Thursday, January 28, 2016

Relaxed? Or depleted?

Relaxation and depletion are very different, yet few yoga practitioners seem to know the difference. Virtually every week I encounter yoga students who speak longingly of their relaxing practice, though when I see their eyes at the close of their relaxing practice, I see a flatness and dullness that suggestions depletion.

In discussing relaxation and depletion, we’re squarely in the realm of subjectivity. I don’t think we’re going to find a blood test or fMRI scan that verifies a difference between these qualities, though I think we can all tell the difference.

When a family member or close friend isn’t feeling well, we generally can see the depletion and fatigue in their eyes. Sometimes we can see the change before the friend or family member even reports feeling ill or under the weather! This seeing is a transferable skill, and can be very useful for a yoga teacher to cultivate through practice (the subject of another blog entry).

Just because a given yoga technique is reputed to be relaxing doesn’t mean that it isn’t depleting. And what’s true for one person isn’t necessarily true for everyone! I’ve seen some people flop over a bolster for a long time and come out of the supported pose looking refreshed, while the person next to them looks absolutely depleted. Knowing the difference between relaxation and depletion is an essential skill for yoga practitioners and teachers.

What bodily sensations correspond to relaxing? What bodily sensations arise while doing a supposedly relaxing practice that turns out to be depleting?

Friday, January 22, 2016

Pre-Yoga and Breathing

Breathing is one of the body’s many miracles. When we breathe we aren’t simply exchanging oxygen, but also massaging the abdominal organs, exercising the skeletal muscles and massaging the spinal disks. The breathing of the body affects every organ, muscle, joint and nerve. Because each and every cell of the body is involved with breathing, it is the starting point for good health.

When we breathe, the ribs should be in constant motion. When we inhale, the ribs expand and when we exhale, the ribs release. Consider what attaches to the ribs: virtually every shoulder muscle and neck muscle connects to the ribs. All the abdominal muscles, in turn, connect to the ribs. Most all the muscles of the back ultimately attach to the ribs. When we’re breathing healthily, the rhythmic movement of the ribs keeps these muscles in constant motion. The motion keeps them in good health.

Our muscles are like bodies of water. If there’s no movement in a pond, the water gets stagnant. Stagnant water cannot support the abundance of life we see in healthy, fresh water. Like a stagnant pond, stagnant muscles cannot maintain their vitality. In a matter of time, a stagnant muscle becomes stiff and painful.

Sadly, once we recognize the muscle has become stagnant, we generally react by stretching it. That’s akin to finding a stagnant pond and yelling at it to become vibrant. We can yell all we want, but until we get some movement in that body of water, it continues to stink. When our body’s constant internal massage of the muscles is interrupted, the muscles will inevitably become stiff and sore. Stretching those muscles does little to jumpstart the proper breathing because the tight muscle is often the result of and not the cause of inadequate breathing. Until we pay attention—directly— to the breathing, stretching often does little to affect lasting change.

Ironically, sore muscles are also oxygen deficient. Using muscles requires a constant supply of fresh oxygen. That’s why we start breathing harder and our heart rate increases when we go running. If we cannot keep up with the muscle’s need for oxygen, the muscles get sore. If our breathing is consistently shallow, our muscles are likely oxygen deficient. Again, simply stretching or exercising does not solve the problem. We must directly study the breathing so that our baseline, normal, everyday breath is vital and robust. Then running, biking, yoga, etc. are of profound benefit.

Breathing is also linked to our immune system. We are seeing an epidemic of immune system disorders, particularly autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease is when the immune system is overactive and attacks its own tissues. Conditions such as arthritis, gout, rheumatism, allergies, psoriasis, eczema, Crohn’s disease, and lupus, to name a few, are all autoimmune disorders. An overactive immune system is related to the breath.

When we breathe, the diaphragm should move in a very particular way (covered in detail in the March 30th, 2009 blog entry.) The proper diaphragm movement gives the A-OK signal to the brain. If the diaphragm moves otherwise, the brain receives the full-alert signal. We’ve all experienced this.

Imagine you’re walking alone down a dark trail. You’re enjoying the quiet solitude when you hear a twig snap in the forest behind you. What do you think you’d do? Likely, you would gasp. The gasp (paradoxic breathing) is a reversal of the body’s proper diaphragm movement and a sensible response to a high-stress or dangerous situation. The gasp alerts the brain to put all systems on full alert. The skeletal muscles tense (particularly neck and shoulders), the blood pressure spikes upward, and blood is diverted from the digestive tract to the skeletal muscles. In full alert mode, the body is prepared for something bad to happen, so the immune system is ready to fight the infections arising from the peril (cuts, scrapes, gouges, etc.)

