Thursday, June 30, 2011

Recent asana progress summary

Sirsasana - can do it at home okay, but in class I'm having trouble doing it towards the end of class. Takes me quite awhile to mentally prepare before going up, and once I have the pose I can't hold it for long, for fear of falling over and just not enough stamina or something. Claudia talked about 2 kinds of sirsasanas in her blog. I think I like the bregma version at home. In class I seem to do the crown headstand, or whatever version that will permit my feet to lift off the ground and provide a drishti so I don't get distracted by classmates behind me. Balance is a bigger issue than back curvature at the moment. Teacher told me to have my elbows closer together (because apparently they move apart once I'm up in the air. Who knew?) and that helped.

Jump backs - played with blocks today. I can get my legs off the ground with blocks under my hands for added arm length, yay! However, once I'm in lolasana I am completely stuck. I have no momentum for jumping back. Apparently I'm supposed to bend my arms to shift my center of gravity... hmm.. not happening right now. Arms are still not strong enough and ass is so heavy any shift in center of gravity (ie. shift of pelvis in mid-air) results in my body gets confused about what it can and cannot do. 2 solutions -

1. Keep practicing for many more life times.
2. Reduce size of ass (harder to achieve, but I think it'll be sooooo effective). I need a junk food police to hang out with me 24/7.

Forearm stands and handstands - yes yes I know they are not part of the Primary series, but I've been playing with them since I've discovered that achieving them is possible within this life time. Too chicken to do either of them without a wall within reach yet. I feel like my lower back isn't stable enough for me to hold these poses on my own, but it could be more of a mental block than a physical issue.

Urdhva dhanurasana - again, lower back feels unstable. I can feel stuff is moving around in the lower back spinal area, and that creeps me out. Can anyone share with me their experience working on this pose? I can't figure out if it's my spinal discs moving around or if it's my ligaments or whatever else is holding up my spine in that area. I can't distinguish actual pain sensations from soreness/discomfort from strong emotional feelings in this pose.

Chakrasana - exactly how important is the correctness of this move? I've been doing a judo/kung fu backward roll, using all momentum and trying to stay off the head completely. I think the "correct" way of doing this is actually going on the crown of the head a little bit. I haven't gotten any corrections yet, probably because the teacher thinks it's better to try to do some version than not to try it at all.

Bakasana - I seriously thought I'd totally have those pose down after 1 year of yoga practice. It's still difficult after 1.5 years! Another ass-heavy problem? I think I can hold the pose for about 3 breaths before my knees start sliding down my arms. Maybe it's a legs-are-too-heavy problem too.

Supta kurmasana - I can bind finger tips now! This is happening after I've been instructed to bind my wrist in all marichyasanas rather than just clasping my fingers together. I'm literally pulling my hand slightly out of its socket in every bind.. is that healthy for the joint? I can also cross my feet above my head, but not at the same time as binding my fingers. It's one or the other right now. Doing both simultaneously is considered as multi-tasking and too complex for my body/brain to handle.

General body issues - hips often feel over-stretched. Upper back between the shoulder blades are often sore; lower back feels a little lose, like it could use more strengthening. Sinus often feels kind of blocked. Neck always has issues. muscles around elbow area do not like the amount of chaturangas I put them through.  Gee, with this much complaints, my non-yogi friends for sure would advise me to stop with all this yoga madness. I'm hoping when I read this entry 6-12 months from now I'll be able to answer all of my own questions and provide better insights into whether or not my body issues have improved.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Precious spine

My mother slipped in the bathroom the other day, causing a compression fracture in her lumbar spine (L2 looked like it was squished in half, and L3 looked a little chipped too). It's a pretty sucky injury all right. It hurts like hell and my mom has very low pain tolerance. There's not much the doctors can do besides prescribing pain killers and bed rest.  I actually thought she was going to be in the hospital for weeks because in the beginning it looked like any jerky movements caused her terrible pain. However within a week she was able to get up on her own with the help of a walker and walk around for a bit, so they kicked her out of the hospital.

