Sunday, November 22, 2015

Life, Animated

At risk of appearing like a Radio Lab groupie, I’d like to recommend another episode from my favorite radio show. This episode is called DIY, and it’s about people who take matters into their own hands to get the results they’re looking for.

While the first part about brain stimulators made me pretty squeamish (no thanks – I’ll pass on running electrical current through my brain), the second part filled my heart with gladness.

The second part of the Radio Lab episode DIY was about the Suskind family, who found a most creative means to connect with their autistic son, Owen. As many of you know, I’ve long been fascinated by autism, and I found the Suskinds’ creative approach to reaching their son to be a triumph of the human spirit.

In this Radio Lab episode, we hear from all the members of the Suskind family. In hearing from the various family members, I was reminded of the vastness that’s embedded within the people that are easy to consider lost or inaccessible.

I was moved by the Suskinds’ unshakeable faith that Owen was bright and intelligent, and that the deficit was in their capacity to connect to him.  And this unshakeable faith led to a beautiful journey that’s deftly described in the book Life, Animated, as well as in this recent Radio Lab episode.

I know you’re all very busy but I hope you’ll find the time to connect to the Suskinds’ journey either through Life Animated or the Radio Lab program.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Updating Understanding

Thinking about the back-brain (circa 1990)
Imagery has become one of my favorite elements of yoga practice and teaching. While I used to consider creating mental images to be the province of make-believe, I now appreciate the potential for imagery to harness and direct the power of the mind.

One of the earliest images that I found engaging was that of front-brain and back-brain. At a retreat I attended many years ago, the renowned teacher taught us that the front of the brain was the seat of fretting and worrying, and that the back of the brain was the home of primal skills such as sensing, feeling and intuiting. Throughout this retreat, the teacher asked us to relax our front brain and to rely more deeply on the ancient wisdom of our back-brain.

I found this imagery to be almost immediately soothing, and spent the next few years focusing on reconnecting with my primal back-brain. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that there is more to the brain than front and back!

While relaxing into the back of the body remains an essential part of my practice and teaching, I’ve largely let go of imagery about the front and back of the brain. Yes, every so often I’ll revisit this imagery in classes that I teach but I strive to qualify these images with an acknowledgement of their metaphoric quality. The brain and its structures are wondrously complicated, and it’s an oversimplification to suggest that any single part of the brain is responsible for even the simplest thought or experience.

Modern neuroscience is revealing that the brain’s structures work in a wonderfully complex and orchestrated way. As it turns out, the back of the brain is often involved with thinking complex thoughts, and the front of the brain is activated in the processing of emotion.

In Yoga, as in life, it seems like each time we look for binary this or that answers to complex questions, we find that the answer is often it depends or it’s both!

As it turns out, the front of the brain and the back of the brain are part of a coordinated whole, both involved with the complexities of sensing/intuiting and thinking/feeling.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Stress and Your Body

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of Robert Sapolsky's book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. For those interested in the body and its interface with the mind, I think this book should be required reading!

Sapolsky writes in a light and congenial way. If he were to write a book about chainsaw sculpting, I'd likely enjoy Why Carvers Don't have Every Digit, too. Sapolsky has a rare and refreshing capacity to distill difficult topics to their understandable essence.

When I heard that Sapolsky was speaking on Radio Lab, I was doubly enthused.  As much as I enjoy Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, I'm just as fond of Radio Lab. I've become enchanted by their consistently interesting subject matter, as well as their creative (off the charts!) utilization of sound. Radio Lab introduced me to the multidimensional experience of talk radio.

Today's Radio Lab show was about stress, and included some of Sapolsky's fascinating findings. I sincerely hope you can find the time to give this show a listen.

Click here to listen to the 11/07/15 Radio Lab show about Stress.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Live Streaming Workshop
Hang Loose - Joint Laxity and the Practice of Yoga

Joint laxity refers to joints that are unusually loose. While loose joints may sound heaven-sent to some, joint laxity can actually be quite problematic. People with joint laxity often live with more pain and fatigue than do their stiffer-jointed peers. There's even preliminary evidence suggesting that people with joint laxity experience more anxiety than the population at large.

