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.

 

Ping plus

There’s a famous sketch about how important it is for hospitals to have a machine that goes “ping.”  In fact, the better the ping, the more expensive your hospital.

Having returned from a hospital visit, I had the pleasure of sitting next to such a machine.  It was measuring heartbeat (hence the ping) and all sorts of other biological functions.

Just then I realized that in this era of personalized medicine, individual environments and extra-sensual coddling, we need to go beyond the ping.

Yes, beyond the ping.  Ping 2.0 if you will.

So imagine you’re in the hospital bed, and instead of that incessant ping for your heart, you could have:

“Greedeep, greedeep” of a croaking frog?

“Baa baa”

Guitar strings plucking out a tune?

“Om, Om” (or Aum Aum for you purists) in order to increase your meditative state?

Or a duck quack?

You get the picture.  Let’s have some fun.  Tell your doctor today you want the machine that goes beyond ping!  I’m sure it’ll get us better faster.

 

Brilliant Suffering

I finished Larry Brilliant’s autobiography today, and enjoyed it immensely.  If you read his book, you know what I mean and can skip the remainder of this paragraph.  If you haven’t read this, I recommend it highly.  His life truly begins as he joins the love of his life in pursuit of the meaning of life.  Germinating at the feet of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, nourished by the Summer of Love and hardened by the abuses of that era, Larry becomes a radical doctor helping those no matter who they are.  His soul-mate decides their shared paths go through India, and to India they go in pursuit of enlightenment.  Guru Maharaji determines that Larry’s dharma lies in helping others, and that his karma yoga is through work.  The ultimate prize is eliminating killer smallpox, a disease that killed over half a billion people in the 20th century alone.  That’s more than all the wars and famines and tragedies all put together.  The adventures, the successes, and the failures are enjoyable told and hold many lessons.

Larry asks the ultimate question that every compassionate soul has asked through the ages: Why does suffering exist?  He typically pondered this while holding the body of a dead child.  I am going to answer this question in terms that rely on what we know of biology and ecosystems and philosophy.  I’m going to keep it as short as possible, so that much detail may be lacking.  And I’m going to answer it in such a way so that it addresses a related question: What is the best way to relieve suffering in the world in the long term?  Most recently, Jeff Bezos has asked this question, inviting his twitter followers to submit their suggestions as to how he focuses his charity.

However, neither Larry Brilliant or Jeff Bezos, or even most people are going to like the answer here.  For the truth is raw and uncompromising, much as Mother Nature shows Herself to be when in her full glory.  We tend to forget that to Mother Nature, all forms of life and death and joy and suffering, are all aspects of a single existence.

Moreover, when you look closely at the holiest of all holy texts in every religion, you see that they agree on that fundamental truth.  Life and death, joy and suffering, are all part of the same thing.  You can’t have one without the other.  A Tibetan monk explains to Larry, when he asks the question yet again, that suffering will always be part of the human condition as long as ignorance and obsession exist.  In the same scene, Larry is blessed for the simple fact that he is fighting a great scourge of humanity, and to alleviate any suffering is an act to strive for.

This is not an argument against charity, but an answer to the question “How can I be most charitable?”  At the same time, I hope to explain why suffering exists in any form, and why our best charitable efforts may in fact not appear to be charity.

Suffering may come from many sources, from outside ourselves, but also within.  We generally agree that some suffering is good for the soul, for it makes us tougher, makes us more willing to take risks.  But when is suffering too much?  Who is to decide?

Nature decides, using the most fundamental rules possible: life and death.  When she unleashed smallpox upon humanity, a third of its victims would die a gruesome and painful death.  Another third would be permanently handicapped.  The remaining third?  Survivors.

Now that we have eliminated smallpox, we will not know what made those survivors different from the rest.  What kind of world would this be if smallpox still existed?  Would it be a better world?  We simply don’t know.

And that’s the point.  For those of you who are spiritual and wish to second guess God, you can feel angry about the death of an innocent baby to such a gruesome disease.  But if God is playing the game for all of humanity, and not only that one baby or her family, then who are we to be critical?

Suffering exists, and we must learn from it.  As long as ignorance exists there will be suffering.  Such is the wheel of life.  No matter what your religion or how you talk to your God, fundamentally they all say the same thing.  Sub ek, all one.

Which brings us to the final point, how then do we best spend our precious charitable resources?  If you are moved to help someone read a book, buy groceries, or weed their garden, then you should.  However, if you have access to billions more resources, then consider this.  You should be pushing mankind further, higher, faster.  For Jeff Bezos, every last bit of his energy should be directed to making his dream of colonizing space a reality.  Spending even a few moments on any other endeavor may make him more popular, but only increases the risk of getting humanity off the ground.

Improving humanity means greater knowledge, and that automatically means less suffering.  It’s not the same thing as putting silver into a beggar’s hand, but it is far more lasting.

Namaskar

 

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.
May they never be disassociated from the supreme happiness which is without suffering.
May they remain in the boundless equanimity, free from both attachment to close ones and rejection of others.

 

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.