Actually the nurse didn't think she could get out of the hospital so soon. My mom screamed like she was on fire whenever anyone tried to move her (change her clothes etc), which probably scared the staff, especially the intern/student nurses. Whenever she screamed like that, they would give her a morphine shot, which would calm her down but made her feel dizzy, nauseous, with no appetite the entire time. The hospital food looks disgusting and tastes bland, and other patients living on the floor are also loud,  sick, and strange, so I don't blame her for wanting to get home as soon as possible. So when the occupational therapist decided to give her a functionality test to see if she could sit up on the bed and use the bathroom on her own, she performed her hearts out and passed the tests with flying colors. She got to go home sooner than everyone expected. The doctors and physiotherapists were amazed at her progress.

Once she got home, I was amazed at how much she could walk on her own, sometimes without a walker. The bed she owns is much softer than the one in the hospital, but when I asked the doctor and the occupational therapist they told me that the hardness of the bed doesn't affect the rate at which her back will recover. However, I really wish the hospital physiotherapist had worked with her better on figuring out how to move to avoid causing pain. It looked like my mom is not very body aware, nor is she very good at taking suggestions. The most difficult movement for her seemed be to going from a horizontal lying position to a vertical sitting or standing position. From sitting to standing was only difficult on the first day home, and afterwards she had no problems with the support of a walker. There would be ways she moves that would cause her to scream like she broke her back again. But after a few tries she'll find a way to sit up that seems to be non-painful at all. The occupational therapist prescribed some props that we brought home (basically a walker, handle bars for the toilet, and a shower chair). I later got a her bed rail as well. When she had trouble getting up she would demand that she needs a special bed, when really all she needs is to move more carefully. I sound unsympathetic but it looks very obvious that she twists her body unnecessarily, when she should swing her legs to the ground with as little movement in the spine as possible, and push herself up with her arms and hopefully core strength to support the spine. I wish I have physiotherapist and yoga teacher training so I can instruct her on better ways of getting up. Right now I suck at providing clear instructions and she doesn't seem to have very fine muscle control in her body. She gives me weird commands like lifting her up from the armpit, which I tried, but she's too heavy and it just doesn't work at all. So she would take a couple of Tylenol pills, wait 30 minutes, and get up totally fine. I can't tell if it's the pain killer working its magic, or she just figured out a better way to move to avoid pain.

Seeing my mother's injury makes me glad for my spinal health, but also made me went out and bought calcium supplement pills right away. It's going to take her a few months to heal, but actually a compression fracture is better than other types of injuries (like a hip fracture), so in this sense my mother's lucky. The doctor (not a very sympathetic one) told me "at least it's not bone cancer". Uh, that's comforting Doc. My dad who's a retired radiologist was able to tell me a bit more (we had to beg to be allowed to see the X-ray). He was glad the vertebrae were not out of alignment, nor did the spaces between the vertebrae look compressed, so comparably this was not a really terrible injury. Radiologists however are only concerned about diagnosis and know nothing about treatments or physiotherapy, so my mom's on her own for recovery.

This is actually the second time my mother has suffered from a compression fracture, so she's kind of "experienced". Last time the fracture happened at L5 (above S1) and hurt way more. Also, last time she was in Asia, so they were all generous and let her stay in the hospital bed for as long as she wanted with no physio exercise prescriptions. After a couple months her leg and back muscles were so weak it was impossible for her to sit up or walk at all. So overall it took over 6 months to heal. I'm hoping this time it heal a lot faster since she's being encouraged to sit and walk a couple days after injury. Another tidbit for you anatomy geeks - compression fracture (or probably any kind of spinal injury) hurts more at the joints - eg. between the sacrum and lumbar, between the lumbar and thoracic groups, etc. At least that's what my dad says (so theoretically L2 is a "better injury location" than L5???") Hmm, it's not like you can control where you injure yourself anyway.

Anyways, moral of the story: keep doing your yoga to strengthen your spines, prevent osteoporosis, and learn finer muscle group control, so that if you injure yourself, you'll have better skills at modifying your  movements to maximize efficiency/healing and minimize pain/further injuries. I believe that meditation and deep breathing can help with pain management as well. I am going to spend the rest of my life loading myself up with as much health-related information as possible because the doctors and physios aren't always informative or helpful. They are loaded with information about diseases and injuries, which are very useful, but they aren't necessarily experts on wellness, especially when most of them aren't very familiar with yoga. I briefly thought about physiotherapy as a career, but seeing the hospital physio changed my mind. She was very grumpy, and didn't really offer my mother much exercises. It seems like yoga exercises are much more fun than physio exercises anyway. Take care of your spines, yogis!!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What is it that you ultimately want in life?

