Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Return to Science

As many of you know, I’ll be embarking on a new endeavor this coming Fall. After a 20+ year hiatus from the halls of The Academy, I’ll soon be matriculating at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

I’ve long been interested in the intersection of the mind and body, and I’ve continually run into dead-ends in understanding the mechanisms underlying this dynamic interplay. While yoga proponents make many claims about how body practices influence the mind, there’s astonishingly little evidence to support many (most?) of these claims.

In my forthcoming studies, I hope to develop a better understanding of how the body influences the mind, and how mental practices, in turn, influence the body.  It’s an exciting time in the fields of Contemplative Neuroscience and Kinesiology, and I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to deepen my understanding of both fields.

As part of my shift toward a deeper scientific understanding of physical and contemplative practices, I anticipate the focus of this blog will also evolve. Thus far, this blog has largely revolved around my subjective experiences and opinions. In the coming months, I plan to pivot the focus of this blog to more closely reflect what I’m learning in school.  

While I will certainly continue to interject opinion and fanciful conjecture into my writings, I plan to use my upcoming coursework as springboards for a wide-ranging discussion of movement, meditation and their creative integration.

If you’re new to this blog – welcome! And if you’ve been reading for a while – thank you for your support!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

More to Learn and Room to Improve

While I’ve taught for quite a long time – more than 30,000 hours spent teaching yoga – I also relish being a student. Recently, I’ve been able to merge the roles of teacher and student, and have come away humbled and inspired.

Within the Tergar Meditation Community, I’ve been a Practice Leader in our local Madison group since its inception. This role has been clearly defined in terms of guiding meditations and following the curriculum that Tergar International has provided us. Among the various hats that I’ve worn within Mingyur Rinpoche’s organization, facilitator has not been one of my roles. Until recently.

Late last year, I was asked to consider training as a Tergar Facilitator. While the Facilitator role does not involve the depth of teaching required of Tergar Instructors, teaching meditation is an element of being a Facilitator within the Tergar community. And while I have taught embodied awareness (yoga) for many years, I have less experience teaching meditation.

In teaching yoga, a baseline of competence is important. It’s entirely too easy to get hurt in yoga, and faulty instruction is a common cause. While I hope no one gets hurt while practicing yoga, given enough time, most yoga injuries generally resolve. But the mind is another matter.

In meditation, practitioners work directly with their minds. And despite all the positive news about meditation, it is possible to fan the flames of anxiety, depression and rumination through inappropriate mental practices. Given the vast complexity of the human mind and its thoughts, feelings and emotions, I think it’s essential that meditation teachers be thoroughly trained.

I appreciate the extent to which Tergar is investing in my training. In addition to regular meetings with my meditation teacher/mentor/friend Cortland Dahl, I’ve recently had the chance to serve as an assistant facilitator at a couple of Joy of Living weekend meditation workshops.

So far, I’ve assisted Cortland and another Tergar Senior Instructor, Myoshin Kelly. It’s been inspiring to watch how deftly they both have responded to tender questions, and humbling to see how much my facilitating can improve.

Our culture can be quick to rubber-stamp endorsements and licenses after a short training, and I find it refreshing to be in an open-ended apprenticeship.

When will I be ready to facilitate Joy of Living events on my own? When I’m ready. And until (and beyond) that time, I am actively seated in the dual roles of meditation teacher and student!

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Results of Your Practice

In my last posting, I mentioned that there is a difference between relaxation and depletion. At first glance, it can be difficult to gauge but with practice, the difference between relaxation and depletion becomes clearly apparent.

The first step in gauging the difference between depletion and relaxation is to shift the observational time-scale from the immediate to many hours later. My old yoga teacher, Roger, was the one who taught me the importance of gauging the effect of a yoga pose (or practice) by observing mind and body many hours after the practice.

When I first began studying yoga with Roger, I used to love a practice where I'd drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana and then come back up to standing... 108 times. ( When doing this practice, my mind felt clear and fresh, and coming out of this practice I felt like one billion bucks (inflation... one million isn't what it used to be).

Roger, in his not-so-subtle way, suggested that my beloved drop-backs practice was making me more fragile and brittle. Not so, I insisted! I felt great during and after this practice, and I felt that there was no way that this advanced yoga was anything but a fast track to enlightenment. Seeing that I was not open to new ideas in that moment, Roger waited until a few weeks later to revisit his point.

The next time Roger mentioned my beloved drop-backs practice I was sprawled on the sofa, barely able to keep my eyes open... in the middle of the day. Upon asking how I felt, my responses were probably pretty gurgly... I was on the losing end of the liminal struggle to remain awake.

This time, more gently, Roger suggested that my current state of exhaustion might be related to the morning's practice. Somehow I was able to entertain this suggestion the second time around, and in the following days and weeks I tracked how I felt 4+ hours after I did my practices. And I was shocked!

Some of the morning practices that left me feeling meh in the moment cultivated a great sense of mental steadiness and physical vitality later in the day. And some of the practices that I considered profound in the moment, whether restorative or uber vigorous, left me feeling flat later in the day.

In time, I learned how to gauge the difference between energizing and agitating, calming and depleting in real-time, though that degree of differentiation took awhile to cultivate. Through observing how I felt 4+ hours after a practice I was able to learn the essential skill of seeing through the flash and dazzle of the momentary experience. And seeing through the swirl of the momentary experience allowed me to observe more deeply what was going on in my energy body.

Yoga practice is an ongoing experiment, and part of experimentation is the observation of the results. I encourage you to notice how you're feeling 4+ hours after you practice yoga. Of course, there are many variables at play in observing how you feel: the foods that you've eaten, life stresses, etc. But even with all the potential variables, often patterns emerge.

I'm curious to hear what you experience - please share your findings in the comments!

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?