacher got me to bind in Yoga mudra! I just decided to grab my toe on one side (instead of the usual elbow hugging), thinking the other side will have to wait another 6 months, and then the teacher came and connected my other hand to my other toe, just like that. That was ridiculously easy. Ok maybe not that easy. Maybe I just have high pain tolerance. Actually, it wasn't even painful. I just got a little scared because I thought it should have been painful (something wrong with my injury -> pain feedback system?! Talk about paranoia).

I'm learning that I like to set unfounded artificial boundaries, rules and limits for myself.

"I'll get hurt if I dare to try this pose"
"There's no way I can do this pose because my arms aren't strong enough"
"I can't do yoga two days in a row because my body can't handle it"
"I can't try this activity because it's too challenging for me and my parents wouldn't approve"
"I shouldn't try x because I risk losing a/b/c/d/e/f/g"

There are people out there who need parental / societal / legal restraints or they will harm others or themselves. For me, my own set of rules can be much stricter than the ones enforced by law (or by physiological limitations).

Something to ponder about and try to break free from. I've got the rest of my life to work on this one.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Time to get un-stuck

Happy Super Moon day!



Step 1: Clear brain of negative, turbulent and anxiety-causing thoughts with sound therapy.
Step 2: Get myself a massage appointment to build some happiness and positivity.

These were both unplanned but they happened in that order anyway. An acquaintance of mine is studying to be a massage therapist so I volunteered myself to be practiced on for a discounted price. Super tough favor, I know.  What an awesome friend I am to agree to this arduous endeavor :-) I was expecting nothing more sophisticated than a superficial swedish massage, maybe even some awkward pressure applications that would be more uncomfortable than relaxing. Turned out only a few month into his studies, this friend's skills have already surpassed some of the licensed massage therapists I've previously visited. Score for me! And I want my money back from these licensed professionals, because some of them really didn't put what they learned at massage school into use at my sessions!

After my surprisingly awesome massage session (in which some of my muscles/fascia might have been rearranged/realigned.. so sore right now), I went out and bought myself a meditation cushion set, in preparation for the Vipassana retreat that I plan to do right after I graduate (an odd grad gift to myself, I know). I was planning to get a zafu at this well-known all-things-spiritual store, but on the way there I stumbled upon this other nice little Thai shop where the price of a gorgeous zafu + zabuton set was the same as just a plain zafu at the bigger store. However, I didn't leave empty-handed at the all-things-spiritual-mother-ship store either. I came across a book on-sale called "Stuck - Why We Can't (or Won't) Move on" by Anneli Rufus and bought it immediately.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

"In lands of plenty, in the lap of luxury, in the fast lane, we're stuck doing -- over and over -- things we do not want to do. Stuck in places we do not want to be. Stuck with people we do not want to see. Stuck with stuff. Stuck without enough. What irony. You and I will almost surely never be sold into slavery. Those days are gone. We will not become indentured servants, will not be shanghaied and dragged off to sea, locked in the hold, hands chained to oars. We were not betrothed at age ten. That's stuck.

In all of history, no population anywhere has ever been so free as we.

And yet -- somehow we all feel stuck."

That's what I was feeling half way through grad school, then I came across yoga, was happily distracted for awhile, until I got obsessive wanting to absorb all these new information that I was completely unaware existed before: theories behind each yoga asana, anatomy and psychological effects, the Bhagavad gita, Yoga sutras of Patanjali, etc etc.  When I accidentally came across Tibetan Buddhism, that just opened a whole new can of worms. Given I don't plan to become the next John Friend or Sadie Nardini (I'm not even 1/10 as charming as these yoga super stars), nor do I have the faintest hope of ever coming close to becoming nearly as awesome as Pema Chodron, so why the hell am I trying to perfect my knowledge of all these spiritual teachings again?

I'm trying to get un-stuck. That's why I dove into all this yoga and meditation stuff. Except I got into my old pattern of hungrily trying to absorb all information for the pure sake of acquiring information. I've completely forgotten my original intention and purpose.

