Monday, December 21, 2009


I've started attending a monthly meditation class at Lazy Dog Studio in Roscoe, Il. The owner, Rachel Bixby, has been inviting a Buddhist monk to lead the class each month. (Check the website for next year's schedule) I decided that I needed a bit more mindfulness in my life, and this seemed like a good place to start.

Wonderful. This weekend's class was led by Bhante Sujatha, of Blue Lotus Temple, and it was truly a joy to participate. He started with a short talk and then followed with a half-hour of metta (loving-kindness) meditation. It was simple and basic, but spending a half hour just thinking good thoughts about my family, friends, and *gulp* humankind was a great way to stop and appreciate. Just sitting on the floor for half and hour was killer, and I'm starting to understand the idea of "yoga as a way to prepare the body for meditation." At eight minutes, I had to rearrange my blanket and myself against the wall because I can't sit unsupported for any longer than that. Whew.

Sujatha had such a nice message for the season, too. He reminded us that most of the stress from the holiday season comes from expectations; stop expecting and you will be much happier, or at least calmer. He said, "If you give a gift, then it must go away."--meaning that if you are truly giving, then you must not care about how the gift is received, whether happily, indifferently, or with disappointment. You can only control your own feelings about the gift, but nobody else's. Giving is a wonderful thing, and that you are giving is what you must take pleasure in. What happens after that, is not for you to worry about. (Unless you're giving Play-Doh, as I am, in which case you have a lot to worry about after that gift is opened...)

So, I want to pass that message on to you, as my Christmas gift: Enjoy the acts of giving this season and stop there. That you are able to gather something together and offer it to some one else is a beautiful gesture. Be happy that you can do that. May your giftee
s be gracious, but, if they're not, it's not your problem.

And if your giftees are armed with Play-doh, well, be grateful that it's machine-washable. Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Secret to Flexibility...

What do you get if you cross an elephant and a rhinoceros? Elifino!
Har, har.
I have been trying to add an aerobic element to my weekly exercise; I'm not ready for running, yet, so I've been using the elliptical machine three times a week. Post-workout, I do a few stretches for the legs to loosen everything. I gotta say, sometimes it's nice to use asana for purely physical reasons, no measured breathing, no turning inward, just letting the work of the muscles be the only work.

Sometimes the chosen pose--usually gomukhasana-gets the attention of fellow gym-goers so (as long as I'm in a good mood) I can use the moment for a bit of yoga-promotion. Pressed for details, I will go so far as to invite the curious to one of my classes. Spreading the word, if you will (*gasp*).

A couple of times I've traded pleasantries with a very strong, muscle-bound fellow. Yesterday, he called out, "So, Yoga Lady, what's the secret to getting more flexible?" Hmmm, teachable moment, thought I. So I chatted with him for a bit about not pushing past a muscle's capability, but allowing the body to open with the breath; listening to what's too much and backing off a bit when the muscle starts to resist a stretch; coming to class (of course); not getting mad when you can't do the same thing as your 17-yr-old body did in Tai Kwon Do.

I'm starting to see more students in class with the express purpose of increasing flexibility, which is nice. Maybe we've starting to move beyond tight, hards bodies (a little bit). I figure getting them in the room is the biggest hurdle and then I can slowly let yoga work its magic. If they stick it out, they increase flexibility...and often pick up some other skills in the process.

But, the Secret to Flexibility, in 25 words or less?
Uhhh, hell if I know.

(For more animal mash-ups, click here)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Yoga for Pain Relief

My first contact with Kelly McGonigal was in 2006, when I interviewed her for an article in Yoga Journal's My Yoga Mentor about her online yoga course Open Mind, Open Body. We chatted for a half an hour about yoga and the Internet; I was impressed with her intelligence, thoughtfulness and how she had combined her love of yoga with her scholarship. A number of times I've turned to her for suggestions or contacts for other articles and she has always been generous with her information.

Here's my opportunity to return the favor. Last week Kelly contacted me to see if I was interested in participating in the "blog tour" for her latest book, Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind and Heal Your Pain. I decided to talk with her about the process of writing; so many of us have free-lance writing gigs, blogs, etc., I thought it would be interesting to hear about the discipline required in putting together a whole book.