Unfortunately, many of us live with diaphragms that don’t move properly. As a result, we’re constantly signaling our bodies to live in full-alert mode. Over time, the overactive immune system begins to attack its own tissues and autoimmune disease sets in. The elevated blood pressure of full-alert mode increases our risk of heart attack and stroke. The neck and shoulder muscles stay tight until they become a literal pain in the neck. The digestive organs don’t receive adequate blood flow and we develop digestive problems.

Why don’t we breathe properly? Often the cause is simply structural. We don’t breathe properly because we’re using the diaphragm muscle to hold our bodies upright. When the diaphragm is involved with postural support, it’s too busy to breathe.

Using the diaphragm muscle for postural support is technically called hydraulic stabilization, or Valsalva. Hydraulic stabilization is generally the result of ineffective postural support. If the core postural support muscles aren’t doing what they should, the body recruits nearby muscles to stand in. The diaphragm, unfortunately, is one of the stand-in muscles.

Maintaining an upright spine is unique to human beings. Most of the animal kingdom enjoys a spine horizontal to the Earth’s surface. While being upright confers many advantages (easier to see at the movie theater and to drive a car,) it does pose unique challenges to our structure. How we maintain our upright spine, with which muscles working and which muscles relaxed, determines our ability to breathe and move comfortably in our bodies. Unfortunately, most people are using their diaphragms to hold their body upright (hydraulic stabilization) and binding much of their vital energy in the process.

Proper support for the torso comes from below. It’s similar to a baby’s blocks or building a new house. We start with the base/foundation and build upward. It’s impractical to start building a house with the roof and work downward, yet this is how many of us hold up our bodies: we hold ourselves up from the neck and shoulders.

Holding ourselves up with tense shoulders is such a common pattern, that yoga/Pilates/fitness teachers have the mantra, shoulders down and back. What’s missing in that statement is, why are the shoulders up by the ears in the first place? Usually it’s a result of hydraulic stabilization; as the diaphragm steadies our lower back, the neck/shoulders have to steady the mid-back. It’s a cascading stream of problems, and we generally start somewhere in the middle, rather than addressing the first and true cause. It’s easy to treat symptoms – it’s much more demanding to treat causes.

In the inner-back pelvis reside some of the most important muscles of postural support. The inner back pelvis includes the psoas, iliacus and pelvic floor musculature. When these function properly, the spine is properly supported and breathing is uninhibited. When the inner-back pelvis is asleep, we default to hydraulic stabilization.

Pre-Yoga was developed in response to the near-universal occurrence of improper breathing and hydraulic stabilization. There are many yoga proponents who maintain that persistently practicing yoga postures will develop the inner-back pelvis and cure improper breathing. I wish that was true, as teaching yoga would be much simpler if that was the case. Sorry to say, I’ve not found much evidence to support that claim. If the inner-back pelvis was dormant and we used hydraulic stabilization for postural support on our first day of yoga practice, we’re generally using the same strategies in year ten of our yoga practice. Yes, we become more sophisticated in our movements, and more adept at hiding the dysfunctions, but the dysfunctions remain. Unless and until we get to the root of things, we’re shifting appearances rather than healing ourselves.

Within this practice of Yoga is an amazing opportunity. Can we utilize this opportunity to seep into deeper layers of ourselves?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Back to School Update

A few months ago I mentioned my back-to-school plans, and I’ve been meaning to provide an update on this decision.

In brief – it’s full speed ahead! Just a few days ago my application was fully submitted. While applying for grad school may seem like falling off a log, there were actually a few steps involved.

One of the first steps in applying to grad school was taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Many of my friends expressed condolences about this step, though I actually rather enjoyed the studying process. I hadn’t thought about algebra, trigonometry or geometry for a couple decades, and it was kind of fun to dust off this knowledge.

The dusting off didn’t prove entirely fruitful, though. My written scores were pretty high but my quantitative analysis scores were, shall we way, good enough.

But good enough is just that, and I crossed the GRE off the list last August. With the GRE in the rearview mirror, I spent the next couple of months working on my application essay. Like the GRE, I also found this process useful.

