Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Steering Committee

When we think of increasing our lifespan and reducing our physical discomfort, we often think of exciting advances in medicine, or the latest scientific innovation. While science and technology have certainly increased life expectancies, it's largely the seeming banality of public health that allows many of us to live well into our 70's and beyond.

By keeping excrement separate from the drinking water, for example, cholera outbreaks are largely unheard of in the West, and lifespans have significantly increased as a result of this single preventative measure.

For those of you who are interested in yoga and meditation, perhaps you're already doing many of the right things: moving toward a plant-based diet, brushing your teeth, exercising, flossing and meditating. Are there any simple preventative measures that are unaccounted for?

For many of us, a simple way to reduce our risk of injury involves how we drive our cars, and specifically, how we hold the steering wheel. In days past, we learned to hold the steering wheel at the '10 and 2' position. Since many of us have been driving for a l-o-n-g time, it's become a deeply conditioned habit. Unfortunately, the '10 and 2' position is entirely wrong for cars equipped with airbags. And since the majority of cars built within the past twenty years are equipped with airbags, most of us would do well to relearn how to hold the steering wheel.

Several of my friends are paramedics, and over the years they've told me tell grim stories about calls involving car accidents. Though death rates have steadily declined over the past two decades, car accidents can still be horrifically traumatic. Airbags may not be perfect, but they're a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

While deaths from car accidents have decreased, the incidence of broken arms and broken facial bones has increased. Why?

When an airbag goes off, it's moving at a speed of up to 200mph. There is no time to shift position or move, and anything in the airbag's path will be hurled toward the driver's face and torso. In the '10 and 2' hand position, the steering wheel airbag propels the driver's arms back until they hit something solid: the A-pillar of the car, the driver's face or the driver's torso. In a worst case scenario, the force of the driver's arms flinging into their face breaks both their facial bones and their arms. If they're relatively lucky, only their arms are broken. And if they're wholly lucky - well, they're unscathed from the airbag that may have saved their life!

With airbags now standard in every vehicle, drivers need to re-learn how to hold their steering wheel. Rather than the '10 and 2' hand position, the '3 and 9' position is now considered optimal. With the hands in the '3 and 9' position, in the unfortunate event of a collision, the airbag would deploy above the driver's arms, and the risk of injury to face and arms is greatly reduced.

Like any new skill, holding the steering wheel in a different way may feel odd at first. Not uncommonly, drivers report that the '3 and 9' position doesn't feel as agile or safe. Generally, this feeling of sluggishness is related to unfamiliarity, and is not an inherent property of the '3 and 9' hand position. With regular practice of the '3 and 9' hand position, this safer hand placement will become the new normal. Just like learning a new yoga pose, the new often feels awkward, though with regular practice, the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Precious Life

Over the years, I feel fortunate to have connected with many different animals. Certainly I’ve connected with cats – having lived around cats since I was an infant, I can count many friends that are cats. Along the way, I’ve also met many dogs I’ve felt a connection to; Hannah, Louis and Lucky are among my dog friends.

It’s been thrilling to swim with turtles while snorkeling in Hawaii. Their effortless movements make it look like they’re flying in the water, and I always feel like I’m in the presence of old wisdom when I’m around them.

It would probably be an overstatement, though, to count these turtles as friends. It would be akin to attending a ‘Stones show, and referring to the lead singer as Mick. Not uncommon, perhaps, but presuming a closeness that probably isn’t reciprocal.

It wasn’t until this morning that I felt a connection to a tortoise. I’m still saddened by the circumstances surrounding our brief friendship, but grateful to have been in the presence of this old, wise being.

My daily commute involves a stretch of divided highway. Traffic zips along, but in a surprisingly orderly way. Madison fancies itself a larger city than it really is – the 65mph speed limit is largely obeyed on this stretch.

 I saw the tortoise creeping its way onto the shoulder, and immediately turned my car around at the next interchange. I had a blanket in the back of the car that I’ve used to carry other tortoises across the road, and hoped I could zip back there before the tortoise got onto the roadway.

This tortoise was on a mission, though, and as I was headed to the next turnaround, I saw the flurry of cars swerving and veering to avoid the tortoise. SHIT – it was already in the road!

Semi-trucks were swerving, cars were veering and it seemed everyone was hoping for the best for the tortoise. But as you can imagine, someone did not see it, and the worst did happen. It was an awful sight, and the thought of it still feels like a punch in the gut.

By the time I got to the tortoise, it was limping off the highway and back into the weeds. I was shocked and relieved that it was still alive, and held out hope it would be OK.

As I squatted next to the tortoise, it became evident that it was probably not going to be OK. Its shell had been cracked, and blood leaked out from beneath. Despite its predicament, it looked up at me with a softness and kindness that I never would have attributed to a reptile.

I’ve long considered reptiles to be, uhh… reptilian. Cold. Distant. Other.

Perhaps I was projecting, but in my bones I felt a heart connection with this creature. As we looked into each others’ eyes, its limping had already slowed. Clearly the tortoise was dying, and there we were, sharing this most intimate life-experience.