So, without further ado, here are some of Kelly's thoughts:

How did you come to write this book?
The publisher reached out to me and asked if I was interested in writing a book applying mind-body practices and psychology. The catch was, they wanted it to be a book for a specific problem, such as depression or heart disease, which is not how I usually teach (or think!).

I sat down and made two lists: all of the key messages in my teaching
(e.g. “befriend your body,” “your mind is in your body, not separate from your body”), and the populations/problems I work with most often in my teaching. I ended up choosing pain because I have been working with pain sufferers for 10 years, have suffered from chronic pain myself, and every key message in my teaching applies to pain.

But the whole time I was writing the book, I was aware that pain was
an opportunity to communicate ideas that apply to all forms of suffering, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Did you have a reader in mind as you wrote?

I had two readers in mind— (1) a specific woman I know who is in her
mid-fifties, suffers from chronic headaches and back pain, and is a little intimidated by yoga, and (2) a yoga teacher who is interested in yoga as therapy, but hasn’t been exposed to what it can look like when adapted to individuals.

It was a bit tricky to walk the line. For example, a number of readers
with pain have told me they found the science chapter interesting but challenging. Yoga teachers, on the other hand, think it's the best chapter in the book. My publisher had another key audience in mind—healthcare providers. I decided that I would write directly to the person suffering, in language that hopefully healthcare providers could connect to.

The whole writing and editing process, I had three words written on a
piece of paper to guide my choices about what to include and how to say it: compassionate, authoritative, and encouraging. When in doubt, I asked if this section, sentence, or study supported those three goals. For example, I ended up cutting a section summarizing research on how pain medications sensitize the nervous system to pain. It was fascinating from a scientific perspective, but I realized it would be too discouraging to people who need pain medications to get through the day. I was thrilled when early readers, including my editors, used the word “compassionate” to describe the voice of the book.

Was it challenging to write a book in six months?

I had heard from other writers that once you have a contract signed,
you go through a crisis of confidence. I really didn’t think this would happen to me, since I had picked a topic I’d been writing and teaching about for so long. But sure enough, I had my ugly doubts. It hits you like a car accident—out of nowhere, and totally disorienting.

I’ll tell you what helped: during the writing process, I ended up
having a minor surgery with a painful recovery process. I used the pain relief techniques I was writing about to deal with it. The pain paradoxically made me feel better! It reminded me of the power of the techniques. How comforting a mantra meditation is, or how a restorative yoga pose can give you the sense that you are taking care of yourself. I think it would have been a different book if I hadn’t been suffering during the writing process. I felt vulnerable because of the pain, and I hope that vulnerability comes across in the book as a kind of compassion or authenticity.

I’m also an editor, so I could have edited the book for another three
years. I never would have been satisfied with it. Even after my publisher had signed off on drafts of the first few chapters, I completely rewrote them. Literally started from scratch with the most research-heavy chapter, “Understanding Your Pain.” So it was good to have a real deadline and just turn it over to the publisher.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dem Bones

While waiting for his little brother's nap to end, Eamonn and I sat watching old Pink Panther cartoons. In one, Pink was being chased around and into a grandfather clock by a skeleton haunting an abandoned hotel. After much smashing and crashing in the body of the clock, the two emerged and Pink whacked the skeleton, rendering him a jumbled pile of bones. With a world-weary sigh, Eamonn commented, "Well, that's what happens to skeletons." Spoken as a five-year-old who has seen it all, as far as cartoon verities go.

It got me to thinking about how we learn these cultural axioms: if some one runs off a cliff he won't realize it until he looks down; when you start running there is a boo-ga-dee, boo-ga-dee sound until your legs generate enough speed to take off; dogs hate cats; the tinkling run of a
backward scale on a xylophone means a skeleton is disintegrating. They become safe reference points to guide us through the treachery of childhood.

Same with teaching yoga--you learn your sequences, the best way to teach a pose, basic modifications--and you head out on your merry way to change the world. But, like a pre-teen realizing that culture norms are a good thing to rebel against, a more experienced teacher starts to let go of the static and, perhaps, begins to experiment. How would a different arrangement of poses affect a class? Help some students understand the alignment better? Make a more comfortable forward bend?

