Monday, August 13, 2018

Human Flourishing

This afternoon my wife asked if I needed anything for the forthcoming school year. After my obligatory response of a pencil sharpener and a Batman lunch box, I responded in the negative. I have enough stuff, and I am eager to start my 3rd year of graduate school independent of the contents of any back-to-school sales. In many respects, I'm more enthused for the start of this forthcoming academic year than I have been for any prior year. In no small measure, my enthusiasm for the forthcoming school year is related to the course that I am assistant teaching this Fall.
The Wisconsin Idea is alive and well!

The invitation to join The Art and Science of Human Flourishing teaching team was an honor, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this innovative initiative. I'm a bit wistful that such a course wasn't offered when I was an undergraduate at The University of Minnesota, though I'm happy to pay forward whatever I may have learned from an adulthood immersed in studying meditation, movement and Yoga.

This course will explore flourishing through three lenses; through the lens of science, through the lens of wisdom traditions, and via direct experience. I love seeing the findings of science steeped with the humanities' consideration of the human condition, and I am happy for the undergrads that may benefit from directly experiencing the wisdom that flows from both of these streams.

This course begins the week after Labor Day, and runs the duration of the 15-week Fall semester. Amidst writing a thesis proposal and coursework (statistics), I hope to post periodic updates.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Face and How We Feel

In my last blog posting, I briefly discussed the complexity of mammalian faces. Through microscopic changes in facial muscles, we both communicate our feelings to others, and feel the feelings of others. Our communication and perception of feeling and emotion is an embodied experience, by and large mediated by the muscles of our faces.

I'm working on letting down my guard around brassicas.
In the Polyvagal Theory of Dr. Stephen Porges, it's suggested that the state of our nervous system is directly connected to the same facial muscles that communicate and perceive. In Dr. Porges' theory, when our bodies are in growth and recovery mode, inhibition of facial musculature is reduced - in rest and recovery (parasympathetic activation), mammals are particularly tuned to engage with others. Conversely, when mammals are in fight, flight or freeze (FFF) mode, the facial muscles are inhibited - in FFF (sympathetic activation), the inhibition of facial musculature impairs social connection, and mammals devolve into everyone for themselves behaviors.

I'm fascinated by the proposed brainstem/face connection. The state of our nervous system (the continuum of growth and recovery to FFF) influences our capacity to meaningfully connect? I find it even more interesting that the mechanism of this connection (or disconnection) is embodied, and largely via the musculature of our faces.

Researchers have dedicated years to exploring this theory, and the theory remains just that - a theory. There are some applications of the Polyvagal Theory that make some highfalutin claims, though many of these claims have yet to be rigorously substantiated.

I'm bringing some of these ideas to my personal laboratory (the Movement Lab of my yoga mat and Pilates equipment), and am intrigued by what I feel and experience. I will continue studying the fascinating work of Dr. Porges, and look forward to sharing more of what I learn in future blog postings.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Let’s face it…

The human face is a remarkably expressive palette. Virtually the instant that we see someone, we have a sense of how they’re feeling. Their subsequent words may modulate our initial impression, though we largely read emotion through microscopic changes in facial expression. These flickers and flashes of expression provide a moment-by-moment dialogue in our interactions with others.

Facial Expression says a lot.
The scientific literature is dense with research on nonverbal communication, and I’ve heard respected scientists cite that fully 92% of our communication occurs nonverbally. Whether or not the figure is 92%, 78% or even 57%, it appears as though humans communicate more through movement and expression than through the sophistication of our words, turns of phrases and/or witty bon mot.

Put another way, communication is embodied. Bodies communicate to bodies, and we can almost consider words the supporting players in the sophistication of human communication. For example, primates (including humans) perceive the feelings of other primates by mirroring their facial expressions. When I see you, my face will quickly match your face. By experiencing in my face the countenance of your face, I can literally feel what you’re feeling. And by feeling what others feel, empathy naturally arises. The capacity to empathize is literally hardwired into us.

Relatedly, deficits in making facial expressions have been shown to produce deficits in reading the emotional state of others. An interesting study looked at deficits in reading emotion in people who had received Botox injections. Botox reduces facial wrinkles by paralyzing the facial muscles that underlie the wrinkles. When someone who has received Botox treatments is shown an emotionally laden image of a face, they are far slower to identify what the pictured person is feeling. By losing their use of some facial muscles, the Botoxed people are less able to perceive what others are feeling.

Faces are remarkably communicative, and I’ve been paying more attention to the complexity of countenance in recent weeks. The muscles around the eyes, mouth and nose, in particular, tell us so much about the inner life of others.

In coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about the human face and its neural control. This is in preparation for my forthcoming Blue Mounds Dharma Center retreat, Yoga, Cardiac Control and Well-Being.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Avidya (... or the case for working with a teacher)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS) are often portrayed as the canon of Yogic thought. While the evidence that supports this assertion is pretty shaky, there is a good deal of wisdom embedded with the YS. Since I first read Swami Hariharananda's translation 30+ years ago, I've returned to aspects of the sutras again and again. Among the YS best-of elements is its discussion of the impediments, or Kleshas. There are five kleshas that are mentioned in the YS, and my motivation to maintain a close, working relationship with a spiritual teacher is rooted in the first Klesha, called Avidya. Unfortunately, the Sanskrit word avidya is often translated into the English word, ignorance. Ignorance, however, scarcely acknowledges the depth of avidya, and operating with this definition too-often devolves into a spiritual materialism that readily takes on judgmental overtones.

Image result for hariharananda yoga sutra translation
The 1984 translation that first introduced me
to the YS.
I had the good fortune of receiving an inspiring teaching on avidya while at the Mind and Life XXII meeting in New Delhi, India back in 2010. (I wrote about Swami Atmapriyananda's teaching in a contemporaneous blog posting, so will skip describing it here.) Suffice it to say, Swami-ji made it clear that Avidya was all about expanding awareness of what you did not know that you did not know, and not about recognizing what you already know that you don't know. There is a difference between knowing what you don't know (I do not know wavelet analysis), and not knowing what you don't know (avidya, or spiritual ignorance.)

Swami Atmapriyananda and the Dalai Lama at
Mind & Life XXII

I've found that teachers bring awareness to what I didn't know that I didn't know, and these insights have proven to be useful in my life. In physical practice, for example, I was not aware of the extent to which I was retracting my shoulder blades in shoulder flexion. When a skilled Pilates teacher pointed this out to me, the insight helped me enjoy much more freedom in my ribcage. I was grateful to reap the benefits of having this pattern pointed out to me.

In my spiritual life, I've been grateful to enjoy the teachings and community that I receive by working with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. Under Rinpoche's tutelage, I've seen aspects of my thinking patterns and behaviors that are not congruent with how I like to think I'm carrying myself in this world. I didn't know the extent to which I protected my identifications, and have benefited from having light shone on my thinking/belief patterns. And once I knew what I didn't know, the ignorance blossomed into the path, and I've felt richly rewarded in the process. While I've heard people refer to the wisdom of the inner guru and how teachers are no longer necessary, my experience indicates otherwise. Despite decades of dedicated practice, I've found that in the absence of a teacher, teachings and dharma brothers & sisters, the mental patterns that lead me astray have largely remained in the shadows of unawareness.

Tomorrow morning I'm off to St. Paul to take retreat with Mingyur Rinpoche, and I am alternately excited and a little bit apprehensive. Excited, because I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to meditate and explore the nature of my own mind; and a little apprehensive, because retreat generally nudges me out of cozy-dharma practice. While I love to feel happy and good, it's always a crapshoot on how I actually feel when faced with my own mind for hours on end. In the end, however, I've always come back from retreat feeling a healthier human being. I am grateful for this opportunity, and hope to share whatever I may learn in future Yoga classes and meditation sessions.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Updates (c-c-c-change)

The '17/18 academic year has recently drawn to a close, and I'm currently enjoying some introspective time while visiting Maui. This past semester was eventful, and time for reflection is proving to be nourishing.

As many of you know, I've been enthusiastically studying joint laxity and its correlation with various health states. As my research expanded, I found loose joints (joint hypermobility) accompanying various conditions with shocking frequency. Conditions as seemingly unrelated as anxiety, osteoarthritis, autoimmune disease, and chronic fatigue all occur more frequently in those who have hyper-mobile joints! While I had a lot of good support from mentors and colleagues, the path forward in translating ideas to outcomes remained frustratingly elusive. As another academic year came and went without a clear sense of how I'd translate ideas into funded research (and a PhD degree), I made the difficult decision to change labs.

My bones feel nourished by Maui.
I'm not change averse, though in the Ayurvedic worldview, I tend to be more Earth-y than Water-y. It's been said that I change direction with the grace and elegance of a barge navigating a small harbor (or a bull in a china shop.) While I'm still sorting out the ripples resulting from this recent change, I'm very excited to return to researching Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the use of Yoga interventions to help improve lives.

