Friday, July 10, 2015

Eating with Awareness

As many of you know, I’m fond of meditation. I’ve had the good fortune to come across a teacher I deeply respect (Mingyur Rinpoche) and a community of fellow practitioners that facilitate traversing this path (Tergar International).

For the past five consecutive years, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend the Tergar Summer Retreat. Each year I come back inspired, recharged, and ready to hit the ground running. And a few pounds heavier.

While meditation retreat does involve a lot of sitting, I'm not entirely sedentary. Each day I made it a point to get outside for some fresh air and a workout. Unfortunately, I also seem to disproportionately ramp up my food intake!

The food at the retreat center is pretty good institutional food, though nothing to write home about. For whatever reason, during meditation retreat I have historically felt a tractor beam pulling me toward piles of tater tots and peanut butter (no, not mixed together!).

And then I spend the rest of the summer trying to figure out why my clothes aren’t fitting so well.

This year I made it a point to observe my food consumption during the retreat – to bring the awareness I was cultivating on the cushion into the dining hall.

By writing down what I ate for each meal, I spontaneously brought awareness to my food choices. Almost without realizing it, I was tracking my consumption, which naturally made me more aware of what I was choosing to eat.

I’ve continued writing down my food choices since I returned from this year’s retreat, and have been pleasantly surprised to notice that my knees are happier now that I'm a few pounds lighter.

If for no other reason than reducing the stresses on my knees, I plan to continue observing my food consumption. I’m mindful that there is such a thing has too thin, though also notice that I’m still a full 20+ pounds heavier than I was in college. I’m curious to see what unfolds.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy eating the fresh, local food that arrives weekly from my CSA share.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Being able to perform advanced yoga poses has little, if any, bearing on one’s capacity to teach effectively.

Effective teaching is one of my primary goals in teaching yoga. The various Alignment Yoga Teacher Training programs focus on helping teachers-in-training become good teachers… Who just happen to teach yoga.

Sadly, the focus in much of the yoga teacher-training world is on the flash and dazzle of yoga: doing ever-deeper poses, or pushing students into emotional release. While there is a time and a place for both of these skills, I think we’d all be better off if we spent more time focusing on the fundamentals of effective teaching.

I can clearly remember the first time I recognized that I was in the presence of a very effective teacher. I was in the third grade at Desert Shadows Elementary School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

My usual classroom teacher announced that the principal, Muriel Rickard, would be coming into the classroom to teach us the 9’s of our multiplication tables. I was a pretty sorry student of multiplication tables, as memorizing isn’t one of my great strengths. In addition to being pretty underwhelmed by the prospect of more memorizing, I was also scared by the prospect of the principal, the holder of ultimate authority, spending much time in our classroom.

Despite my misgivings, I found Ms. Rickard to be absolutely enthralling. She walked confidently into the classroom, and immediately connected with the students in a warm-hearted and engaging way. To this day, I am amazed by her capacity to connect with students so quickly and in such a seemingly effortless way.

Of course, the 9’s of the multiplication tables have their own intriguing patterns. I still remember some of those details, but what I most clearly remember was watching Ms. Rickard teach. As a third-grader I thought to myself, that’s why she’s the principal – she’s the best teacher!

Up until that point, I categorized teachers as either nice or not nice. I’d never considered pedagogy in the least. But from that moment onward, I began to pay attention to how teachers taught, perhaps even at the expense of listening to what they were teaching.

Thanks to Ms. Rickard, way back in 1975, for opening my eyes to the world of teaching.  And a big thank you to all the teachers in the intervening years who’ve helped me see what I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and then showed me how to use the tools to continue discovering.

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 other 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.