Learning Yoga From Dad

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Other than modified tree pose, he’s never done yoga.

So HOW could he teach me?

First off, Dad was born in 1929, and he’s got a long list of maladies, any one of which could kill him.  Tomorrow.

But he’s pushing himself, living as if he’ll make it to 90.

He might.

He also tries new things to improve his body.  This means being able to go to the potty more easily.  But it’s his goal, and who am I to quibble?

He’s probably in this mess because of medical advice from 50 years ago for his bad back: Rest, avoid exercise, wear a brace, and take pills.  He did all that.

Today, doctors would probably recommend continuous exercise, working through pain, and avoiding pills is a better way to live.

However, the most important thing of all that I’ve learnt is incredible.

I was with Dad through all of this latest battle, starting with a broken vertebrae (L2), the ER, Hospice House, then a recovery room, and finally back home.  There were two times when nurses told me, this is it.  If he’d died, they would have said it was his time.

Except it wasn’t.  First off, I was able to be there and help him stave off poor medical practices.  Not malpractice, only poor quality.  Second, I was there as cheerleader, boosting morale, encouraging his WILL TO LIVE.  I gave him traditional football game locker room pep talks.

I could see the young athlete come alive.  He was a two-year all state football player in his day.  He was ripped.

That’s the key.  The will to live.

The greatest yogi of the 20th century was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.  If you do yoga today, he probably invented it.  If he didn’t, you can bet your bippy he influenced it.

Many times, the guy who invents something doesn’t get to cash in on the great idea.  Same was true for TK.  He was dirt poor most of the time.  As advertising, he’d put on demonstrations of stopping his heart.

What?  Impossible!  How?

That’s what we say, knowing modern medicine.

But modern medicine also said my Dad was finished.  And then Dad applied his willpower.

That’s what TK did with his heart.  Willpower.

Both TK and my Dad have shown me that yoga can help us harness our own willpower as a way to become one with every part of our bodies.  Not only the voluntary nervous system, but even the autonomic nervous system that influences our heart.  All of it.  Our WHOLE body.

And that’s how Dad taught me about my own yoga.

  1. Push yourself.
  2. Set your own, small, goals.
  3. Adhere to it as a better way to live.
  4. Willpower is an integral part of our practice.

Thanks Dad.  Love, your son.

Aum…

 

A Tale of Two Yogas

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My wife and I attend a small studio up the street.  She has deep knowledge of musculature.  The poses are gentle, our progress slow, in a cozy, comfortable environment.

Across the street is a bustling studio with 4 large rooms, the coolest one being 30 degrees centigrade (85F).  Some classes go up as high as 40C (105F).  That’s hot.

When I say bustling, I mean bustling.  Not like wearing a bustle, but like being super busy.  Which is pretty good for our small town.  There’s over 15 classes a day!  And the classes have all the latest trends, bikram, barre, and whatever.

Not only that, but the classes are an hour long.  Perfect for scheduling into your busy day.

Meanwhile, in our little space, you spend the first half hour getting warmed up, the next getting into the practice, and another one figuring it all out and cooling down.

Cooling down.  That’s important.  You can’t do that in heat.  In order to listen to your body properly, you have to let it speak to you.  That’s not going to happen in an extreme environment.  Your body is working to keep you cool, and that throws all your inner workings out of wack.  Sure, you feel better, for the moment, but what did you learn?

A good yoga class is a true class.  You will come away with a nugget of knowledge, a new insight into yourself.

The trend towards fast, hot, trendy yoga is surely a money maker for the studio.  But what does it lead towards?

Students who want hotter, faster, trendier solutions to their problems.

The ultimate?

I see a drive-thru studio that offers a quick yoga drink and a semi-mystic experience while you sit in your car.  Perhaps like the drive-in diners of the 1950s.  Scantily clad roller skating yogis will bring everything to you and your friends as you sit in the comfort of your SUV.

Or you could slow down, and get to know yourself.  Not trendy, not hot, not even hard.  Just right.  Just perfect.