The same thing with the Japan nuclear power plant. I got obsessive with information gathering, reading up on experts' explanations of how a nuclear plant works, closing following the progress of the Fukushima workers, as well as all the conflicting analyses of the situation provided by various so-called experts from various countries, patting myself on the back for understanding the basics of nuclear reactor diagram, forgetting that I will neither be able to build a nuclear reactor nor come up with a solution to solve the problem at hand even if I fully internalize every single detail of the over-simplified layman's diagrams provided by the media.

I got stuck and I lost the point of why I do the things I do.

I think that accidentally getting a brain-cleansing and subsequently gaining happiness + positivity with awesome body work provided me the foundation to thinking clearly again. Some fresh ideas came into mind and I've re-gained some motivations.

1. As much I absolutely enjoy reading all of your blogs (they have been the highlights of my day for the past few months), I'm going to have to refrain from reading yoga blogs for awhile. Initial goal = 1 week. Let's not get overly ambitious here :)

2. I'm going to stop blogging for 1 week too and see if I can get more done at school, as well as freeing up more time to do some home cleaning.

There's no way I'm going to cut back on yoga.  3 times a week seems pretty minimally acceptable for maintaining my basic fitness, my prana, and my meditative mind. I will however attempt to eliminate reading any yoga-related writings or watching any yoga-related videos for a week. I will also give my pretty meditation cushion a try.

If this little experiment works out, I will report the details of my success here. If I can make it for longer than a week, more power to me. If it completely fails (ie. I accidentally find myself 1 hour into reading Elephant Journal articles Monday morning), um, I may or may not admit my failure here. We'll see :D

Adios for now and see you all very soon. Best of luck with your yoga practices and your pursuits for liberation/enlightenment :) Please keep on blogging though (I will enjoy going through your posts again when I succeed in getting un-stuck), unless you also feel that taking a break from blogging will benefit you somehow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Brain cleansing by sound vibrations

So the past few days I was pretty distressed because the Japan nuclear plant situation kept getting worse and worse, despite the workers' best efforts.  The fact that the news reporting were so confusing that the company was hiding some details and wasn't telling the public the whole truth.  In addition, my family seemed to worry more about their own well-being than those who are physically in Japan. On top of that, people's irrationalities in general also got on my nerves. I mentioned I needed a meditation retreat, to get rid of my distressed thinking.

Well, right this moment I cannot get away on a trip, so I've been playing my Sanskrit chant CDs in my car and at my computer at school, which has helped a little bit but doesn't seem to be enough.  Thankfully, the universe heard my distress call and helped me out today. I was feeling crappy this afternoon and didn't really want to go to yoga after school (Note: this could have been the result of too much drinking for St. Patrick's Day the previous night rather than what I wrote in the above paragraph, but fact is, I was feeling crappy). Luckily, I still dragged my ass to yoga class anyways and it was the best thing I could have done for myself.  This particular yoga teacher decided to play the crystal singing bowl during savasana, and oh man, it felt like I was given a luxury brain massage + cleanse.  The sound went in from one year, and out the other ear, kind of circulated (rather loudly) in and out of my head a few times, and really cleared up all my distress and jumbled thoughts that have been weighing me down. I don't know how to describe the exact sensation, but the effect was equivalent to shoving a towel from one ear through the head and out the other ear, and giving it a good tug back and forth as if shining my brain like it were a leather shoe. Or, converting the inside of my head into a vigorous laundry machine using Tibetan singing bowl vibrations.  Yes, it felt as dramatic is I'm trying to make it sound. Whatever the mechanism, it worked wonders. If I tilt my head and hop on one leg right now, all the distressful thoughts and unnecessary worries would probably fall out of my ear in broken pieces, along with the broken up ear wax bits :P

So while I don't feel completely at peace yet (ears still feel a little tender) I certainly feel like I've experienced an awesome mind-cleanse. My distress and anger and yucky feelings seem to have gone out the window. I need to kidnap this teacher and make him play the singing bowl whenever my thoughts spiral out of control, or it might be easier (and more legal) to just learn more about Tibetan singing bowls, possibly learn to play one myself (no idea how much it costs and how difficult it is to operate.. does it work on the person who's playing the instrument?)