Nobel blogged awhile ago about about his idea of an ideal life, which is to be a yoga bum, ie. get paid big bucks to practice yoga every day and to blog about his yoga practice. Now, Nobel, do you want some third party to pay you to live life however you want, or do you wish you were born into a rich family so you can be a yoga bum, or do you wish you married someone with a massive bank account, or win the lottery, or obtain a large sum of money by some other means (eg. find a bag on the street containing $10 million)? I kind of assumed that you were wishing for the first option, ie. somehow someone out there would consider your yoga practice as beneficial to the world and pay you money for doing it. Hmm.. I don't know about $100,000/year, but for countries with universal health care, I think governments should encourage people to choose a healthy living, which would minimize the overall cost of medical care budget, by providing incentives such as bonus cash for those who do eat healthily and do yoga (and other forms of exercises in general). Yah I know, wishful thinking (but not completely impossible).

I joked that my dream life is to play dress up every day, party lots, and occasionally do charity work, you know, the Princess Di, Duchess Katherine, or Paris Hilton life (Paris actually does get paid to show up at various clubs to party). Nobel pointed out that my concept of a "bum" life is "interesting". I got a bit confused there, and then I looked up the definition of a bum: person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer;idler. Hmm, I guess I am too chicken to be a bum forever, because I'm paranoid that the world would progress and I would fall behind. I've been an obsessive compulsive knowledge / skills acquisition freak all of my life. I'll read almost anything that's in print. Every time I try a recreational activity I dream about becoming extremely proficient at it. I practice yoga as if the teacher's going to beat me with a cane if I don't try my hardest. I feel like if I don't push myself to my limits, I'm not living up to my life's full potential, and somebody will be disappointed in me.

So now you know my greedy desire for wanting to acquire all possible skills that humans can do and all knowledge of human beings (like in the movie trilogy "The Matrix" where I can upload all of Google's databases and all encyclopedias ever written into my head). Does this make me weird? I think the typical dreams of people are to become billionaires, own multiple servants and a giant mansion, luxury cars, fancy yacht, and travel the world on their personal cruise ship while being served with gourmet French cuisine, or something along that line. My biggest desire is to acquire skills? I gotta step back and do some self-psychoanalysis here.. does this suggest that I'm deeply insecure about my intellectual worth?

I guess we're generally seeking to live a long and healthy life, feel safe and secure, satisfy our senses, feel a sense of control (of ourselves and of the environment around us), connect with other beings (but at the same we like to be better than other people, Darwin's theory at work on Earth), and of course to satisfy our endless miscellaneous arbitrary desires. An ideal life would be to become better than everyone else, have everybody adore and admire you, and have all your endless desires satisfied one after another. Sorry I'm not very poetic about it. I started writing a list of things I wanted: travel, a sexy, smart,  understanding and loving life partner, charity projects I want to do, pet science projects I want to do, and then I realized the list could go on and on forever, because of my insatiable greediness :P  The bottom line is, being a bum forever is not an ideal life for me. Maybe my dream life is to become Superwoman, but without having the responsibility to solve every problem in the world. I would only work on the problems I'm interested in. Hmm.. so a selfish Superwoman then :D

I think my ideal life is to have endless possibilities in what I can do, and to have the freedom to choose to do a subset of them, with minimal troubles and obstacles. I think I've got the first 2 parts down, which makes me a very lucky person. The skill acquisition part I guess is my attempt to be able to deal with these troubles and obstacles. I should also add that I am working towards feeling comfortable about occasionally being a bum. The practice of yoga aids with achieving equanimity, which means I better keep doing it then!

What about you? What is your dream life? Can you narrow it down to a few specific things that you absolutely must have, or are you like me, greedily wanting to keep all possibilities open but have the freedom to choose what you want? Or would you want to be a bum (in a fancy palace of course)? :)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Yoga Teacher Training

Nobel talked about teacher training in his post, wondering if "yoga teacher certification" may give students the idea that a the learning yoga knowledge is terminal and that a 200YTT certification makes someone a "yoga expert".