But if you’re planning to make it to 70, 80, or 90, you’ll appreciate it.

Otherwise, you’ll be taking plenty of pills.

Ommm.

 

Forgotten Warriors

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Living things behave, because life encompasses everything we do.

A forgotten war hero of WWII

From hugging a newborn to burying Dad.  There’s no good reason to pretend economic behavior is different from psychological behavior.  Not one.  Life isn’t about religion, it’s not about being political.  All these categories are made up so it’s easier for us to apply for grants.

One way to illustrate this is to draw connections between things that seem so different that any similarities must be the work of a crazy man.

Did someone call for a crazy man?  That’s me.

Consider two warriors, different, but similar.

Warrior One.  This is the name of a yoga asana, and my exhibit number one.  The greatest evangelist of yoga in the 20th century was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.  He spawned a bunch of other yogis, including one who should be more famous, Indra Devi.

The problem with TK is that he wasn’t good at tooting his own horn.  Another problem was that his famous students were better at marketing.  As a result, their names are well-known and TK is forgotten.  That’s too bad.  He made more sense than any of his students.

Warrior Two, also a known asana, and exhibit two.  But in this case, the exhibit has nothing to do with yoga.  Bear with me.  Or more accurately, HellCat with me.  This was an aircraft that fought most of the air battles in the Pacific.  It was produced in the greatest numbers, brought down the most enemy aircraft, and saved the most pilots.  It was an incredible warrior.

Chances are you never heard of the HellCat.  And that’s because newer, prettier aircraft came along and took the final bows.  No one stood up to help us remember the aircraft, the pilots, and even the workers (many of whom were women) who built the HellCat.  It is a forgotten warrior.

Here’s the connection.  Very different disciplines; yoga is selfish, designed to free us from our perception of bodily weakness and develop strength, while the other belongs to the discipline of war.  The first gave us a teacher of great teachers, the other gave us a machine that defended us from those who wanted to impose their will upon ours.

Both worked hard, tirelessly, without concern for their own celebrity or accumulation of wealth.  TK didn’t do it himself, and he wouldn’t let those around him do any marketing either.  The HellCat, as a machine, didn’t have a choice, but the legions of people surrounding it did.  And they chose to let the HellCat have its day, and later, its rest.

As a student of behavior, I’m not arguing that these warriors were good or bad, or even that their impacts were good or bad.  That’s ancient history.

As a student of behavior, what I argue is that we don’t let them be forgotten.

For what they have given us is priceless.

 

Folding Yoga

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Yoga and me get along great.  I’m into that whole 8 limbs thing, and the 10-ish commandments called yamas and niyamas.

Most of us get hooked through the asana part of yoga, that’s limb number 3.  The asanas are called poses or postures.  Their purpose is to get us to feel better, avoid future pain, and focus on ourselves so that we can look upon the universe with greater honesty.

It’s crazy, but true.  The more better you see inside, the more better you see outside.

Yeah, yeah, yoga is great and I feel all warm and fuzzy.  But is all a bed of lotus flowers?

Not always.  For me, the best flavor of yoga practice has the name of Iyengar, BKS.  He popularized a very precise and intense form of practice that emphasizes deep understanding.  I’m into understanding stuff, so it works out pretty good.  It turns out he was also fond of experiments and learning, and so am I.  I call him BKS because Iyengar is a caste designation, not a name.

His teacher was also his brother in law, and that guy was awesome.  He could slow his heart enough so people thought it stopped.  He taught every student differently.  He earned 8 doctoral degrees.  That was T Krishnamachurya.  I’ll call him TK.

Here’s my problem.

TK was big on getting things precise and using whatever he could find to help his students learn.  BKS took this one level further, and introduced the brick (blocks), standardized mats (I think), chairs, and, my personal least favorite – the blanket.

The blanket sounds great, but it’s kind of flaccid and floppy and fringy and dusty, at times.  It never sits exactly the way it’s supposed to, and when I touch it there’s suddenly ripples and wrinkles that magically appear.