Thank you Universe for answering my call and making me feel better. I hope you will answer our prayers and help out the Japanese people too. Any signs of kindness would be helpful and appreciated.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Words of support and gratitude

I have to share this with you. I don't know if the workers at the Fukushima nuclear plants will actually get to see this page but it made me tear up (in a good way) when I read it: http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/support-our-heroic-engineers-2/

It's a site set up for people to express their gratitude and support towards the workers at the nuclear plants who have chosen to stay and deal with the nuclear crisis, knowingly exposing themselves to unhealthy radiation dosages. I hope the engineers will have a chance to read these messages at some point.

It looks like the helicopter-water bombing effort was ineffective but at least there's a power cable connected to the site, which means there's hope they can begin pumping water to cool down the fuel rods again.  Finally some positive progress. I'm praying for things to work out from now on!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

No tiny yoga shorts in my class today :( :( :(

I looked around in my classroom today and noticed that not a single person wore short shorts! None of the women wore anything shorter than crop pants. The guys either wore super long shorts that went all the way below the knees (basketball shorts I think), or bicycle shorts, or shorts that covered at least half the the thighs. I was kind of disappointed :( I swear I've seen women in sports bras at least and somewhat short shorts (butt cheeks still covered) in yoga classes before, but I guess today in particular was a G-rated, family-friendly class. Sad.

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Onwards! A bit about dristi. I try hard to stare at my own nose, but truth is, I'm fascinated by everyone's body types, athletic backgrounds, flexibility levels, teacher's personalized adjustments for each individual, asana progresses, so on and so on. What can I say, I am super curious! I generally keep my head facing in the direction of the drishti but my eyes are constantly checking these things out. I just learned today that for Mari C, the head faces straight behind, but the drishi should still be on the nose. LOL, no wonder I've been feeling super awkward having to look eye-to-eye at all the people behind me this entire time I've been practicing this series! The thing is, people in this class have worse drishti than I do. Even for people who are stiff as a board, shouldn't they at least be looking towards the side wall, rather than staring straight at me? How the heck do you do a twist when you're still facing forward?

Hmm, never mind, I just tried it; it's still possible to do a twist while looking ahead, but good luck getting deeper into the pose (especially without a bind)!

Oh, and for Karnapidasana + Pindasana, the drishi is what, navel? So why do I find myself staring at the anti-camel toe patch on my pants instead? It's better than the alternative of what I'd be staring at if the patch weren't there I guess.

I realize drishi for forward folds is the big toe, but right now I'm just looking down at my large thighs because I'm having neck strain issues. I can't figure out if I'm straining my neck from yoga or if it's from bad postures working long hours in front of the computer. It's probably a mixture of both. Anyways, forehead kissing my knees right now until my neck improves, which could take awhile.

Drishi's definitely necessary in a classroom setting. Otherwise I'd be admiring people's fashion instead. Oh wait, I do that anyways. I guess I've always been admiring people's cute tanks tops and new hair styles. Today was the first time I paid attention to people's shorts, which seemed to be not as short I'd expected :D

Yah I know, my dharana, pranayama and pratyahara kind of suffer with this bad habit, but I think if I take yoga too seriously there's the danger of getting tired of it some day. Never know if that day will come, but I don't want it to come too soon. Still fascinated with many aspects of Ashtanga right now.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Addicted to prana

I took a couple power yoga classes with alternative teachers recently, due to social reasons. Yes, yoga is like a social activity for me now. Some people go clubbing or go for coffee with friends; I go to various studios for yoga classes with friends whom I haven't seen for awhile. I also try to attend classes of people who have newly gotten their teacher training certifications. It's my way of showing support for fresh new teachers and racking up karma points. I used to get disappointed if people don't reciprocate the favors, but now I've learned that karma is not about how others returning the favors; it's about how I feel about my own chosen actions, which should be a reward in itself.

Anyways, there was one class that was nothing like Ashtanga but I really enjoyed it, and another that I honestly hated. I was wondering why I had such adverse reactions to certain power classes even though I  really appreciate the teachers' enthusiasm and efforts. The initial criteria that come to mind are the sequencing of asanas, the pace and rhythm with which the teacher takes us into poses, and the clarity of the teacher's instructions. After today's gorgeous Ashtanga class, another answer dawned on me: I am addicted to the generation of prana in yoga classes.