Image source:
As I mentioned in my very first blog post, I started yoga because a number of my friends suddenly got their yoga teacher training completed at around the same time. You don't really hear someone taking up jazz, golf, crocheting, taekwando or whatever, and suddenly announce they are getting certified to teach that activity. What's special about this "yoga" that makes people want to teach it? I always thought of yoga as just simple stretching exercises. My friends' actions made me think that there might be more to this activity. Other people sign up for yoga for health reasons. I signed up for yoga as a Sherlock Holmes wannabe, wanting to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. From the very beginning, I didn't just try to learn yoga; I started analyzing yoga teachers and the whole logic to a yoga class even before I got used to placing my limbs and spine in positions they had never been placed before. At the time I didn't realize there were so many yoga poses, so many yoga styles, or that each each pose contained so much alignment information (you mean it's not just copying what the teacher demos?), or that yoga teachers knew so much about the human anatomy, or that there was a sequencing logic to a yoga class. Talk about overwhelming oneself with information. Each yoga class I tried was so different from the other class (I alternated between hot yoga, yin, pilates, Kundalini, hatha, power, and Ashtanga my very first month into yoga, because I had no idea what the heck I was doing), and I couldn't easily figure out a simple logic to it. I was absolutely fascinated by the complexity of yoga.

Only a few months into yoga, I attended a free information session for a one-month intensive yoga teacher training program with at a studio at the far side of town, not because I wanted to become a yoga teacher myself, but because I was on a mission to find out what it takes to become a yoga teacher. I was expecting them to tell me I should practice for at least 2-3 years before I sign up. I was shocked when this teacher told me anyone can sign up for teacher training. I asked her how could I expect myself to teach people if I couldn't even do the most basic arm balance poses like bakasana. The teacher smoothly answered, "Maybe you'll be able to get into one during this teacher training". Hmm.... I have no doubt she would be able to teach me all the theoretical stuff about yoga, and I am confident in my memorization and understanding skills. But some poses take a lot of practice in order to get the strengthening, balance, and flexibility in place. How could she be confident that I would gain enough strength to do those poses within one month?  Ironically, her attempt to ease my concerns made me more sure that teacher training was not worth my money at that time. She reassuringly told me, "Don't worry, you won't have to learn how to put your foot behind your head". Why not? I thought at the time. For $3000+, shouldn't I be able to learn how to do almost every single yoga pose? 

At the time I did believe that all certified yoga teachers knew all the poses. Now I know that you can have a great asana practice yourself but suck as a teacher, and you don't have to pull off perfect asanas yourself in order to be a great teacher. I've been to simple hatha classes without any advanced balance or strength poses, and walked out of class feeling that my body had a well-rounded stretch, my core was sufficiently challenged, and my energy were properly balanced. I've also gone to power classes where I got really aggravated because I couldn't breath with the teacher's "choreography", or I was asked to attempt an advanced pose when my hamstrings weren't sufficiently prepped top open up fully in the  warm up sequences leading up to the pose. Teacher training program can only teach you technical stuff and give you some basic tips on how to lead a safe, logical yoga class. But amazing rock star teachers shine through with their own unique charisma, through a combination of teaching experience as well as their innate ability to connect with students and inspire. With Ashtanga teaching, the sequencing of primary series already makes mechanical sense in systematically opening up the body, where the beginning poses prep for later poses. The greatest challenges are to figure out how to engage the students and keep them interested, and how to lead beginners who are stiff and not very body aware through the sequence without having them feel defeated and over-challenged.

After all the serious investigations and analyses I've secretly conducted, violating drishti focus every class by curiously watching how my teacher adjusts other students, observing other students' poses, analyzing what are the alignment corrections for that particular version of the pose, what are the modifications that can be provided for that particular student, trying to figure out why the teacher would choose to adjust some students but not others, I think I am finally ready to stop being a busybody and  settle down as a yoga student to focus on my own yoga practice. Yah I know, I'm weird this way :)

p.s. To learn how to put your foot behind your head at no cost to you whatsoever, see this video for instructions. It worked for me! (after a few months of hip opening poses practicing yoga. My hips were pretty open to begin with though.)