As of mid-March, I am now a member of the Motor & Brain Development Lab at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Under the tutelage of Dr. Brittany Travers, I will finish up the data analysis from the YogAutism study. I have been part of the YogAutism study since its beginning, and am honored to rejoin this collaboration with the Center for Healthy Minds. The next-steps in getting these data ready for public consumption are primarily in the realm of statistics and analysis. In forthcoming blog postings, I will share more of my enthusiasm/apprehension about these next-steps in my continued development as a scientist.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Stuff I Learned - Week #2

The first lecture began with a disclaimer that Yoga is not 5000 years old. The professor then went on to explain that Yoga is a philosophy that is 2600 years old, at most, and that the yoga postures didn’t arise until even later. Having read Yoga Body and other books about Yoga’s history, this was not an entirely surprising revelation. New for me, though, was the careful and methodical unraveling of Yoga: Methods and Goals – the name of the graduate-level class that I am taking at the University of Wisconsin – Madison this semester.

I met this cat at a market in the south Indian city of Mysore.
I’m not sure why I first checked out the course offerings within the Religious Studies Department. Certainly, I had enough coursework to keep me occupied within my specialty, the neural control of movement.  Be that as it may, I found a surfeit of interesting courses within the Religious Studies department; courses on the history and philosophy of my long term interests, Yoga and Buddhism. Reading the descriptions of the various courses, I felt like a kid in a candy store, and I remember asking myself; can these courses really move me closer to my goal of earning a PhD in Kinesiology? Well, the answer may be a qualified yes – pursuing a PhD Minor in Religious Studies may not be the most direct path to earning a PhD in Kinesiology, though adding a Minor in Religious Studies certainly promises to add a lot of richness to my life and teaching!

I feel like a treasure hunter as I research the earliest
textual references to Sirsasana.
The semester is still young, though I’ve already learned a good deal about the earliest flickers of Yoga philosophy. I just read the Katha Upanishad, which is among the first texts that lays out the essence of Yoga philosophy (as opposed to the Vedic philosophy that predates Yoga). Written at about the time of the Buddha, the Katha Upanishad outlined three key concepts that are considered foundational to Yoga philosophy. What makes Yoga philosophy distinct from what precedes it? The three key concepts that help define Yoga are:

·      Our current life exists within an infinite cycle of births and deaths (samsara)
·      The accumulation of actions from previous lives (Karma) determines the fate of your birth
·      The possibility of liberation from the suffering of these cycles of birth & death (Moksha)

Next week’s readings come from the Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata. In particular, two sections of this classic poem are said to relate most directly to Yoga philosophy: the Moksadharma, and the Santiparvan. I’ll let you know what I learn in a forthcoming blog posting!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Mysore" Pilates

I feel fortunate that my first introduction to Yoga occurred within a culture of daily practice. At the Minneapolis Yoga Workshop, the very first classes introduced students to the power of personal practice, and provided the resources necessary to embody it. In hindsight, I realized that William Prottengeier's dedication to personal practice was unique, and I'm forever grateful that I was steeped in his Yoga-culture.

While my yogasana-orbit ultimately led me away from the Iyengar system, I landed in another system that emphasized personal practice - the Ashtanga Vinyasa community. While I did attend some guided Ashtanga classes, most of my training in Ashtanga Yoga occurred within the context of Mysore-classes.

Mysore is the city in South India where modern yoga sprang forth. In the Ashtanga culture of Mysore, students sequentially learned the series under the direct guidance of their teacher - what's called a Mysore class. When the teacher ascertained that the student was ready to move forward, they instructed the student in the next-step in the series that was being practiced. In the beginning, students may only have one or two poses they were working on, though were encouraged to show up at the yoga school every day to work on their handful of poses. Upon a degree of mastery of these poses, the teacher would guide the student onto the next rung of their proverbial ladder.

Mysore practice originated in Southern India.

I still love Ashtanga and the Mysore approach, though my older-shoulders aren't as keen on this system as they once were. Despite the changes in my physical body, I still love the focused intensity of a Mysore class; each student is individually working on their own practice, yet contributing to an environment that's simultaneously challenging & supportive.

Last Fall, I was thrilled when the subject of Open Studio was first broached at Pilates on Harrison. While we did not use the term Mysore-style, the similarity was noticed by several faculty members. As the idea of Open Studio gained traction, we dedicated more of our instruction time to the ordering and flow on the various pieces of equipment. Much like Ashtanga Yoga, each of the major pieces of Pilates equipment (Chair, Tower and Reformer) has its Level I-V workouts.

Open Studio does not start with this exercise.
Open Studio is nearly one month old, now, and I'm pleased to report that the vibe of rhythmic, deep breathing and focused awareness is fully expressed in our Open Studio. While I'm excited to be teaching one of our Open Studio classes, I inevitably feel a tinge of envy when I watch the students in my class settling into their personal practice!

If you're a Yoga practitioner that has yet to work on the Pilates equipment, you may find the Open Studio approach to your liking. While students generally require a handful of individual sessions to gain the requisite skills to practice independently, Open Studio allows the full power of Mysore-style practice to take form.