To me, if there's no linking of breath to movement, it should not be considered as a yoga class. I guess many of the new teachers, especially those with fitness backgrounds, are too eager to challenge the students, making them hold a tough pose for what seems to be an eternity, or sequence the poses in a way they might as well label as circus or bootcamp training. It's nice that the class challenges the muscles, but the fact that I cannot breath with my movements through the asana sequence they designed bugs me like crazy! I noticed in today's Ashtanga class that the strong ujjayi breathing carried me through tough poses/vinyasas and half way through the sequence I felt energized by my breathing, and had higher energy than at the beginning of class! I think sometimes a teacher's enthusiasm can uplift the entire class (like my rocket yoga classes), and for today's case my own breathing helped me build up more energy. With the power class I liked, I'm not sure if it was the teacher's Anusara training or his martial arts background, but even though he broke his class up into different segments with pauses in between (where I learned to get into a handstand with assists, woohoo!), he seemed to pay a lot of attention to breathing and energy flow in the warm up and cool down sequences.

So, I guess the verdict is that I'm a breathing/prana junkie. For my friends who are not fans of Ashtanga, or who love power classes for the sheer challenge on the muscular body, I'm guessing they haven't really experienced a really good pranyama practice yet. I also appreciate that one first needs to be able to comfortably get into a good proportion of the poses in Asthanga before being able to enjoy an ease of rhythmic breathing, and that takes a good period of dedicated regular practice.

p.s. For my personal record, my heels lifted a millimeter off the ground for kurmasana today for the first time. Woohoo :)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More Ashtanga videos!

The Ashtanga power couple's at it again (Intermediate series and Advanced B?)... I love these guys as well as their dogs!! What a beautiful family :) Great music accompaniment too.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

One of the most awesome yoga practice I've ever had despite my achy shoulders and hip discomfort

I've always felt great after most of my yoga practices, but today I felt like I was over the moon.

Practice today was rocket yoga. I know I know, not the "real" authentic Ashtanga series. My shoulders were not feeling their best. My elbows complained at chaturangas. My hip flexors started feeling funny half way through class. I wore the wrong pants so I couldn't do most of my arm balances. I'll admit it here. I'm a cheater. I bought myself some over-priced Lululemon pants because the fabric assists my legs in sticking onto my arms during crow pose and teddy bear handstands. Today my bare legs were not gripping my arms at all. I was slipping all over the place.

Despite all these inconveniences, I felt absolutely fantastic in class. A couple of my favorite teachers were taking today's class too and the sight of them always brings me happiness. Even though I know I'm always supposed to focus on my own practice I couldn't help sneaking peaks at what they were doing. I feel bad because I'm sure they felt the pressure from all the students constantly peaking at what they were doing and they haven't perfected all the poses either. But man, there were a few poses that did look like perfection. I felt like I saw the holy grail / gold standard a couple of times. Could almost hear angels singing a chorus in the background.

I'm starting to recognize a lot of the people in class. There are only a couple people whom I feel connected with, but having these enthusiastic keeners at all corners of the room, super excited like I was, with perma-smiles attached to their faces the whole class, made me feel so warm-hearted. The world would be a much better place if there were more people with their attitudes. I couldn't help but imagine I was bobbing up and down in a sea of positive bright energy, being supported and encouraged by this upbeat vibration, with a warm, caring, authentic, confident voice (of the teacher) guiding the way, leading us on an amazing journey. There were no judgements, no self-doubts. We just tried whatever crazy poses our teacher asked us to do.  Didn't matter if we flopped out of an arm balance or couldn't get into a pose at all. The fact that a few of the yogis could actually accomplish the advanced poses was good enough for us all. It's the group effort that counts.

After class we walked out of the classroom feeling like we just got off of a super fun roller coast ride together. We chatted like little kiddies on sugar high discussing about our super dooper awesome field trip - "Oh my god, did you see teacher so and so's perfectly straight leg up into the air in that pose?" "I managed to get one foot briefly behind my head! How cool was that!" "Did you hear me let out a tiny scream of 'yes!' when I succeeded in going from crow pose hopping back to chaturanga?"