Because joint laxity relates to mobility and flexibility, its incidence seems to be much higher in the yoga community. While joint laxity isn't all that common - about 10% of the population - yoga is one of the very few physical activities that actively rewards those with looser joints.  Because yoga practitioners are often encouraged to go deeper into more advanced poses, the yoga community seems to have self-selected into a population with a higher incidence of loose-jointedness. And by offering praise and encouragement to those who go more deeply into poses of increasing complexity, those with tighter joints are often subtly (or not so subtly!) driven away from the practice of yoga.

Aside from the encouragement and praise the yoga community lavishes on those with joint laxity, many other activities are difficult, if not impossible, for those with loose joints. In this excellent article from the BBC, the authors mention how joint laxity consumes a lot of energy. Because it takes a lot of energy for people with joint laxity to hold it together, people with joint laxity often fatigue very quickly. I've worked with hundreds of yoga students who have found yoga to be one of the few activities that didn't feel depleting to them. It's gratifying to connect with people who have found a path that feeds them, though it can be disheartening to watch so many yoga practitioners further destabilizing their joints through faulty practice.

Since joint laxity can be painful and fatiguing (and perhaps even anxiety-provoking), I believe yoga practitioners should be more aware of how to intelligently work with their joints. The old adage of more is better simply does not apply to joints. And with the increasing popularity of yoga practices that focus on opening the joints, there's now an even greater risk of further destabilizing these already loose joints.

If you're interested in yoga and are reading this, there's a small chance that the discussion of yoga laxity does not apply to you. But in my experience, if you've stuck with yoga for any length of time, you're more than likely on the laxity end of the joint-structure continuum. And for those with loose joints, the absolute last thing you want to do is practice in a way that causes further joint laxity!

On Saturday October 31st, I'll be leading a 2-hour live-streamed workshop delving much deeper into this topic. Participants will learn how joint laxity is not the same as flexibility, along with practical techniques for working with various degrees of joint laxity. The stream will be viewable on any computer, tablet or smartphone.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Eating with Awareness

As many of you know, I’m fond of meditation. I’ve had the good fortune to come across a teacher I deeply respect (Mingyur Rinpoche) and a community of fellow practitioners that facilitate traversing this path (Tergar International).

For the past five consecutive years, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Tergar Summer Retreat. Each year I come back inspired, recharged, and ready to hit the ground running. And a few pounds heavier.

While meditation retreat does involve a lot of sitting, I'm not entirely sedentary. Each day I made it a point to get outside for some fresh air and a workout. Unfortunately, I also seem to disproportionately ramp up my food intake!

The food at the retreat center is pretty good institutional food, though nothing to write home about. For whatever reason, during meditation retreat I have historically felt a tractor beam pulling me toward piles of tater tots and peanut butter (no, not mixed together!).

And then I spend the rest of the summer trying to figure out why my clothes aren’t fitting so well.

This year I made it a point to observe my food consumption during the retreat – to bring the awareness I was cultivating on the cushion into the dining hall.

By writing down what I ate for each meal, I spontaneously brought awareness to my food choices. Almost without realizing it, I was tracking my consumption, which naturally made me more aware of what I was choosing to eat.

I’ve continued writing down my food choices since I returned from this year’s retreat, and have been pleasantly surprised to notice that my knees are happier now that I'm a few pounds lighter.

If for no other reason than reducing the stresses on my knees, I plan to continue observing my food consumption. I’m mindful that there is such a thing has too thin, though also notice that I’m still a full 20+ pounds heavier than I was in college. I’m curious to see what unfolds.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy eating the fresh, local food that arrives weekly from my CSA share.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Being able to perform advanced yoga poses has little, if any, bearing on one’s capacity to teach effectively.

Effective teaching is one of my primary goals in teaching yoga. The various Alignment Yoga Teacher Training programs focus on helping teachers-in-training become good teachers… Who just happen to teach yoga.

Sadly, the focus in much of the yoga teacher-training world is on the flash and dazzle of yoga: doing ever-deeper poses, or pushing students into emotional release. While there is a time and a place for both of these skills, I think we’d all be better off if we spent more time focusing on the fundamentals of effective teaching.