In all our discussions of authentic yoga and teaching, we only barely touched on dealing with asana. We cited lots of texts to consider and traditions to uphold, but we didn't go very far into the physical. More superficial, perhaps, but still a very vital part of the practice to a majority of us.

I love to modify. All of this stems from a class I taught a few weeks ago, where I tried to make Surya Namaskara more palatable for an older group of students. Basically we came to standing in between each pose, so everyone could regain their balance before moving on. And they loved it and many came up to me after class thanking me for teaching a Sun Salute they could finally do. Was that wrong? It certainly wasn't Ashtangi (not that I ever pretended to be one), but it reached a lot more people than it would have otherwise.

So I want to know--how do you feel about asana? Do you feel at ease modifying poses for your students on the fly? Do you go with what you already know, or do you experiment? Is experimenting allowed in your style of yoga? Is there something that you would consider going "too far"? Is this another "hands-off-the-tradition" situation, or something more maleable?

Does your skeleton defiantly pick up his skull and keep running, or not?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Taking Yoga to the Mat

Last night we ate at my favorite neighborhood tacqueria. Usually the wide-screen TV is tuned to conjunto music videos, but yesterday some one different won the coin-toss and they were broadcasting a mixed-martial arts contest. I tried to look away, but my eyes were drawn to the grappling, barefoot men; I did a double-take at the logo on one fellow's short that included the letters MMA, which I mis-read as "NAMASTE." A thought occurred to me:

Since we're dispensing with inner peace in exchange for competition, glistening bodies and corporate endorsement, anyway...let's go for the jugular: YOGA CAGE MATCH! Think of the advertising, the energy, the untouched demographic we could get! Everyone is already barefoot! Kapalabhati breathing until some one bleeds--holding Parsvakonasana despite a knee to the quads--Virabhasdrasana III until a contestant taps out--can you think of anything more exciting?!?!

An Olympics bid is for sissies! Who cares about 100 vs 5000 yr.s ago--what's more elemental than hand-to-hand combat yoga? This is Cain-and-Abel time, Baby!

Who should I approach for sponsorship, first--Red Bull or Lululemon?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Where's the Oprah of Yoga?

Ah, yes, the Yoga Star Hot Scale. Leave it to Yoga Dawg to help us laugh instead of cry. It got me to thinking, with all the chatter about skinny white yoginis as the face of yoga and "spreading the word" and endorsement deals and yoga competitions--what do students want?

Kristin, of Namaste from Duluth, posted that query a few months back when we were discussing "American False Idols" and I wanted to get back to that thought. As more and more ex-models and actresses and dancers get into the teaching act, and corporations choose whippet-thin bodies to hawk their yoga wares, I get frustrated. For me, for potential students, for everyone who can't touch their foot to their head or has a non-European family history but studies yoga. Is this really what we want yoga to look like? (I'm not questioning teaching credentials--I'm talking about an image, here).

What I want, and what I suspect many practitioners want, is not a teacher to admire or be awed by (lust after? be jealous of?), but a teacher that inspires and gives you the feeling that you can attain. The yoga industry, such as it is, is missing a huge opportunity here. Why is Oprah such a phenomenon? Because she presents herself as one of the crowd--some one who has been around the block a few times and has weaknesses and enthusiasms and overdoes it once and awhile. (
Obviously, most of us will never be Oprah, but you know what I mean.)

That's what I want in a teacher. Some one who has a sense of the human condition, who has had to work for what she's earned. Some one whose talents seem within reach. I want some one more experienced than me, who can guide me, but also some one who offers a vision of what--with practice--I could be some day. Strong, peaceful, dignified. I don't really care what lip gloss she uses...I want her vibe.

Kripalu has figured it out. Their ads show students of all sizes and races, peacefully engaged in Sukhasana or Tadasana, and it gives you a feeling of calm centeredness. To me, it's an honest depiction of what a yogi should look like--focused, a smile playing on the lips, a lifetime of sustainable practice evidenced in a healthy body.

Seriously, marketing to kids is a fools' game. If we really want to "spread the word," let's show who yoga has helped, who is still figuring it out, who can't do Bakasana to save his life but can nail Trikonasana. Let's talk about the mental benefits instead of just the physical. Let's honor the flexibility of the average backbone. This isn't Cirque du Soleil, people, it's real life!