For about 90 minutes, I felt like I was the luckiest person in the world, to be able to experience being a kid again at 30 years old, for once not beating myself up for not trying hard enough focusing on my breathing the whole time, or self-critical of how I wasn't doing my best in striving for perfection in asanas. I wasn't concerned about how gross I looked in my messed up hair or my sweaty scrunched up attire, and none of my classmates cared either. I simply enjoyed embarking on a challenging practice with some amazing folks who are all relatively new to yoga (less than 5 years of practice), who can do astonishing things with their bodies, who are non-judgmental, non-egotistical, non-self-critical, just excited to practice hard and attempt new personal best accomplishments. Now, how often do you get to experience this? I feel like I've just had a taste of heaven.

p.s. The creator of Rocket Yoga, Larry Schultz, passed away a few days ago and we paid tribute to him at the practice. It's kind of surreal.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Answer to the query in my "About Me" section may have been found

When I started this blog, I wrote the "About me" section half-jokingly. As a result, my yoga blog really became about answering this question: how exactly did yoga manage to transform a cynical me into a more hopeful, grateful, more compassionate person?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist who also teaches yoga at Stanford, may have just answered my question in her presentation. It's presented in the standard way that scientists are trained to present data: straightforward, no bells and whistles, no poetic metaphors, just straight up facts explaining how self-compassion works. I'm still working on doing my presentation Dr. McGonigal's way so I can pass my oral defense this year (I tend to jump all over the place and am not always clear, if you haven't noticed yet :) ), but I wish I had SereneFlavor as a teacher so I can communicate half as beautifully as she does. I'll just have to keep reading everything she writes I guess.

Let me summarize for those who don't want to watch the full video (at the bottom of the post):

There are two ways to think about one's own suffering:

1. Be self-critical about it. I suck. I'm not good enough, careful enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, kind enough, smart enough, skilled enough, trying hard enough and that's why this terrible thing is happening to me.

2. Offer compassion to oneself as a good friend would do in the situation. Reflect on the unpleasant event and think self-soothing thoughts, such as "you poor thing, you have tried your best and too bad it didn't work out. It's okay, next time you'll do better. It's not meant to be." etc.

The first way is quite typical of how we think when we encounter something negative, such as failing a job interview, getting into a car accident, breaking grandma's favorite dish at a Xmas party, etc. What happens is that brain regions associated with self-inhibition, self-control, punishment, self-punishment are activated when we think this way. (ie. Samskara in scientific babble).

The second way of thinking (people rarely think this way when they've done something wrong), activates brain regions associated with passion, and understanding what's happening in the body.  Practicing thinking this way reinforces this type of thinking pattern and automatically makes one more compassion towards other people as well.

Now, I haven't been practicing thinking the second way at all when something crappy happens to me. However, yoga teachers often ask us to thank ourselves for coming to class and for being kind to ourselves. I thought this instruction was strange when I first heard it, but I did what the teacher asked anyways. Yoga teachers also stress the importance of paying attention to any message the body's sending us, to do all poses in a way that feels good and causes no pain.  In reality, it's not the poses themselves that make use feel connected with one another (although practicing with others in a shala cultivates a sense of connection); when we practice listening to our own body, we're really exercising the brain regions associated with compassion, understanding, and loving kindness! Even when we practice compassion on ourselves, our ability to be compassionate to other people improves. Who knew!

Conversely, those who are used to being self-critical are also more judgmental of other people without realizing it. Hmm, so me and my whole family are guilty of this. When we think we only hurt ourselves by being overly self-critical, in fact we are training our brain to be less understanding and less compassionate towards other people as well.  So, when my mother or my cousin or my aunt keeps telling me what I should do or how I should be, it's really because they're judgmental of themselves. Since I am also self-critical (already beating myself up before they tell me what I should do), I am less likely to be willing to receive well-meaning feedback and constructive criticisms from others. So the trick to stop having strong hostile reactions towards my family's tendency to judge everybody involves practicing more self-compassion and loving kindness towards myself. I can do that! Time to ramp up Project Self-pampering!

I know most of you yogis out there know about yoga and compassion already and don't need hard scientific proofs to believe in it, but I'm a skeptic and a curious cat. I like scientific explanations of how stuff works, including yoga magic :)


Here's Dr. McGonigal's talk on self-compassion: