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 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.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Underside of Alignment

Worrying too much about alignment can fan the flames of anxiety.
(circa 1985, laundry product anxiety)
“When my hips are open, my back will feel strong."

“Opening my chest will open my heart.”

“My psoas is pulling my shoulders forward.”

As the developer of Alignment Yoga, I may give the impression that I'm all about alignment, all the time. To some extent I do employ alignment as a compass to guide our work with body and mind but I’ve also seen firsthand how alignment can fan the flames of anxiety, lead to more discomfort in the body, and debilitate a healthy sense of self.

Many of us come to the table with the view that our body is a “fixer-upper” project. If only my shoulders were balanced, my hips were open, and my shoulders pulled back… then I could be happy.
The quotes at the beginning of this posting are common refrains in the yoga world. While there may be some truth within their proclamations, embedded within them is a view that the body is something that the mind must fix, remedy, or rescue. This view often sets up an adversarial relationship with the body, and viewing the body as an adversary is a reliable predictor of misery.

Sometimes what we perceive as misalignment is the brilliance of an individual body finding its optimal relationship to gravity. For example, I’ve worked with many students who are trying to fix their scoliosis, only to experience more pain in the process. It’s not uncommon that the best path for working with scoliosis is to stretch and strengthen, though without the goal of fixing the body by straightening the spine.

Trying to fix the body through alignment can also be a hiding place for anxiety. I’ve worked with many well-intentioned students who live with a generalized apprehension that the other shoe is about to drop. Anxiety can be an unpleasant bedfellow, and is remarkably creative in taking forms that make it more difficult to recognize the anxiety as anxiety.

Anxiety often takes expression through an over-application of a technique that can have utility. Opening tight places and stabilizing unstable places in the body can be beneficial. But placing undue concern into the alignment of the body can also be an expression of anxiety that further fans its flames.

Perfect alignment is not necessarily related to optimal health and well-being. Most trees lean one way or another, and similarly, healthy shoulders are rarely perfectly level.

The internal organs in the body are not perfectly symmetric, and asking the hips to be perfectly level isn’t necessarily their natural alignment. Fretting about aligning the hips can often fan the flames of anxiety. While misaligned hips may be problematic, frequently worrying about misaligned hips causes more tension and pain than the misalignment, itself!

When exploring alignment, the first step is relaxing. Find your foundation (ground), relax your body and mind (relax the palate as a shorthand for this process), and surrender to impermanence (as represented by the exhale). When there’s an easy approach to alignment, there can be benefits for body and mind. When the approach to alignment is of the fix-it mindset, anxiety may be lurking!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Back to School

As some of you already know, I’ve decided to go back to school. Returning to school is something I’ve long considered, and just recently it seems the planets have aligned in such a way that it seems doable.

So, what does a middle-aged yoga teacher study? Years ago I was admitted to a PhD program at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. I studied Sport and Exercise Science for a short while, then ultimately left the academy to focus more hours per day on the yoga mat. While spending my 20’s focused on yoga gave me the grounding of 10,000+ hours of practice, one of my few life regrets has been prematurely leaving my academic course of study. In support of this long-standing interest, I will be applying to the PhD program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, this time in the Kinesiology Department.

I’m interested in how movement, and particularly aerobic exercise, impacts the meditating brain. There is growing evidence that meditation rewires the brain. And it appears that exercise also has the potential to remap the brain. My hunch is that the whole exceeds the sum of the parts; that there is a powerful synergy in combining regular exercise and meditation practices together. I would like to explore how combining the mental exercise of meditation with physical exercise may contribute to being a healthier human being.

If all goes according to plan, I will begin my studies in the fall of 2016. While that may seem like a long ways off, there’s a fair amount to be done between now and then.

One task on my plate is preparing for and taking the GRE. The last time I took a standardized test the Soviet Union was still intact, my hair was fully brown and the #2 pencil was an integral part of the process. Since it’s been 25+ years since I’ve taken a standardized test, I’m investing a good deal of time into preparing!

Over the next year, I’ll also be reviewing my teaching load and commitments. While I plan to continue teaching many of my current classes, it will be necessary for me to cut back on my weekly schedule. Rethinking my teaching schedule will be done in consultation with Alignment Yoga faculty and staff, and I welcome your input. Please be assured that I’ll make these decisions with a great deal of care and consideration.

I’m a bit daunted by the prospect of entering school as a decidedly non-traditional student. At the same time, I am finding a renewed spring in my stride as I contemplate adding more academic rigor to my thought process, writing and teaching.

Why would I go back to school? In an upcoming blog posting I’ll discuss my goals in embarking on a PhD, and what I hope to gain by this large undertaking.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Alignment and Yoga

The other day I received a Facebook message from a yoga teacher based in Australia. His query was simple and straightforward: what are the benefits of alignment in the practice of yoga?

What a great question! We’re exploring alignment in this practice, and to what end? 

I experience alignment awareness as having two primary benefits. One of the benefits of exploring alignment in the yoga poses is the potential to rebalance aging bodies, and the other benefit is to help focus and calm the mind.

We generally move our bodies from the places of least resistance. When we’re young, moving the body from the flexible places generally isn’t very problematic since most of the body tends to be pretty flexible. As we age, however, moving from the points of least resistance can cause two problems.

When we move from the points of least resistance, the flexible places tend to get more flexible. What’s the problem with greater flexibility, you may ask? Excessive flexibility leads to joint instability. And joint instability is a common cause of chronic pain and dis-ease in the body. For example, lower-back pain is often experienced as tight muscles, which frequently relates back to joints that are overly mobile.

Like too much of anything, too much flexibility can become problematic. And chronically moving from the points of least resistance can lead to layers of tight muscles overlaying hypermobile joints.
When we move from the points of least resistance, the stiff places also tend to get bypassed. And as a result, the stiff places tend to get stiffer and stiffer. This tight-getting-tighter often happens in the thoracic spine and the upper part of the neck.

Rather than the joy of movement that is harmoniously distributed throughout the body, vast tracts of the body grow stagnant when movements only happen in the easy and familiar places.

By paying attention to alignment in the body, the poses can help mobilize the places that most need opening, and stabilize the places that are at risk of becoming over-mobile. In addition, the mind is engaged in this practice of awareness.

Focusing the mind on something such as body alignment cultivates concentration. And concentration is on the continuum that leads us into all the myriad benefits of meditation.

Working with alignment in the poses can have great benefits for both body and mind. However, working with alignment also has the potential to lead to less ease and more discomfort. In the next blog posting, I’ll discuss the potential dark side of alignment.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Low and Medium Intensity Exercise, Defined

In a previous posting, I offhandedly used the terms “low intensity” and “medium intensity” aerobic activity. Perhaps you’re already familiar with these terms, though I think for many people these terms are about as meaningful as Urdvha Dhanurasana or other Sanskrit names.

While “low intensity aerobic activity” may sound pretty technical, I think most of us have an intuitive, seat-of-the-pants understanding of what a low intensity or medium intensity workout may feel like. Unfortunately, these terms are largely relative. By whose standard? By the standards of the marathon runner? Or the devout couch potato?

Thankfully, we can quantify these terms by keeping tabs on our heart rate. In keeping track of our heart rate, we can find the just-right challenge for each person, regardless of whether they’re an elite athlete or just starting to get back in shape.

We all have a maximum heart rate. The harder we work out, the faster our heart beats… to a certain point. For each of us, our heart will only beat so fast.  This maximum heart rate varies from person to person, though scientists have found some reliable patterns. Firstly, maximum heart rate tends to correlate strongly to age. Secondly, most people’s maximum heart rate is no more than about 220 beats per minute.

After years of studying thousands of people, scientists found that if you subtracted a person’s age in years (human years, not cat or dog years) from 220, you arrive at a pretty good approximation of their maximum heart rate.

220 - age (in years) = calculated Maximum Heart Rate (MHR)

For example, I’m 48 years old. Subtracting 48 from 220, I end up with a calculated maximum heart rate of 172 beats per minute. While this isn’t exactly my maximum heart rate (more on that in a forthcoming post), it’s sufficiently close for the purpose of monitoring the intensity of my workouts.

OK, now what do you do with this esteemed MHR number? With the MHR number in hand, we can now quantifiably define what’s meant by low-intensity or medium-intensity aerobic exercise.

Low intensity aerobic exercise is commonly defined by a heart rate that’s 55-65% of MHR. Medium intensity aerobic exercise is commonly defined by a heart rate that’s 65-75% of MHR.

In my body, I’m just starting to derive the aerobic benefits of working out when I’m in the low intensity zone of 95-112 beats per minute (BPM). I’m in medium intensity zone when my heart rate is between 122-129 BPM.

To develop heart-healthy fitness, I’ve been enjoying activities with my heart rate in the 95 to 129 BPM range.

By keeping my heart rate in this low to moderate intensity zone, I’ve enjoyed 90+ consecutive days with 30+ minutes of aerobic activity. It’s felt great, and I can almost feel how my body is growing stronger and healthier.

What is your calculated maximum heart rate? What is 55-75% of your MHR? What would it feel like to spend 200-minutes in this zone each week?