I had a strong idea why I wanted to return to school, though these thoughts were not fully formed, and probably weren’t going to inspire anybody to seriously consider my admission to a well-regarded academic program. In collaboration with my advisor, the process of writing this essay gave me greater insight and ultimately more focus in my future endeavors.

Once the essay had been completed, then I reconnected with the gracious friends and colleagues who agreed to write letters of recommendation. These four are among the busiest people that I know, and I’m grateful that they took time out of their schedules on my behalf!

And now… hurry up and wait. It seems as though the i’s have been dotted and the t’s have been crossed, and now my application meanders its way through the admissions conveyor belt. Once I know more, I’ll share the news!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Himalayan Ridgeback Pointer

India is a feast for the senses. Subtlety may be part of the backdrop but the intensity of colors, sounds and fragrances frames the experience.

Beyond the kaleidoscope of sensory inputs, the people you encounter create the most lasting memories. From the helpful porter who lugs your bag (often bigger than he is) to the merchant insisting both “best price” and “best kwality,” the experience of India is the connection to a remarkably hearty, resourceful and resilient population.

On a trip to India a few years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting Maya Narayan and Didi Contractor at their home outside of Dharamsala. Through the generosity of my friends Jonathan and Lynn, I received an invitation to meet this fascinating duo for dinner.

After teaching my afternoon yoga class at the Pema Thang guesthouse, I immediately jumped into a cab for the circuitous 45- minute cab ride to Lower Dharamsala. The baby monkeys that cling to their mama’s fur were clearly the inspiration for the houses that hung off the hillsides. Made of various combinations of cement, slate and brick, a few ounces of mortar proved sufficient to bind the various ingredients into a whole. The cab’s connection to the road seemed a bit less secure than the buildings’ connection to the hillside, though not by much. As in much of India, an unwavering faith in providence is the currency that binds things into a whole.

As twilight segued into darkness, the familiar form of Jonathan appeared at a driveway that led into the darkness. Though I’d only met Maya a few hours previously, I felt a smile wash over my face as I recognized her form in the distinct darkness of the Himalayan foothills.

With flashlight in hand, Maya led us across a stony series of steps, outcroppings and stream crossings en-route to the compound she shared with her mother, Didi.

For those of you who have read My Family and Other Saints by Kirin Narayan, Didi Contractor needs no introduction. If you’ve yet to read this lovely book, you could consider Didi the Den Mother of the nascent human potential movement of the 1960’s. The personalities Didi nursed back to health during their India travels reads like a who’s-who of today’s yoga, neuroscience and meditation communities. After many years living near Mumbai, Didi now makes her home surrounded by the towering peaks of the Himalayas.

Upon reaching the hand-built, wooden doors, a voice from inside beckoned us to come in. Once I crossed the imposingly wide threshold, a most inviting scene unfolded. Lynn looked resplendent with two kitties on her lap, while Didi patiently stoked the fire. A bit sheepishly I was informed that the deliciousness of the dinner served before my arrival had left little on my plate, though in surroundings like this, nutrition came in forms more varied than caloric intake.

Didi sprang into action in the kitchen. Belying her age, there was quickly warm food on my plate, and rum toddies for all of us.

Once we all settled in around the fire, the stories quickly began to flow: Didi’s beautiful architectural creations, Indian driving tests and feral dogs were among the highlights.

The streets of India are populated with savvy dogs that somehow survive careening cabs, rickshaws and malnutrition to form a sizeable population. Even though I’m an avowed cat-lover, I’ve seen dozens of puppies I’ve been tempted to take home with me.

It turns out Maya fell prey to the same rampant displays of street smarts and cuteness, and adopted one of these common dogs. As this puppy matured, it turned out to be an unusually handsome specimen, and once it learned how to walk on the leash, began to hold its head a little higher, and walk with a bit more of a spring in its stride.

Though Ginger came from the humblest origins, her demeanor and presence became noticeably different from all the other dogs. Both locals and visitors began to ask, what breed of dog is that? To say Ginger was a mutt would have been nominally true, though Ginger would likely have found the term mutt an indignity, in the same way one doesn’t purchase a Vera Wang dress to avert indecent exposure laws.

In deference to the unique ridge of fur on Ginger’s spine, Maya identified her companion as a Himalayan Ridgeback Pointer. Given Ginger’s confidence and presence, most people nod knowingly when informed of her breeding, even though no such breed exists!

