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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mismatch

There is a part of me that feels a little sheepish talking about people that I look up to or am inspired by.  This self-consciousness is probably an artifact of my upbringing; my Dad grew up in the shadow of the Depression and WWII, and our home life was more driven by results than by feelings. Despite my hesitation in saying so, there are a handful of people that consistently inspire me to move out of my comfort zone and think big. One of my inspirations is the humanitarian-monk, Matthieu Ricard.

The Shechen clinic helps the poorest of Nepal's poor.
 I first spent time with Matthieu at his home base in Kathmandu, Nepal. Over a whirlwind couple of days, Matthieu guided our small group around his various humanitarian projects. We saw just a few of the clinics, schools and hospices that are run by his organization, Karuna-Shechen... and this handful of facilities benefitted a few thousand people each day. Knowing that there were dozens of these programs scattered all around Nepal, India and Tibet blew my mind! On any given day, Matthieu's activities touch the lives of tens of thousands of people. The scale and scope of his commitment to benefitting beings is humbling and inspiring, and to this day, whenever I feel overwhelmed by life or my various commitments, I recall the good in the world that flows in the wake of Matthieu's maroon robes. Almost immediately upon recalling the visage of Matthieu, I'm inspired to carry on.

I respect how the Shechen clinics employ local/traditional medicine
alongside Western modalities.
In addition to the daily inspiration to benefit others, I am also deeply moved by Matthieu's recently published book, A Plea for the Animals. While I was inching toward veganism prior to reading this book, A Plea for the Animals was just the push that I needed to take the plunge into a 100% plant-powered diet.

During Matthieu's recent visit to Madison, we had a chance to talk about his book and how it influenced my decision to change my diet. Almost immediately, Matthieu focused on the idea of mismatch; most of us like, if not love, some animals... while we then eat other animals. How did our feelings about animals become so utterly mismatched?

The Bamboo Schools provide education to the poorest of the poor,
with a particular focus on education girls (almost unheard of in this region!)
I recalled working on a couple farms over the years, and ending up becoming friends with many different animals. Of course, I was fond of hanging out with the barnyard cats, though I also enjoyed throwing sticks for the farm dog. After a few months on the farms, I also came to know and appreciate the personalities of the individual goats, pigs and cows. I came to believe that all the barnyard animals had likes, dislikes and personalities - though I chose to open my heart more to some animals than others.

Matthieu and I talked about this mismatch, and how it consumes a lot of energy. We also talked about a common rationale for this mismatch - well, it's always been done this way. To this assertion, Matthieu animatedly pointed out that human sacrifices and slavery, to name a couple odious examples, were also common practices in human history. And that humans have mercifully moved away from many cruel practices that were once commonplace. Matthieu then asked - can there be a better time to move away from raising baby animal in order to eat them?

The kids start the day with an aspiration to
be of benefit to others.
The day after our conversation, Matthieu presented a beautiful overview of his 50+ years in the Himalayas. Toward the end of a long and inspiring day, a participant asked Matthieu about animals and food. Matthieu's reply was like the unleashing of a force of nature! Despite a long and tiring day, Matthieu's passion for benefiting beings - all beings, shone forth. Matthieu invited us to live steeped in the aspiration to consider the welfare of all beings... and if not now, then when?





Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Diaphragm Fatigue

The Lead-In:
The Fall semester is rapidly winding down, and my final task is completing a project for Cardiorespiratory Adaptations to Exercise and Environment. Unfortunately, skiing daydreams are interrupting my progress on this project. I love to ski, and the recent cold snap has me thinking about ski trips past and future. Of my various skiing daydreams, I've been fondly remembering various backcountry trips in Colorado's 10th Mountain System.

The air at Uncle Bud's Hut does not contain a lot of oxygen.
(11.380 feet above sea level)
One dozen years ago, my old friend Steve and I made a late-Winter trip to Uncle Bud's Hut, which is located at the wheezable altitude of 11,380 feet above sea level.  For some reason I was renewed in my interest in the supposed benefits of Yogic diaphragmatic breathing, and spent most of the 1600+ foot altitude gain focused on diaphragmatic breathing. By the time we arrived at the hut, I was not only hungry and tired, but nearly doubled over in pain. My entire midsection hurt, and the intense pain briefly convinced me there was something wrong with my spleen. While my spleen was OK, my diaphragm wasn't so happy.


Stuff I've Learned:
As it turns out, diaphragm fatigue is very real, and the diaphragm's central role in respiration means its response to fatigue has an outsized influence on performance. As many of you know, the diaphragm is a muscle, not dissimilar to the hundreds of other muscles in the human body. Muscles get tired, and when they do, they send predictable signals to the brain. Mechanoreceptors in the muscles more or less signal how hard the muscle is working, and metaboreceptors by and large signal how tired the muscle is. When you climb up the side of a mountain, mechanoreceptors and metaboreceptors in your leg muscles send signals to your brain that say "hey, I'm working hard and/or getting tired down here!"