Of course, a BKS trained instructor tells us the blankets must all be folded in a precise way for the asana.  Look at the instructor and follow her example.

I freak out, but try not to show any emotion.  Inside, I’m frustrated.  Every time I touch a blanket it turns into a bed cover.  The folds have to be in the right place.  The fringe has to be pointing the right way.  The segments have to be even.  The folding pattern has to be done in the right order.

Aaaargh!

I know, that’s not a yoga mantra.  But it’s part of my yoga vocab.

I usually solve the problem by waiting for my instructor to fix it for me.  She’s almost always patient and understanding.  I once explained that I’m folding deficient in fabrics, just ask my wife.  But the instructor just gave me “the look.”

It’s funny, because I’m good at origami.  But there’s something about that dang blanket.

Namaskar.

 

 

 

 

Pain is a Pain, can be a Gain

Being a pain in the butt is hardly a compliment.  But it may be a back-handed compliment in that it’s the unwelcome relative to what is best about our lives, living.

Our Western cultures have been oriented towards denying, reducing, even eliminating pain.  Eastern cultures tend to embrace pain, much as we sometimes have to embrace that relative we have to see over the holidays.

Nothing embodies emotional pain more than family, especially dysfunctional families.

Problem here is that we are going to talk about pain that’s not emotional.  No, this is pain that hits us below the belt.  Above the belt.  Right at the belt.  Remove your belt, just in case.

In broadest possible terms, pain can be good or bad.  In either case, pain is a way that your body “talks” to your “self.”  Do you think that dogs can feel pain?  If you do, then you have to also agree that dogs have a sense of self.  I believe dogs know themselves.  I only wish they had the sense to upgrade their owners on occasion.

Good pain tells you if you’re doing too much, pushing too hard, eating too much pasta.  That last only pertains to industrial pasta.  Homemade pasta is never painful.

Good pains include itching, in moderation.  I’m not sure what itching means.  My latest theory is that it’s the little bugs living on your skin asking to move somewhere else.  Every time you scratch those buggers get a ride to another piece of real estate.

Pain also comes in different forms, that apply to both good and bad pain.  Here’s some of the ways I suggest we describe them: acute, chronic, diffuse, specific, permanent, sporadic, rhythmic, shared by others, something only I feel, and finally, those that can be found versus impossible to find.

I know this is a lot, but pain covers a lot of area (ha!).  As a yogi, we have to embrace pain as part of living, appreciate it, and understand the good versus bad pains.  If our movements produce bad pain, stop!  Perhaps see a doctor.  If our movements produce good pain, also stop.  Rest.  Repeat.

As the US Marines are fond of saying, pain is weakness leaving the body.  Who knew that Marines were yogis?  They are.  Don’t mess with the Marines.

So, embrace your pain.  Understand it, and listen to your body.  It makes you a better yogi.  It makes you a better student of behavior.  And it makes you a better person.

Tusok

By the way, sorry about all the bad puns.  They sort of happened.  Hope they weren’t too painful.

 

Don’t Do. Be. Yoga.

A soft rock fell through the skylight of my consciousness the other day.

I’m happy to confess my yoga-ness to friends who care enough to ask what I do for exercise.  One of the next questions I usually get is “How often do you practice?”

That’s a fair question.  When I started it was once a week, then twice, then three times.

The earliest practice lasted only 20 minutes, a yoga tapas.  They grew to an hour, then two, and sometimes even more.

Here’s the funny part.  Somewhere along the line the whole essence of yoga landed right on top of one of my chakras.  Didn’t even feel it.

Without realizing, I started doing something yoga-ish whenever I thought of it.  Sitting up straight at the office, pulling my shoulders back, in, and down while walking  Watching my heart and breath almost every chance I could get.  I even put my feet together while lying down just to help stretch my hips.  In the early days I could only do that a minute, today I can do it ten.  I even stand in tree pose (vrksasana) whenever I can.

The essence of yoga is something you can do any time.  Classes are fun because they help motivate, socialize, and expose us to new ideas.  Sometimes they expose us in ways they wish we wouldn’t, but that’s another story.