The tortoise had been dead for a minute or so when a man approached. He had witnessed the same situation unfolding, and had also been making a mad dash to save the tortoise. In that moment there were the three of us. One was dead, and the other two didn’t quite know what to make of this most intimate unfolding that had brought us all together.

Later in the day I was giving a Zero Balancing bodywork session. As I placed my hands beneath the client’s shoulders, holding another being’s body in my hands felt more rare and precious than ever. We’ve been entrusted with something so profound and filled with potential, and I offered thanks to the tortoise for its role in pointing this out. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Classic Sun Salutations

In another installment from our Assistant Director of Trainings, Andrea Russell, we learn the benefits of the Classic Sun Salutations and how to practice them.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Yoga on the Road

While the glaciers covered much of North America’s midsection and smoothed the land into submission, a tiny sliver of the Middle West managed to escape glaciation. The Driftless Region contains a fascinating rise and fall of the land, in stark contrast with people’s view of a flat and lifeless Midwest.

Tucked into a corner of the Driftless Region was a small experiment in communal living, sustainable agriculture, and yoga. Cress Spring Farm was home for an ever-changing array of characters, and even twenty-plus years later many of the meals, practices, and stories remain memorable.

Uttered casually in the kitchen one morning, I still clearly remember Roger stating broadly, “if you can’t take your practice on the road, it ain’t worth shit.” Since many of us spent a good deal of time traveling, this comment piqued our interest.

I don’t remember if Roger ever elaborated, but I did find affirmation that traveling is one of the best times to maintain, or even deepen, a personal yoga practice. When routines are upended, as they often are when traveling, an opportunity for reinvention arises. If your connection to practice is tenuous, travel presents an opportunity to reinforce your commitment. If your connection to practice is largely aspirational, travel presents an opportunity to jump headlong into a daily routine. If your connection to practice is tenacious, travel presents an opportunity to explore loosening your grip on the familiar structure of your practice.

Between pleasure travel, teaching trips, and meditation retreat, I spend four to six weeks each year on the road. Over the past couple decades, that adds up to almost two years of practicing in hotels, dormitories, guest rooms, and monastery rooftops. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about taking yoga practice on the road.

With regards to the physical practice, I pack very lightly. My bolsters, blocks, cushions, and yoga-straps have never needed their passports, as they always stay behind at home. If I’m confident my accommodations will be carpeted, then I simply pack a yoga rug to place atop the carpeting. When accommodations have harder floors, such as when traveling in South Asia, then I also include a thin travel mat to put beneath the yoga rug.

The blankets on your bed can do double duty as… blankets. And a scrunched-up pillow works surprisingly well as a meditation cushion.

What to practice? Some days I’ll meditate first thing in the morning, and forego the physical practice. On other days yoga asana may be my primary physical activity, and I make a point to budget some time on the mat. As you can probably glean, meditation practice is my primary focus, and even if it’s only a short time on the cushion (or scrunched-up pillow), I’ll set my alarm as early as necessary to spend at least a few minutes each day meditating.

With regards to the physical practice, I generally emphasize the poses that counteract the effects of planes, trains, and automobiles. This often includes Psoas Wake-Up, and some form of a psoas stretch, such as high or low lunge.

Most on-the-road asana sessions also include a handful of Sun Salutations, to get the juices flowing. If there’s more time, I may include some standing poses to further tone the vestibular system.

I rarely have an asana session sans Headstand and Shoulderstand. Since travel often includes lots of sitting, inversions are a wonderful antidote to the lymphatic stagnation that accompanies sitting in one place for a long time.

Many people complain of irregularity when traveling, and I generally include a few twisting poses in a travel-practice to keep this unwelcome travel companion at bay.

This is typically the extent of my practice while traveling. Some days will consist of a short meditation session only – no asana or pranayama practice. Other days I may budget more time for physical practice, and include a short routine (containing Psoas Wake-Up, psoas stretches, Sun Salutations, Headstand and Shoulderstand, twists, and sometimes a few standing poses). In general, I try to keep it simple, roll with things as they unfold, and not get too hung up on a “gotta-do-it” attitude or set structure.

Have a safe and happy holiday season. And best wishes on your practice if the holidays include travel!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rabbit Pose

In Part 2 in our series on Headstand, Scott shares a pose for people who don't feel comfortable with Headstand, which delivers most of the benefits.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Benefits of Headstand

In Part 1 of a new series, Scott describes how a pose many traditions consider the most important of all poses, can be done by anyone, and some of the lesser known benefits. In particular, how people born Caesarean section can gain special benefit from headstand.

Includes the debut appearance of Amelia the kitten.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Uddiyana Bandha video

In Andrea's second video, she presents the Alignment Yoga approach to Uddiayana Bandha, and a simple Pre-Yoga technique to begin accessing it.

This exercise helps wake up vital energy in the lower belly, and can help ease tension in the lower back, jaw, neck and shoulders.