Yoga Deconstructed

I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandria Crow the other day and learning about her perspective on yoga.  It was fantastic.

She’s an ex-gymnast and a push-the-envelope kind of person.  She has intimate knowledge of what our bodies are capable of, and what they aren’t.

She knows better than most because she’s suffered.  She went too far.  You’d think that would be bad news.  But it isn’t.

For that’s how the best of the best learn, and we mere mortals must learn from their pain.

Ms. Crow is like a yoga test-pilot.  She took her body to places it shouldn’t go.

She’s learned about what’s out there, the demons who live beyond the envelope.  She lived through the experience, and she’s willing to teach us about it.  We should listen.

As soon as I figured that out, I was riveted.  She wasn’t just another bendy-body beauty, but someone who could give me a deeper insight into my yoga, and yoga in general.

I hadn’t planned on being so captivated.  I thought it would be a nice way to learn some sequencing tips from a seasoned professional.  The fact that she appeared to be twenty-something gave me doubts, but by the end of the session I realized she’d blown my mind.  And not just with respect to sequencing.

For some years I’ve been learning from many different experts, people who have taught, and thought, long and hard about yoga.  I’ve studied a bit of yoga history and about some of the great players in the field.

I’ve only passing interest in the current fads in today’s marketplace.  Mostly because they’re trendy and about establishing brand.  As a business person I can pick up and understand those aspects quickly.

No, the big insight came from combining what I learned from and about Ms Crow, with what I’ve learned from other great yogis I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.

Ginny Nadler has taught me that the hips and deeper are the true center of any pose.  Some independent practitioners and a bit of anthropology agree with her.  Peter Starios taught me that even the innocence of balasana (child’s pose) could be the basis for a rock solid regime.  Yes, he taught me to sweat in child’s pose.  Reading Judith Lasater has taught me that deep and gentle and listening to your body is far more profitable than any standard set of pictures.

Yes there have been others, each of whom has their own particular “angle” on yoga.  But each and everyone had something else: they had broken free of the tyranny of perfect posture.

Ms. Crow calls them fancy poses.  BKS Iyengar made them famous in his book.  Only a professional contortionist can do all of them well.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  I own an old, stiff, anti-athletic body.

But what Sterios, Nadler, Crow and Lasater have done is deconstruct yoga down to its most essential elements – body positions.  And where those body parts should go is indicated by looking at your own body, inside your own body.  Not at someone else’s picture.  Not even the person next to you or at the front of the room.

We don’t have to strive for fancy pose number 9.  We do have to strive to put our hips, feet, and shoulders in the right place.

What makes any place right?  It’s all up to you.  Are you practicing for flexibility? Balance? Strength? Endurance? Coordination? Or something else?  Then that defines where your body goes, how you get there, how long you linger and how hard you push.

Are you warming up for intense forward folds?  Then back off on the updogs!  Need some spinal twists?  Don’t force yourself with external pressures like your arms, legs or ropes.  Let your twist come from inside yourself.  You won’t twist as far, but it’s a better workout, and you’re far less likely to hurt yourself.

Don’t hurt yourself!  It’s fine to feel discomfort that goes away within a day.  But pain lingers and annoys and reduces your quality of life.

I’m a firm believer in this part of the Marine creed: “pain is weakness leaving the body.”  For us civilians, it should read that “discomfort is weakness leaving the body.”

What all these insightful teachers are creating is a new yoga.  Each has taken their bodies to beyond its normal limit, and come back using the power of yoga.

Now they’re teaching us a new way, a more rational, even scientific approach to yoga.  It’s not a trend, yet.  It will never be a fad because it’s too deep.  Right now its leaders are smart, courageous, and working hard.

The results are well worth the effort.  I’m convinced that I’ve avoided hip and knee surgeries that my friends have already had.  My busted shoulder healed faster and better because of yoga.  And I’m certainly a more relaxed person than I would be otherwise.