That rock and skylight?  Maybe a year after my chakra got shook, I suddenly realized I do yoga all the time.  Whenever and wherever I can.

So, like that famous muppet spouting wisdom in his unique dialect:

Don’t Do Yoga, Be Yoga.

Aum.

 

Perfect Yoga Practice

My buddy tried yoga once, saying it was too hard.

I can imagine what happened.  Surrounded by nubile beauties, mostly women.  Bending like willows to the strains of music involving drums, harps, chanting.  Moving fast, yoga pants and tight shirts leaving little to the imagination, each breath bringing a whole new pose.

How can anyone meet these kind of expectations?

Most of us can’t.  That’s the whole point of American McYoga.

Here’s their sales message:

  • You have to work like this instructor to become as beautiful as they are.
  • You know you get your money’s worth because you
    • sweat,
    • are in pain, and
    • because you can’t do it right.

 

Guess what?  You CAN do it right, because there’s a secret they aren’t telling you.

There is no WRONG.  Whatever way you can move, that’s YOUR way.

That beautiful instructor?  That’s his way.

Raise your arms.  Lower your torso.  Twist those abs.  Do it your way.

I found this yogi, Mark Whitwell, and this particular video of his says it best.  Go to the 1:00 minute mark.

Whatever you do is right for you.  Learning to put your heart, your breath, your body and your movement together is what yoga is all about.

That instructor trying to cook you in that hot room?  They are trying to stuff you into a one-size-fits-all shoe.

Ouch!

Find yourself an instructor who lets you wear the shoe you want, the way you want.  Your movement, your breath, your body, it’s all about you.

Yoga is you.  The strange thing about this selfish exercise is that the more you do it, the more you become in tune with others.

I can’t explain it here, there’s no time, no room.  But if you’re one of those who have tried yoga and ran away, or are intimidated by fancy pantsy instructors, think again.

It’s ALL about you.  Forget the others, move the way your body lets you move.

Once you start moving, you’ll notice things, and you’ll start improving.

But, being a yogi, you’ll already know this basic fact.

You’re already perfect.  So practice your perfection.

Ommm.

 

Yoga is not Religion

Way back when I started learning yoga, there were no conflicts with religious types.

Then there was a flurry of religious types who were worried that their kids were being secretly converted by public schools into heathens.  Why?  Because those heathen school-teachers were teaching kids to do yoga.

Oh no!  Down dog in the classroom.  Tree pose in the gym.  Half-moons in the hallways.

What’s next?  Bloody sacrifices in the principal’s office?  Perhaps cannibalistic rites of eating flesh and drinking blood?

Hardly.  Getting kids moving in a non-violent, self-centered way makes for better kids, better community, and better learning.

A quick search this morning reveals that most of the religious voices have reached the same conclusion.  Yoga is not a religion.

Hooray!

Then what’s the problem?

The problem is that there’s nothing in those articles that comes out and says exactly what a religion should contain, such that yoga is NOT religious.

Sure, the Christian types refer to saviors and gods and the such, but as we have pointed out a while ago, religion doesn’t have to have these things.  A religion is a shared set of behaviors that helps keep a group together for a long time.

That means if you’re going to a yoga class with a bunch of people you like, with an instructor you like, and this goes on for a long time, you truly CAN consider yourself part of a religion.

The whole point of this exercise, and indeed, the whole point of us studying ourselves, is learning where to draw the line.  How long is a long time?  How many people should we include in our “bunch?”

A bunch of bananas is easy; Nature defines that for us.  But as people we appear to be super-natural.  So drawing those lines isn’t going to be as easy as if we were bananas.  Although there are many people I feel may be bananas.  But that’s another story.

 

Yoga Sandwiches Filling

A friend told me he tried yoga, but found the classes “too hard.”

Yoga can be considered a sandwich.   It’s easy to make a sandwich.  It’s easy to practice yoga.  Don’t let an ambitious instructor or your fancy-pantsy friends tell you otherwise.