I can clearly remember the first time I recognized that I was in the presence of a very effective teacher. I was in the third grade at Desert Shadows Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

My usual classroom teacher announced that the principal, Muriel Rickard, would be coming into the classroom to teach us the 9’s of our multiplication tables. I was a pretty sorry student of multiplication tables, as memorizing isn’t one of my great strengths. In addition to being pretty underwhelmed by the prospect of more memorizing, I was also scared by the prospect of the principal, the holder of ultimate authority, spending much time in our classroom.

Despite my misgivings, I found Ms. Rickard to be absolutely enthralling. She walked confidently into the classroom, and immediately connected with the students in a warm-hearted and engaging way. To this day, I am amazed by her capacity to connect with students so quickly and in such a seemingly effortless way.

Of course, the 9’s of the multiplication tables have their own intriguing patterns. I still remember some of those details, but what I most clearly remember was watching Ms. Rickard teach. As a third-grader I thought to myself, that’s why she’s the principal – she’s the best teacher!

Up until that point, I categorized teachers as either nice or not nice. I’d never considered pedagogy in the least. But from that moment onward, I began to pay attention to how teachers taught, perhaps even at the expense of listening to what they were teaching.

Thanks to Ms. Rickard, way back in 1975, for opening my eyes to the world of teaching.  And a big thank you to all the teachers in the intervening years who’ve helped me see what I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and then showed me how to use the tools to continue discovering.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Return to School II

Why would a yoga teacher return to school? What will you study? How will you pay for it? What if you don’t get into the program? Don’t you have enough on your plate? What about your cats? Aren’t you kind of old for school?

OK – maybe one of those questions hasn’t been asked very often, but the others sure have been! In this posting, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on returning to school.

There are three primary motivations underlying my unfolding educational plans: I’m hoping to hone my observational/research skills, write more credible books, and get the word about yoga/activity/meditation out to a wider audience.

I was trained as a scientist, and while the scientific method has remained part of my intellectual process, my paradigm has become progressively more descriptive over the years. While I believe this approach has opened Alignment Yoga to a broader audience, I also believe the descriptiveness of my teaching will benefit from a more rigorous, scientific methodology.

For example, it’s often touted that yoga has great benefits for the nervous system. While there is abundant anecdotal evidence that supports this claim, there’s not a whole lot of rigorous, objective evidence to support this claim, nor many of the other claims that yoga teachers regularly make. I’m hoping to add some small piece to our understanding of how activity influences the body/mind complex.

Along with this interest in honing my intellectual process, I’m hoping to raise the bar on my writing. Since you’re reading this blog, you’re aware of how much I like to write! And whether I’m practicing yoga, meditating, or exploring any other activity, I’m interested in exploring deeper levels of understanding.

I believe the process of pursuing a PhD will take my writing out of its comfort zone and, with the input of a committee that may not necessarily care much about my self-esteem or feelings of empowerment, will demand that I look at the things that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. When I read books by writers like Daniel Goleman or William Broad, I see clarity in their writing that I believe came, at least to some extent, from their academic training. I hope to someday write with this same sort of accessible clarity.

Lastly, I am currently some dumb yoga teacher, to quote the esteemed yoga teacher Dona Holleman. OK, maybe I don’t fully believe that I’m some dumb yoga teacher but in the bigger picture of knowledgeable sources of information, yoga teachers may not be the great founts of wisdom that we like to think that we are.  I’m hoping that by researching activity’s influence on the brain and honing my capacity to communicate this information, I can in some small way help more people take the time to move their bodies and meditate.

While I have some clarity in my goals for returning to school, there are still many unknowns. For example, I am in close contact with a faculty member and staff in the Kinesiology department, I am diligently studying for the GRE, and some dear friends and colleagues have agreed to write me letters of recommendation but I have yet to even formally apply for admission! (I’m aiming to submit the application in October of this year.)

The wheels have been set into motion, yet are many steps between deciding to return to school and actually sitting in a classroom. In forthcoming posts, I’ll share more of the details in making this shift.