Yoga means many things.  For me, it’s about harmony.  For Ms. Crow it boiled down to attention.  For our proto-indo european ancestors, it meant “to join.”.

My conclusion from all of these maverick yogis deconstructing today’s yoga is this: they are all closer to the true spirit of yoga’s greatest founders, T. Krishnamacharya.

Krishnamacharya didn’t believe in fancy poses or perfect positions or their names.  His student BKS made many of those up for business purposes.  Krishnamacharya never taught the same way twice, for every student was different.  And he was always learning.

For me, that’s harmony, that paying attention.  And that’s having the ability to join all the different parts of our bodies and lives together in one big practice.

Namaste.

 

Disclaimer: I’m an amateur yogi and only study this as a hobby.  Any mistakes are my own.  Let me know and I’ll fix them as soon as I’m able!

 

 

Yoga in Space

I love things that go fast.  Cars.  Jets.  Spaceships.

Nothing goes as fast as a spacecraft heading out to the stars.  There’s something that excites my soul when I look up into the night sky and think that someday, our children may live among the stars.

There’s a problem with that.  In fact, there’s lots of problems, most of which have to do with our attitude.  But there’s one problem in particular that has lots of medical types worried.

People don’t do well living in space.  Who knew?

That’s the point.  No one could know.  No one has ever tried living in space before.  Everyone who goes up is doing an experiment on their own body.  The people who live up there for months at a time are at the most extreme.

When doctors examine these “long-timers” they find that they have lost bone and muscle.  They go soft.

So far the solution has been bicycles and other aerobic type equipment.  In the movies you see big circular rooms where people run in artificial gravity.  The problem with all of these solutions is that they require fancy equipment that weighs a lot.  The biggest problem is that none of those conventional exercises can address everything our bodies need: strength, stretching, flexibility, coordination, balance, control, all tied to our breath.

The only exercise that tackles all of these components is yoga.  And here’s the surprise.  You don’t need gravity to yoga!

I’ve been thinking about this a long time.  Yes, my head is constantly in the clouds, but that’s how I deal with all the troubles we get into down here in the dirt.  So every time I do a down dog, I’m thinking about how I’d do the same thing in zero gee.  And I’ve finally got it licked.

Believe it or not, we take gravity for granted.  You can’t do that if you live in space.  We need it to keep our bodies healthy.  And yoga can help.  The trick is to realize that yoga is really about the balance of forces.  And space travel is all about understanding the balance of force.

Like our mat, or the blocks, or blanket, or even a mirror, gravity is another tool we take into our yoga practice.

If you are a true yoga minimalist who doesn’t believe in tools, good luck!  Your body is a tool.  The ground is a tool.  And gravity is a tool.  You need all of these.

In space, we’ll have a set of tools unique to practicing yoga in zero gee.  And those tools will keep our future space travelers healthy and balanced for the many adventures yet to come.  Those tools won’t take up much room, or much weight.  Yoga can even be done at any time, not just during an authorized exercise break.

Yes, the next time you watch a space travel show, think about how they will stay healthy.  They probably won’t be running in circles or riding a stationary bike.  My guess is that they’ll be doing a half-moon, as they travel to the moon.

Yoga.  Not just for earthlings.

 

Sit Fit

Yoga anyone?  Enjoy it now, because it’s also the very last posture exercise you’ll ever do.

Don’t believe me?  Check out “corpse” pose!

Honestly, there’s no better exercise than yoga.  My family knows I enjoy it, but I don’t try to push it on them.  I feel that it’s something everyone should discover and appreciate on their own.

This goes double for my father.  I’ve never ever been able to tell him anything.  Not when I was eight.  And now that I’m fifty eight it’s even more true.   I don’t take it personally.  He doesn’t take advice from ANYONE.

Last year he broke his back.  It took a month for the “doctors” to figure it out.  Then excruciating months of operations, manipulations, drugs and therapy.  It’s only been recently that he can walk without his cane.  But there’s still pain.

So the other night during our holiday dinner, when he complained about his back pain, I thought I’d make another attempt to help.