Like the bread of the sandwich, yoga starts with something basic, something easy.

Those things are: Listening to your body, Watching your breath.

These are the most important two things you can do.  The more you do them the better you get, the better you feel.  That’s the foundation of yoga.  Do these all the time, while you’re doing postures, while you’re reading this.

Just breath.

What about the physical part of yoga?  How does that compare to your sandwich?

Sandwiches become famous for what is between the slices of bread, not the bread itself.  That’s too bad, because the bread is very important.  But if you want a pastrami sandwich, or corned-beef sandwich, or BLT, or cucumber, or grilled-cheese, or any other kind of sandwich you name it by what sits between those lovely slices of bread.

When you make yourself a sandwich, you put exactly what you want in the middle.  You want a pickle, go ahead.  You want a slice of lettuce, tomato, or onion?  It’s all you.  Only meat and a thin sliver of cheese?  Sounds great.  And it’s your creation.  Eat it up.

What about our “yoga?”  Do we vinyassa, do we ashtanga, do we hatha?

Guess what?  They are all still yoga, and when you are in a class, it’s all you.  You are not a sandwich being made at the deli.  Your instructor is not the sandwich maker.

You are the sandwich maker, and your yoga is your sandwich.  It is your breath that determines when you move, it is your heartbeat that determines how hard you are working, it is your body that decides what pose is proper for you to do, today.

So the next time you feel your yoga class is too hard, pause a moment and think about what you can do to make it easy, simple, and fun.

After all, it’s your body, it’s your sandwich, and your life.  Why not enjoy them as much as you can?

Thanks for reading!  Now, go do some yoga, then eat.

 

Yoga Sandwiches

A friend told me he tried yoga, but found the classes “too hard.”

How could this be?

The instructor made them do things a certain way, the pace was too fast, and some of the postures hurt.

Has this happened to you?

You don’t have to put up with this.  Only you make yoga hard, or fast, or even “right.”  No one should pressure you to do yoga any way other than YOUR way.  Not the instructor, not your friends, no one.

And it all has to do with sandwiches.

Yes, the lowly but lovely sandwich can be our guide to yoga.  How can this be?

First off, can you make a sandwich?  Even my little brother enjoyed making spaghetti sandwiches.  Two slices of standard bread, mass of spaghetti in the middle.

The foundation of every sandwich is the bread.  One slice on top, one slice on bottom.

The bread is the easiest component.  Even though it’s simple, you still have many choices.  Toast?  Grilled?  Rye or whole wheat?  Baguette or ciabatta?

The yoga equivalent of bread is also basic, something easy.  The two things you’ve been doing since the beginning: listening to your body, and breathing.

What’s this?  Since when is breathing and body-listening part of yoga?  Did your instructor never talk about these things?  No?

That’s sad, so sad, because yoga is so much more than physical activity.  The whole “moving your body” part of yoga is only a small fraction of what yoga is all about.  Don’t get me wrong, asanas or posturing is very important, but so is the rest of yoga.

In fact, the very first most important part of yoga is about YOU…

… getting to know …

… YOU.

The best way to do that is to be still, and listen.  Listen to your heart, listen to your breath.  Feel your breath, feel your heart.  Do these things while sitting in a chair, sitting on the floor, lying in bed, lying on the mat.  Do them at your desk, do them in a meeting.  Do them anywhere, anytime.

You’re doing yoga.

Here’s something I learned the hard way, and it still makes me smile.

At first I thought it was silly, refusing to do it.  Then I started doing it, as a joke.  Then I started doing it more, because I realized I was getting better at it.  Then I realized it wasn’t silly, and started paying more attention to it.  Today, I do it every single time I think about it.  Heck, I’m doing it even as I write this.

Why?

I calm down.  My heart slows.  I feel better.  I work better.  I live better.  I love better.

Practicing listening to myself made me a better listener, to myself.

This is only the bread portion of yoga.  Next time, the rest of the yoga sandwich.

Thanks for reading!  Now, go make a sandwich.