My diaphragm hurt during most of this ski trip.
The diaphragm sends similar signals to the brain, though it seems as though the diaphragm talks louder than the other muscles. The diaphragm is richly innervated with metaboreceptors, and when it gets fatigued, the diaphragm loudly and clearly alerts the brain to the increasing work of breathing.

I'd never really considered the work of the muscles associated with breathing, though respiratory muscles may consume more than 10% of your aerobic capacity when you're climbing up the side of a mountain. That leaves less aerobic capacity for the hardworking legs, which would explain why my legs felt so tired on that trip to Uncle Bud's Hut. To ensure that I was breathing sufficiently to keep my blood oxygenated, my body automatically diverted blood from my leg muscles and sent this blood to my diaphragm muscle.

What have I learned on the side of the mountain and in the classroom? Don't spend too much time messing with your breathing! Unless you clearly have a pathological breathing habit and or patterning, your body already knows exactly how to breathe. There are many variables involved (I discussed this in a previous blog that introduces the concept of DFWI), and your clever body keeps track of all those variables automatically.

The human body is really amazing. Again and again I'm awed by its clever adaptations. Your body is an embodiment of this precious human life; I hope that you can all stay physically active, get plenty of rest, connect with community, eat whole foods, and spend some time in silence during this busy time of year!





Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why Re-Invent a Wheel?

In what seems like a previous life, I worked as a racecar mechanic and fabricator. Under the tutelage of whiz/ace mechanic Daniel V. Campbell, I gained a working understanding of metallurgy, milling, welding and other metal crafting skills.

As I gained more confidence in the shop, I often found myself murmuring I can make that. Whether parts for my motorcycles, snowboard binding parts or exhaust parts for the Volkswagen Vanagon that I drove at the time, I took great delight in designing and fabricating the parts that I needed.

Despite my enthusiasm in applying my newfound skills, my wise mentor often cautioned me against willy-nilly making my own stuff. Among the more experienced fabricators, there was a common refrain; in the long run, it's usually cheaper and easier to buy what is commercially available than to build your own. At first I rejected this almost-mantra as heresy, though I soon came to appreciate its wisdom. It didn't take many dulled mill bits or measure-twice-wreck-once experiences with expensive raw materials to dim my enthusiasm on making the stuff that was readily available to buy.

Removing the transaxle required supporting the engine.
The Saab part was prohibitively expensive, so I welded my own.
I came to relish the opportunity to design parts that uniquely solved problems, and then enjoyed the opportunity to practice shop craft in turning a hunk of metal into something uniquely functional (and in the Bauhaus-ian view, often quite beautiful). Conversely, when a good solution or part was commercially available, I came to appreciate all the work that went into making a good product, and more cheerfully dug out my credit card to reward the small businesses that produced what I wanted/needed.

I have come to a similar view in working with the body. As many of us have found, a single-minded focus on Yoga may lead to a gradual loss of beneficial muscle-mass, and painfully unstable joints. I'm heartened to see how many formerly single-minded yogis and yoginis are embracing the fitness that can support and complement their love of yoga. What I find surprising, though, is how many yogis and yoginis seem to feel that they need to invent some new fitness form in order to meet their needs.

The fitness world is filled with some pretty dubious claims and outlandish systems - I fully acknowledge how crazy the gym-scene may look for recovering yogis and yoginis. That being said, there are also some wonderfully wise fitness systems in existence that have wholly thrived under the test of time.

Making the jigs to support the main shaft of the Saab 9000
transaxle allowed me to replace a mainshaft bearing at minimal cost.
The Pilates system, in my opinion, is one of these wise fitness systems. I have found that the Pilates system allows me to apply the mindfulness that I cultivated in my 30+ years of Yoga practice within a framework that is well developed and vetted. I currently practice Pilates 3-4 days/week, and with almost every session I experience OMG insights on the subtlety and power of the seemingly-simple exercises. Particularly with the Pilates equipment, I find the support and resistance provided by the springs to be nothing short of brilliant in developing greater awareness, strength and efficient neuromuscular recruitment patterns.

At some point, I may exhaust the reservoir of the Pilates system, and I'll probably feel inspired to build my own system. But after 12+ years of regular Pilates practice, I don't feel anywhere near outgrowing Pilates. I really appreciate the community of practitioners and accumulated wisdom that comes from being part of an existing system, and have come to delight in sharing what I'm learning about the mind and body through the lens of Pilates.

Of course, there are other wise systems besides Pilates. Free weights and Olympic lifting can be a mindful path, as can running, biking, etc. What systems/forms have you found that feed you?

Paraphrasing my old friend and mentor Daniel: if something doesn't exist, then build it. But if it already exists, think twice before darting off to reinvent the wheel.