“Dad,” I said, “can I make an observation and maybe give you a little advice?”

He gave me that “you think you can tell me anything?” kind of look and gave me his version of a yes: “Why not?”

As an aside, my father NEVER answers questions or makes requests directly.  He only gives out questions and you have to guess his state of mind.  He would have made a great politician.

I explained to Dad that his back pain is probably due to years of neglecting his core, his abdominal muscles.

Back in the 1950s when he first had problems, doctors proscribed rest and heavy-duty girdles.  It felt good, but never solved Dad’s problem.  I remember many days every year where he couldn’t get out of bed because of the pain, or had to sleep on the floor.  And he always had the girdle.

Turns out the docs gave him wrong information.  The girdle supports you, but weakens your core.  Bed rest puts your spine in a relaxed position, but doesn’t make it stronger so that you can enjoy the rest of your life.  What Dad needed was exercise.

So Dad looks at me over the table and says, “So what can I do about it now?”

Here’s where yoga comes in.  “You can do it anytime, anywhere,” I say.

For instance, sitting at the table.  We have straight chairs.  I pointed out that he was slumping, resting his back against the back of the chair.

Dad, I said, try this.  I went through the various steps, yoga style, showing him that he could simply sit in a chair at the dinner table and still help his back at the same time.

  1. First, watch your breath.  Steady even breathing is the core of all yoga.
  2. Then, put your feet on the floor.  Take your shoes off if you can.  Bare feet are better.  Ensure that the midline of your feet are parallel.
  3. Press your feet down evenly, as if they had four corners.  Press the heels away from each other, gently.
  4. Put the knees at about right angles, so the ankle is under your knee.
  5. Very important here – tilt your pelvis forward as much as you comfortably can.  Like you’re tipping the top towards the table, putting a curve into your lower back.
  6. Breath in now and straighten your spine as you do.  Grow tall.
  7. Roll your shoulders back, letting the shoulder blades come together.  Like making a veggie dog bun in your upper back.
  8. Breath out as you roll your shoulders back, making sure that your lower ribs don’t jut out.
  9. Now rotate your arms outward.  I find it easier to do this by putting my hands on the table and turning them over so the back of my hand is on the table.
  10. Keep breathing evenly!  Remember, yoga is first and foremost about your breath!
  11. Check your lower ribs and tummy as you breath out, keeping that spine straight and tall.  If the ribs stick out, think about keeping the top of your belly button rolling down.
  12. Get back to your hands, and with your upper arms still rotated out, push the arms back and roll your hands so that the palms are on the table.
  13. Take inventory of all your parts, starting with the feet and working up to your head.  Breath.  Close your eyes if you can.  Think nice thoughts.  Or just keep making light table talk.

That’s it – you’re doing yoga at the table.  You can make it as hard as you want.  But it makes you stronger, and will help reduce back pain.

Dad took it all in.  To his credit, I could see him trying everything I had told him.  He looked at me and said “Is it supposed to be hurt?”

Dad, I said, it’s as hard as you want it to be.  You’ve let your core go all these years.  It might hurt a little, but getting your core stronger can only be good for you.

In my head I was thinking, Dad, you’re doing yoga.  It’s good for you.  You’re getting stronger.  And no one has to be the wiser.

I don’t know if he’ll keep doing it.  For example, he has one of the lazy chairs that lifts you out – and I think it’s the worst thing he could do to himself.  He’s almost 90, so he can do whatever he wants.

But I don’t want to live in his world of hurt.  So I do yoga.  Chair yoga.

For life.

 

Why Guys Yoga

I’ve been doing yoga since 2006, and find myself enjoying it more every year.  I’m also amazed at how it’s changing as a product, with so many variations emerging.  There’s hot, there’s not, there’s dancing, there’s cross-fit, there’s musical and meditative, oh, you name it.

