Monday, September 29, 2014

Backcountry Skiing, Guides and Yoga

Backcountry skiing is one of my favorite activities. Rather than riding ski lifts to the mountaintops, backcountry skiers get to the tops of the mountains under their own power. It’s said that backcountry skiers earn their turns, and I’ve certainly found that the pleasures of untracked snow are even greater when I’ve broken a sweat to get there.

Over the years, I’ve daydreamed about doing longer and more remote backcountry tours, and inevitably come to the conclusion that a guide would be essential. The threat of avalanche is a constant companion, as is the very real possibility of getting turned around in whiteout conditions. As I consider the need for a guide, I’ve further reflected on the attributes I’d look for in a guide.

Firstly, I’d like a mountain guide to be a proficient skier. Should anything go awry, the guide would need to ski in whatever conditions were present, and perhaps across the steepest and gnarliest terrain. Expert skiing skills would be essential.

I’d also prefer that a guide had years of experience leading similar trips. When things go awry, experience really counts. Rather than having to figure out what to do on-the-fly, the most experienced guides call upon their reservoir of experience to skillfully navigate difficult situations. While participating in similar trips seems like a good prerequisite, I’d also want to make sure the guide had actually led many trips like the one I was considering.

I’d also like a guide to be an expert in the mechanics of snow and avalanches. Having taken rudimentary training in avalanche safety, I’m more appreciative of the vast knowledge that underlies avalanche safety and prevention. I’d look for a guide that understood the physics of snow’s crystalline structure, and not just follow the guide who waved their hand toward skier-filled slopes and proclaimed that my teacher told me this one is safe, and that that one isn’t. I’d want to make sure the guide really understood the mechanics of the snow, and didn’t just repeat second-hand information they’d heard from others.

I’d also look for a mountain guide that had good people skills. I think we’ve all met experts who struggled to relay their expertise to others, and also worked with teachers with a real knack for bringing out the best in their students. Hiring a guide seems like a good way to enhance the richness of the backcountry experience, and a good guide with finely tuned people skills seems like the glue that could help bring a group of people together.

As I reflected on my criteria for a mountain guide, I realized these are nearly the same attributes I look for in yoga teachers, and in particular, in a yoga teacher training program.

While yoga practitioners rarely perish in avalanches at the yoga studio, they are embarking on a path that works deeply with body and mind. In the potential for positive transformation, there is the ever-present possibility that we let go of constrictive elements of ourselves that we identify as me. In this calibrated dying process, there’s the very real chance that we’ll encounter situations as stressful as an avalanche-prone ski slope, or the possibility that a classmate encounters a difficult situation that requires the experienced guidance of someone who’s traversed the same territory countless times.

In reflecting on the backcountry ski trip I hope to take in January, I am reminded of the multiple Alignment Yoga Advanced Studies program that will also be starting early in 2015. Mound Street Yoga Center is Madison’s original yoga center, and Alignment Yoga was Madison’s first Yoga Alliance approved Yoga Teacher Training program.

We have the skills and experience to help students’ yogic journeys. Where would you like to go?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Master of Disguise

It used to be that spies were masters of disguise. By donning a suitable disguise, spies could pass as legitimately belonging within a given office or lab, along the way extracting what they wanted or implanting their ideas. I imagine most spying is now freed from physical disguises, instead relying on cyber-aliases - though there may still be the occasional spy roaming the planet who rely on wigs and fake noses to avoid detection.

While the era of spies-in-disguise may be shifting, the disguise is still very much alive and well. Anxiety is a master of disguise, and seems to be more and more prevalent.

Sometimes anxiety is immediately recognizable, though often it slyly disguises as a justified worry or fear. For example, many people will worry about money at points in their lives. Often there is at least a shred of validity to the concern, though frequently the extent of the worry exceeds the intensity of the stressor.

The anxiety is very sly – it sees a stressor that can legitimately cause concern and puts on a wig, nose, glasses and a fake mustache that looks just like the legitimate concerns. Like a master spy, the anxiety eludes detection. Instead of seeing anxiety as anxiety (a transient mind-state), we get whipped into a frenzy by the anxiety’s seemingly legitimate appearances. And anxiety often puts on a money disguise.

Maybe your car breaks down and needs an expensive repair. The unexpected expense may require examining your budget, and perhaps making some difficult decisions. The reality of the unplanned car expense merits thought and consideration but does it merit fretting, worrying, and sleepless nights? Perhaps it does, but more likely anxiety has put on a money worries disguise, and the anxiety is able to escape detection in your mind.

The regular practice of yoga and meditation allows us to look at our own mind. Rather than reflexively following the parade of thoughts streaming through our minds, we can watch our own minds at work. We can ask ourselves, is this worry commensurate with the stressor? Or has anxiety put on another disguise to evade detection? Quite often simply seeing the anxiety beneath the disguise invites the anxiety-spy to ship out.