I found Maya’s story heartwarming in so many ways, among them, the demonstration of how our own mind shapes our worldview. As Ginger came to see herself as a beautiful and elegant creature, her demeanor simultaneously changed. From the humblest of origins as a street dog, she became a purebred Himalayan Ridgeback Pointer.

One of the joys in teaching yoga is watching people uncover the plasticity of their views. While upbringing certainly flavors our view of the world, it’s an overlay, and not a template. Through the regular practice of yoga and meditation, we come to realize that our view of our life and its events is more predictive of our experience than the events themselves. I’m not stressed because my life is stressful; I’m stressed because of how I react to the events of my life. Do you see your life as a street mutt, or as a purebred Himalayan Ridgeback Pointer?

As I bid adieu to my new friends Didi and Maya, I left inspired and uplifted in so many ways. Thank you to all for a most enjoyable evening!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Hearing Loss and Memory

In a previous entry I described my challenges with hearing loss. What was an ongoing challenge has since shifted to the management of a chronic condition. I still remain open to the possibility that my hearing may improve, though I have shifted more of my focus to managing the condition and making the most of what I have.

And what I have is pretty darned good. While some days congestion still makes it hard for me to hear high frequencies (i.e. some women’s voices), my Oticon hearing aids allow me to function about as well as ever.

What I’ve found interesting is my shifting definition of as well as ever.

As a small boy I had a lot of ear infections, and I’m now thinking my hearing loss has, more or less, been a lifelong condition. I first considered the possibility that I had hearing loss a couple years ago, and at the time my focus was on resolving what I considered an acute onset of hearing loss. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I am seeing that my hearing has always been pretty spotty.

And my entire life I’ve had a pretty shaky memory.

Recent research has suggested that untreated hearing loss may contribute to memory loss, and in my experience, this is indeed the case. Since committing to wearing the hearing aids (even when they squeal with feedback, hurt my ears or amplify the background sounds I really don’t want to hear) I have found my memory to be much sharper. Never would I have thought memory loss would be associated with moderate-to-severe hearing loss (my official category), yet I am happy to report that treating my hearing loss has significantly improved my memory.

All this leads me to the point of this blog posting:
If you or someone you know is vaguely suspicious they have hearing loss, TREAT IT!

While hearing aids are no replacement for the original equipment, they will not only help keep you in the loop, but may also help keep your mind sharp.

Hearing aids are vastly improved, and if you’re hesitant to pursue treating hearing loss because of the struggles your Grandma Violet had with her hearing aids, please rethink treating your hearing loss. Hearing aids are based on the same technology as computers, and like computers, hearing aids have improved dramatically in the past few years.

The new hearing aids are smaller, smarter and more reliable than ever. There’s never been a better time to rejoin the conversation and strengthen your mind by treating a suspected hearing loss.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Don’t Sprain Your Body

Stretching joints is a bad idea. I used to express this idea more delicately, as many people LOVE their Yin Yoga and other techniques that cultivate greater joint mobility. Here is a great article that outlines the very real risks of "spraining" the body.

Here is an excerpt from this excellent article by Charlotte Bell:

I know a number of serious practitioners who are now in their 50s—including myself—who regret having overstretched our joints back in the day. All too many longtime practitioners now own artificial joints to replace the ones they overused. Those fancy poses way back when were not worth their consequences.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Running! (albeit very slowly)

For years I focused on flexibility - now I work more on strength and endurance.
Glacial. I don’t think there’s any other term that better describes my recent 8+ mile run. As I slogged along, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious as runner after runner flew past me. While no walkers passed me, I must confess that it took me a l-o-n-g time to pass the various walkers that I encountered on my loop around the University of Wisconsin campus.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m writing about such an unnoteworthy run? While this run probably appeared anything but noteworthy to bystanders, for me this run was a sort of redemption. Running a longer distance was a milestone in rebuilding the resilience my body had lost over the past decade or so.

You see, for many years I focused on opening my body, and as a result, I became very flexible. Because I have the blessing/curse of joint laxity, my hips and shoulders became very, very flexible. While the stretching that built this flexibility usually felt good, I hadn’t realized that I’d let go of running and other activities that I used to enjoy.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been incrementally strengthening my joints and building aerobic fitness. There have been some ups and downs, though I’ve happily enjoyed less knee and back pain. In addition, I’ve been gradually building up my running capacity.

And now that I can run longer (for me) distances, I look forward to passing some glaciers in the coming year!