One big thing that still intrigues me is that it’s very much a feminine oriented discipline.  The magazines, the classes, all the marketing is targeting women.  It’s a safe assumption to thing that most of the practicing market is women.  So, here’s my attempt to show you guys (MEN guys!) why yoga could be fun for you.  The reasons are…

10: Builds strength.  Heck, you’ll find muscles you never knew you had.  What other discipline has you developing your groin, for instance?

9: Increases your flexibility.  Good news for any athlete.

8: Embraces isometrics.  A fancy name for you against you!  Look cool while you fight yourself.  Good luck!

7: Improves your balance.  Not important?  Remember grandpa and that broken hip?

6: Develops your coordination and poise.  Makes chewing gum and walking look like baby steps.  Try transitioning from a half-bound half-moon to a warrior two without looking like a brick!

5: Because it can hurt you!  Just because it looks girly and wimpy doesn’t mean it can’t whoop your butt.  I’ve seen guys pull things they didn’t know where there, and were out for six months.  Listen to your yoga instructor!

4: Stamina, especially when you need it.  (wink wink, nudge nudge!)

3: Meditation.  One of the hardest things for me to learn was how to breath, and using breath as a tool to relax.  And who can’t learn how to relax better.  Which brings us to…

2: Savasana.  Pronounced shah-vas-a-nah, what it really means is nap time!  Remember nap times from when you were a kid?  Now you can relive your childhood, and it’s considered cool!

And finally, the number one reason why guys are gonna love taking yoga class?

1: Yoga pants!

 

 

Living the Gym

I hate exercising.  I hate to sweat.  Yet, I do it anyway.  Several times a week.

Why?

If I work out so hard that I feel like dying, then I know I must be alive.

I know, it doesn’t make much sense.  I’m hoping that if I say it often enough I’ll believe it.

But exercise is behavior.  It’s something we do; at least, it’s something that many of us do.  If you’re a die-hard writer, it’s hard to get up the gumption to sweat, especially since it might interfere with the creative juices.  Then again, pushing that damn pen (or keyboard) can be hard enough.

What does exercise tell us about others?  Or about our society?

We seem to like to exercise in groups, for one thing.  We like to be led, and we like something that is new and somewhat flashy.  Remember when fancy dancing was the rage, then lots of ab work on balls?  Then there was slidy things, and now it seems to be hot yoga and lots of boot camps.  It also seems that many people like to be seen when they work out, so it’s a form of parade where we show off our social status.  We work out in only the ‘best’ places.

How many people exercise because they know it’s good for them?  And indirectly good for their families because it means they’ll be around longer to help them and less of a burden on them in their old age?  How many people think that it’ll be a good thing for society because their health-care bills will be lower?

Or do we do it because someone will take a long look at us when we’re in our skimpy bathing suit?

Because that’s how you know you’re alive.

 

Yoga Reviews

This wonderful Chicago doctor is spreading the word (and practice) of yoga as a way to save money on health care!  How cool is that?

And that got me thinking.  There are TONS of different yoga teachers out there.  Literally.  Yoga teachers don’t weigh a lot, as a rule.  But if you put them on a scale and weighed them, there would be, like, a million of them.  And a million yoga teachers would weigh, probably, a thousand tons.

And there’s a zillion different styles of yoga, too.  Well, maybe not a zillion, but there’s a lot.  Even if there’s a fixed style that’s legally copyrighted and patented, it’s still going to change a little bit depending on the teacher and the class.

Anyway, it suddenly came to me; It’s like restaurants!  Look, there’s a godzillion pizza places, right?  And you might say, pizza is pizza.  So what does the local news media do?  They employ a restaurant reviewer.  Someone goes around and tries all the restaurants for you and then writes about it.  This place has great sauce but lousy crust, but the owner kisses everyone who comes in.  Another place has great prices but the sauce is never the same.  You get the drift.

We need someone to do this for yoga studios!  And teachers!  It’ll be fun!  Imagine the stories; This studio has great ambiance but I’m being herded through like cattle.  This other place does a full 15 minute savasana (I only go for the savasana anyway).  Or, so-and-so teacher can be a bit temperamental, but is worth standing in line for.  This other teacher is too nice, and never corrects your alignment.