When you practice yoga poses, here’s a simple technique to practice watching your own mind.

Many of us have heard a lot of cues or instructions within each yoga pose. Shift your hips here, place your leg there, breathe like this, don’t do that, etc. And quite often when we practice yoga, we respond to the parade of instructions in real-time. In this real-time following-of-orders in the pose, there may be a glimmer of awareness of our own mind but more often it's anxiety wearing another disguise.

A more reliable way to cultivate awareness is to pause for a couple breaths each time a cue or instruction flashes through your mind. After a couple breaths, maybe you choose to apply the cue, or perhaps you watch it melt back into wherever it arose from.
In practicing yoga in this way, we become more familiar with our own minds. In becoming familiar with our own mind, we’re more likely to pause and reflect when appropriate, and less likely to believe the ministrations of the anxiety.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Three Harmonious Friends

Living in the outskirts of exurbia, I never know what may present itself during meditation practice. In the winter, the pulsing thrum of snowmobiles is sometimes heard, while in the warmer months, the lub-lub-lub of the Harley-Davidson V-Twin occasionally accompanies my practice.

Most days I'm accompanied by cats; sometimes lugubriously sitting by a closed door, often meditating on my lap, or just passing through the Dharma Hall on an undisclosed mission.

The other day, Amelia's mission had taken on an unusual urgency. She bolted down the stairs and came flying into the Dharma Hall. The bushiness of her tail indicated there was big excitement in the air, and her furtive movements were unusual. It was still daybreak, so I could not make out the cause of her alarm, though it did not appear that she was being pursued or otherwise in danger.

As I continued meditating on form, the cause of her furtive movements came into focus - she had brought a live mouse into the Dharma Hall, and it had just escaped from her clutches.

Meditating on form was about to give way to a movement meditation, as the forthcoming cat-and-mouse game would cause all manner of karmic demerits.

Moments before I arose, the mouse shot toward me, and with Amelia in hot pursuit, ducked behind my meditation cushion. I could almost feel the mouse panting with relief at its stay of execution.

Surprisingly, Amelia immediately lost interest in the mouse, and curled up in my lap. Within a few moments, Amelia was soundly meditating in my lap, with the mouse hidden behind my meditation cushion.

The moments expanded into minutes, and I could almost feel the mouse relaxing behind me. After a few more minutes, it almost seemed as though the mouse was joining me and the cat in meditating.

I could hardly help smiling - perhaps the three of us were meditating together!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Structure and Energy

In my late-20's, I met an eccentric yoga teacher who later became one of the strongest influences on my teaching. Some of this influence included what I would consciously choose not to do, though many of his teachings still inform my yoga practice, and correspondingly, my yoga teaching.

Under the tutelage of Roger Eischens, I became a student of energy. Whether we call this energy chi, qi, prana or Floyd, an awareness of energy in the body is found in many healing modalities.

At first, I felt that energy was tangential to structure: There was body alignment, strength and flexibility... And then there was energy.

With further training and practice, however, I began to feel how alignment could facilitate feeling energy moving in my body, and how energy-based techniques could influence alignment. Rather than being two distinct systems, Roger showed me that they were the two sides of the same coin.

Roger was famous for containing multitudes. As I mentioned previously, I consciously forgot some of his teachings, while other teachings I've treasured and nurtured. Also in the vein of two sides of the same coin, some of Roger's teachings I both treasure and question.

In the late 1990's, Roger was teaching a therapeutic session to a well-worn athlete. This guy had worked and trained hard, and if his body were a pair of corduroy pants, most of the fuzziness of the corduroy would have been worn off.

Upon learning that the athlete's knees were largely devoid of cartilage, Roger quipped you don't need cartilage, you just need energy. And with that seemingly naive segue, Roger showed the old athlete poses for the arches of his feet, poses to realign his shins, and poses to realign his shoulder blades. After each pose, the man was standing straighter and looking more filled with vitality - as if an energy was being rebooted, and flowing more freely in his body. By the end of his short session, the man reported being free from knee pain for the first time in many months. Despite seeming unlikely, Roger's claim to have used structure to awaken energy-flow did seem to have positive merit.

Since then, I've learned to respect when a joint is worn, to respect the limits of joints, and to avoid straining whatever cartilage may be remaining. And while working with the structural body, to remain attuned to the flow of energy in the body. This energy may be poorly understood in the West, but it can contribute mightily to vitality and well-being. In working with techniques that realign the energy-body, in tandem with techniques that realign the structural-body, yoga therapeutics can be a powerful path for transformation and healing.

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.