Friday, April 25, 2008

Moderation in all things...

Nadine of Just Breathe left a nice comment last week, in which she decried the dangers of "attainment yoga." I really like that term--attainment yoga--it's so evocative and describes exactly a practice that is all about results rather than process. It's such an easy trap to fall into; I hear it often from my students ("I really wish my head would touch my knee") and myself ("It would be so cool to be able to drop back into Urdhva Danurasana [Wheel Pose]"). In longing to achieve some difficult pose(or even impossible, depending on one's body), we force and strain and over-do and completely lose the whole point of a practice.

And yet, there's something to be said for developing your yoga skills. Suzi of Yoga Like Salt (I wish we'd see more of her posts--such a sensible, thougtful writer) has a really nice New Year's article about setting a yoga goal for the year and working to reach it: Yoga Incrementalism, she calls it. I think this is a good approach. Asana practice is a physical journey, after all, and asking a bit more of our bodies as we do the work makes sense. Breaking down a pose and figuring out what part requires strength, what part requires flexibility and how to achieve those ends is a reasonable way to deepen your understanding of the work of yoga.

So, I guess it boils down to moderation. Work to improve your practice physically, but make sure to be respectful of your body's ability. Just because it looks good or difficult in a picture, doesn't mean it's an appropriate action for you. And don't forget that there is as much work to be done mentally as there is physically--always practice vairagya (non-attachment) with the superficial stuff; the head on the knee is icing, tipping the pelvis and getting a good stretch in the backs of the legs is the cake.

Here's to increments; a dense, rich asana cake; and moderation in all things (especially, moderation--says the husband)!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stressed vs Un-stressed

Lately, I've been instructing students to "soften" their faces while practicing, especially during difficult poses (especially during Gomukhasana...which all my students seems to dislike. A lot. Judging by how much face-softening I have to remind them to do). I've found it a really useful reminder to myself, if I find myself straining during a pose; first I check my shoulders and then I check my face. Inevitably one, or both, places are tight and unnaturally tensed.

Thinking of unnaturally tensed, got me to thinking about the fight-or-flight response, and it's opposite the rest-and-restore repsonse. The Sympathetic Nervous System is what controls the body's response to danger or stressful situations; blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, breath gets more rapid and shallow, muscles tense. In theory, this is a good thing, especially if you need to outrun a predator, because the body is prepared to act quickly and intensely (more blood rushing to the muscles, muscles ready to work hard, mind focused). However, nowadays, this system is triggered by stressors that don't necessarily required a mighty jump or speedy run--deadlines, excessive responsibilities, irritating co-workers.

The Paraympathetic Nervous System is supposed to counteract the Sympathetic by slowing the heart rate, dropping blood pressure, calming the mind and relaxing muscles so the body can rest and be restored. Unfortunately, if the body is overloaded by stress, the Sympathetic mode never completely shuts down. The demands on the body become too great, and the results can include a compromised immune system, slow-to-heal muscles, high blood pressure, insomnia, etc etc.

Yoga, of course, is a great jump-starter of the Parasympathetic, but only if you let it. When I see yogis straining and grunting as rivers of sweat pour down their muscles, I pause. Of course, with enough work and sweat, yoga will give you a hard bod, but is that really the point? To me, yoga is slow and the work is very subtle and deep. The hardest exercise is keeping your thinking mind at bay so that you don't strain and overdo while trying to achieve some elusive, physical goal. The purpose is quieting and centering...that's what makes it yoga and not Pilates.

So, I Set That Woman Down and I tell myself to soften my jaw (or my tongue--such an evocative instruction). The pose doesn't become easier, but suddenly I can feel myself settle and open. Nobody is falling in love with Cow's Head, but, with the reminder about the face, I can see the elbows stretch away a little bit more, necks lengthen and the side ribs lift.

Let's save the Sympathetic response for when that saber-toothed tiger attacks...

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sap alert...

Yesterday I had a new student in class. She was very apologetic about never having done yoga--she'd watched a DVD to try and figure it out--but was worried about doing something wrong or getting in some one's way. I assured her she would be fine (she is a runner, early 30s) and that we are a pretty forgiving bunch. She thanked me and explained that she'd always wanted to take a yoga class because "people who do yoga always seem so happy and fit."

I think she's mostly right. During the Yoga Journal conference in Lake Geneva, WI last May, the resort halls were filled with blissed-out yogis, smiling contently and standing up straight. It was kind of hilarious to watch the hotel staff watching us as we wandered around, laden with props and mats and dribbling granola bar crumbs in the corners. A bit goofy, but the vibe was definitely peaceful.

I'm glad she added the comment about being happy, because it seems like a lot of time people are either scared of yoga (making weird noises, sticking string up your nose, wearing turbans) or they want to get hot, hard yoga bods and sweat, sweat, sweat! (Some one emailed me last week asking me to plug a YouTube contest they were sponsoring to vote for the Hottest Yoga Celeb--uh, guy, didn't you read the blog at all? Not so much the Hot Yoga Celeb-type) At least she's got the right idea about why people ought to do yoga.

However, I'm all about identifying Yoga Body Parts ...

Looking out over the class, after the last Namaste, is always so satisfying. Everyone looks a little sleepy, very calm and has those quiet, little yoga smiles on their faces. I try not to talk too much, so as not to break the spell, and just let them roll their mats and collect their stuff while still in their post-yoga daze. It takes a few minutes to get back to Planet Earth, but those few minutes, to me, are what this stuff is all about.

A little sappy, I know, but it's just what I've been thinking about as the rain falls and falls...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Taking Comfort in Metaphor

Yeow, it's been two weeks since my last post. Well, chalk it up to motherhood and YJ deadlines eating up all my free time (oh yeah, and realizing I can download episodes of 30 Rock from NBC's website..."Hey Liz Lemon!").

In interviews for the YJ prenatal articles, I keep hearing about methods of teaching relaxation; describing words, stories, images to help a woman focus on her breathing and distract herself from the discomfort of pregnancy or the pain of labor. So I got to thinking about the power of metaphor, and how a "seemingly unrelated subject" can be so much more evocative than the subject currently at hand.

I use metaphor all the time during pranayama in my own practice, or leading breathing exercises when I'm teaching. I use it on myself when I start to stress over something stupid ("I set the woman down hours ago") or when I'm trying to help a friend get perspective on a problem. Somehow it seems so much more useful than just telling myself to relax or stop worrying.

Why is that? Why is it more effective to imagine Buddhist monk mice carrying around mice princesses, rather than just telling myself to "snap out of it"? Why do my students relax more when they imagine a glowing orb getting brighter and dimmer with each breath, rather than just thinking about inhaling and exhaling. Wikipedia says therapeutic metaphor is using a parallel story to help illuminate a situation. So I guess, not thinking about a thing but talking around a thing is the best way to examine it--which makes sense if the thing is sensitive or troubling. Seeing something in a different light, so to speak.

Plus, it's kind of fun to come up with ways to describe and explain that are especially affecting.

I look at my sons and am reminded about the power of self-soothing. For these two, a thumb or a pacifier or a soft scrap of fabric becomes a stand-in for all things comforting and warm (or, I guess, me). Later, we turn to words and imagery to help settle us and relax. I think we'd all be in pretty good shape, if all it took was a thread-bare old scarf (Eamonn's blanket, called "Wink") to make us feel better. But, for now, a really good metaphor can be enough to help get us through a rough spot and clear the mind.

So tell me, what is your best verbal "Wink"?