Will this be a high-paying position?  Probably not.  Will it bring you fame and glory as a writer?  Probably not.  But is it a bona-fide profession?  The answer is YES!

Here’s where being a serious student of behavior pays off.  We can make solid predictions of the future.  Just as the profession of being a restaurant critic emerged as “restaurants” emerged, so too will Yoga-Reviewer soon come into being.  If it hasn’t already.  You’ll have to go incognito.  You’ll have to be knowledgeable in the art of yoga without coming off as too smart.  And you’ll have to travel all over your territory.  Can you handle it?

No, don’t nod your head… write me!

Hmmm.  What is the sanskrit word for writer’s pose?

 

 

Welcome to Yoga. Prepare to die.

Scared?  Don’t be.  This is the attitude you should have when you walk into a yoga class.

In fact, this is the best attitude to have when you get on an airplane, drive a car, or even walk across the street.  Our lives only come with one guarantee, you see.  At some point in time, we’re done.  Everything we do leading up to that time is called living!

I absolutely love to fly airplanes. Small ones, single engine types.  Most fun you can have by yourself, incredibly liberating.  But one of the most surprising revelations during my flight training was learning that good pilots spend a lot of their time thinking about what happens when things go wrong.

When we fly, we are exhibiting one of the newest and most revolutionary forms of behavior mankind has ever exhibited.  We are defying the law of gravity.  But reality intrudes, and every pilot who has flown enough knows that at some point something will go wrong.  It’s how we respond to that emergency that counts.  So the next time you meet a pilot, remember that they may look optimistic on the outside, they are really thinking morbid thoughts on the inside.  The best pilots are well balanced optimistic pessimists.

Now, welcome to yoga.  We warm up our bodies, we twist and turn, plank and invert.  It’s fun in many ways.  But what we’re thinking on the inside is that, someday, something is going to go wrong.  After all, our bodies have a trillion parts to them.  It’s how we deal with that bad part that counts.  We push the edge of our ability, and hope that when the time comes (it will come!) our yoga practice makes us better able to handle the health emergency.

Optimistic pessimism.  Or is it pessimistic optimism?  Yoga and aviation.  Who knew?

 

Yoga is Behavior

What you choose to do is behavior.  Anything.  Go ahead and choose.  Right now.

There.  Whatever you did, even if it was nothing, was a choice.  And that expression of your choice is your behavior!  Not complicated.

One of the many things I love about yoga is that it represents very fundamental behaviors, with a twist.  These are behaviors that emphasize our bodies.  Yoga has been called slow dance, and it is.  But this is a dance I can do throughout the day, at any time.  Even now, writing and typing, I can roll my shoulder blades back or tuck my tailbone.  Remember to breathe!

As individuals, as a society, we choose how to live.  Those choices are shown through behavior.  When we settle into our easy chairs to watch the super bowl, do we think about our hips or back?  When we’re older and our hips hurt, do we think back on those easy chair days?  How many hip replacements and bad backs do you know?  And how many older cultures, without the luxury of easy chairs, have as many hip replacements and bad backs?

Yes, yoga is behavior.  And we’re going to start studying it in more detail.  As students of behavior, everything has to be on our plate.  Economics, politics, anthropology, to mention a few of the more acceptable disciplines.  But we should also study yoga, etiquette, and the arts.

There’s one more great reason why studying yoga has great benefits.  Long term thinking.  When you stand in mountain pose (tadasana) and turn your thoughts inward to your breath, your feet, knees, hips, and hands, you are also quieting your mind towards all the other influences in our lives that can cause stress.  At the very same time you are also reminding your body about the skills it’s going to need when you are 80, 90, or 100 years old.

Behaving in ways that keep us healthy till we’re 100.  That’s long term thinking.  That’s prevention, not prescription.  That’s saying no to surgery, and no to drugs.

Anyone, care to slow dance?

 

 

Om – not just a pretty sound

Om.

As a semi-macho guy, I didn’t take easily to yoga in general.  Believe it or not, the two hardest things for me to digest were the 5 minute rest at the end of my class (savasana), and chanting the occasional om at the beginning or the end.

Lucky for me, my yogini was fantastic, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and patient.  She taught me not to grunt.  She pointed out the importance of really resting after practice, instead of bolting up and out to get back to work.  And finally, very discreetly, showed me the way to enjoying om.

The chanting of om is highly varied between teachers, classes, and even styles.  What I’ve learned however is that it helps frame the class – giving it a beginning and end.  It helps unify your class, even if you don’t utter a sound.  And it helps break the ice, as it were.

There are many spiritual aspects to om.  You can liken it to the sound that created the universe, sort of a big bang.  For those who appreciate physics, it could represent the cosmic background radiation.  Or perhaps it represents the resonant frequencies left over from that cataclysm that created everything we know.

Joseph Campbell, that genius of myth, enjoyed saying om because it contained every vowel known to man.  It resonated through time for him, unifying past with present with future.

Then there’s me, semi-macho man.  When it comes to spirituality, I’m not buying.  The fact that my main yogini has a voice that melts butter and makes even the lowly om sound like opera is a good reason to be interested, but to actually say it?  Worse yet, how is it that I’ve even come to enjoy it?

Let’s get functional.  When you say om, you’re vibrating your body.  Vocal cords, larynx, trachea, lungs, sinuses, the works.  If you say it like Joe Campbell, starting with ahhh, moving through om, and finishing on a closed mouth “mmm” you in fact go through a wide range of frequencies and resonating configurations within your own body.  And why is that good?

You shake things up.  It’s a good, clean way to warm up your body without moving major muscles.  You loosen up the old nose.  You breath a bit easier.  You listen to both the om on the outside, and how it echoes inside.  You can hear it in your ears, your nose, your lungs, and even in your gut.  It’s a nice way to give yourself a sonogram, without having to fill out insurance forms.

You do it at the beginning of class, and it helps you start.  Do it at the end of class as well, and now you have before and after notes that you can compare.  And that’s what yoga is all about.  You.  You and your body.  Yoga means coming together, and the lowly, un-macho sound of om is what brings both outside and inside together with minimal effort.

So the next time you’re stuck in a spiritual class where om is spoken, relax and enjoy the ride.  It’s just another pose, but one that reaches farther inside than you realize.

Om.

 

Fifty shades of black and white

A women’s only yoga class giggles while discussing “50 shades of gray” while doing down dog.  They’re all reading it.  And the funniest part of this is that they are all very religious, even orthodox.  So what’s with the giggling?

Are we so starved for new sensations that even modest, orthodox women want to think about sado-masochism?  Perhaps it’s a form of regret, because we’ve lost our traditional roles as men and women, and laughter is a great way to soften the pain.  Finally, maybe it’s because we keep pressing the boundary of shame?

I’ve only read a summary of what the story line is about, but why would something like this attract our attention?  Granted, the old stories of the Marquis de Sade also made for titillating reading back in the day, but now it’s all vampires, zombies, and cougars.

Finally, why would a class of yoga women want to live through the life of a young (fictional) woman who is willing to be used by a man for his personal pleasure?  What sort of message does this send to those of us who are still impressionable, looking for structure and direction in our lives?

Here’s where the black and white come in.  When you look at the line that divides black and white, you see a distinct line.  Look more closely, and little by little the grey will appear.  The line may even become fuzzy, indistinct.  But the point is that the grey only exists where black and white meet.

Our goal as adults, parents, lovers, and citizens is to help steer each other clear of the grey.  We don’t want to fall into darkness, but lead each other into the light.  As society pushes the boundaries of right and wrong, traditional role models, and looks for new experiences, it’s going to be up to those of us who are still anchored in tradition.

How do you feel?