On Retreat

I’m headed off to New Hampshire on a four day yoga retreat! I found out about this phenomenal event on social media, which has been buzzing about it for months, spurred on by a promotion conducted by The Marketing Heaven. The focus is “Cultivating a Yogic Mind,” exploring how one can find peace and equanimity during troubled times as well as empowering oneself to become a positive force in the world.

I am so grateful to have the time and opportunity to work with the world class teacher Patricia Walden and fully immerse myself in the study of asana, pranayama and yoga philosophy. I won’t be posting during this time but am looking forward to sharing my experiences when I return!  Namaste.

Are You Ready?

While attending my 10 year old twin boy’s Music Institute this summer we had a class with one Master Class instructor that required each student to begin their lesson by saying “I am ready to learn” and conclude with, “Thank you for teaching me.”  The interesting thing was the majority of the work with the students centered on getting them to break bad habits or make structural and/or foundational adjustments rather than learning exciting, new techniques or pieces. This required the student to tolerate close scrutiny followed by a range of often times minuscule adjustments, upending their long established and deeply ingrained playing process. Now most of us grown-ups don’t really embrace close scrutiny, especially in front of newly met peers, but probably are even more uncomfortable with having all our bad habits revealed then having to relearn basic skills followed by endless and often tedious repetition and practice, yet these children did just that with grace, humor, unbroken concentration and authentic gratitude! That even includes one of my twins, an avowed and committed curmudgeon.

It got me wondering about attitude and outlook and how it affects our willingness to look at ourselves and  our tendencies as well as life’s challenges, complications and crises. Imagine creating an approach to life events that typically are categorized as bad,  such as conflict with a friendship, a partnership break up or even job loss, with a true sense of curiosity and exploration. Shifting attention away from labels and judgments, self recrimination, blame and maintaining that shift by continually cultivating curiosity, as a way to achieve detachment, one of the key elements for emotional equanimity and stability. Our minds can only think about one thing at a time so when we are consumed with curiosity and in the flow state of discovery around a situation, we can’t simultaneously be perseverating on the injustices and difficulties of the same situation. We are much less likely to become overwhelmed with unproductive emotions or be at their mercy.

In the example of the violin students, at no point was any blame assigned by teacher or student, no emotional response provoked, simply thorough and penetrating questioning of what was occurring and why, then applied knowledge, experimentation for problem solving, followed by ongoing support and reinforcement. At no juncture was there a drop in interest, change in affect or resistance. One of my sons has a skeletal abnormality with his left (violin arm) arm and his week was spent making hand rotation and thumb height adjustments involving close examination by multiple instructors and a ton of experimentation with positioning to arrive at a functional alternative and compensation for this physical limitation. There was never a sense of being picked on or at, he never felt sorry for himself or even disadvantaged. There was simply acceptance for the reality of “what is” and a willingness to learn how to adapt and improve. Obviously the learning environment was conducive to the process by the exceptionally experienced, highly trained and deeply devoted faculty, but the population of children was pretty typical and normal; no extraordinarily enlightened kiddos here. Yet what resulted was a range  of adjustments from big to relatively subtle, reduction in strain, effort and physical discomfort but never an “easy” fix. The improvements were, without exception, substantial but all would require a long, mindful, tenacious journey of various exercises, drills and endless repetitions of early pieces to fully integrate the changes. With a different outlook the response to this process could easily have been negative, instead, it was embraced and acknowledged simply with “Thank you for teaching me.”

Sitting Really is the New Smoking

By now many of us have heard the phrase “Sitting is the new smoking” but it truly isn’t an exaggeration. Dr. James Levine co-director at the Mayo clinic says, “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.”

Here’s why,  70 % of full time American workers hate sitting but 86% do it all day, every day. In addition to all that sitting at work, meals and commuting, 36% add 1-2 hours watching T.V., 29% add home computer time, 25% lounge while reading etc. and 10% game for 1-2 additional hours. Americans sitting an average of 13 hours daily combined with sleeping 8 hours, results in a sedentary lifestyle of 21 hours per day!

The link between sedentary lifestyles and diabetes, several types of cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease and depression is undeniable. Not surprising that the scientific community has started using the phrase “sitting disease.” The positive is that standing increases energy, burns extra calorie, tones muscles, improves posture, increases blood flow, decreases blood sugar levels and ramps up metabolism. Experts recommend the maximum amount of time that you should be sitting in total is 3 hours per day! That may be challenging for office workers who may not have much control over their time and environment. Some suggestions include using a stand up desk. Many large companies have seen the research by now and understand it’s actually in their best interest to allow or even provide this alternative. Holding standing only or walking meetings are not only invigorating but tend to be more efficient and productive. On the other hand, some smaller companies, such as Fully-Verified, went a step further and have built a recreation room in their premises. Many of my clients have implemented healthy self-care “rules” like standing for all phone calls, walking to coworkers instead of emailing or taking stairs instead of elevators.

What is helpful to remember is that interrupting the sitting is crucial. Any type of extra movement, shift in position, bending down, even fidgeting, is beneficial. While the real self protection resides in radically reducing the amount of time spent sitting on a daily basis, the interruption of  sitting is a worthwhile and instantly empowering strategy. Sit no more than 50 minutes straight, ideally more like 30 minutes, without a standing and/or movement break. Not only will it improve your physical health, it is also better for your mind as studies show that deep, sustained concentration for 45-50 minutes followed by a 10 minute break is the most efficient and effective way to work, greatly enhancing productivity. Changing one’s perspective and attitude regarding sitting will help implement and sustain these strategies as opportunities to vastly improve overall health.

Sources for more ideas on how to sit less and integrate more movement into your day include: Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It by Dr. James Levine.

www.juststand.org

 

Quote for the Weekend

“Perfecting: Always Be Happy with the Smallest Improvement”

B.K.S. Iyengar

 

Let the goal be to reach Perfection,* but be content with a little progress toward perfection every day.

Sometimes our body is willing, but our mind is weak and makes excuses. Sometimes it is our mind that is willing, but our body is weak and says “I’m really too tired for all this trouble.” A practitioner must focus between the mind and the body, listening to the counsel of each but letting the intelligence and the soul make the true decision, for this is where real willpower and real dedication are found. Do to your capacity while always striving to extend your capacity. Ten minutes today, a few days later increase to twelve. Master that and then again extend. Find time everyday to do something to maintain the asana practice. Sometimes both body and mind yield to willpower, and at other times they rebel. Imagine physical challenges as you would a challenging child. Learn how to deal with it and nurture it as you would give extra compassion and attention to this “child.” Do not bother with failures either, they lead one toward determination. Be detached. Do not be afraid. Find the courage to come through it. When you experience fear,  you must practice without attachment to the body, thinking of it objectively,  as an opportunity for creative work!

Long, uninterrupted practice of asanas and pranayama, done with awareness, makes the foundation firm and brings success.

paraphrased from Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar

 

* Iyengar is not referring to perfection here in the usual way we define it, rather as our union with God and the dream of this union being inspirational in igniting one’s efforts toward transformation.

Present, Patient Practice

I came across an article in this morning’s sports section of the newspaper that highlighted the Tampa Bay Buc’s quarterback Jameis Winston. He is likely the hardest working player in Tampa Bay, up at 5:30 every morning in order to arrive early for practice, with a daily routine that schedules and accounts for almost every minute until day’s end at 9 p.m.. While certainly an admirable work ethic, that’s not exactly what caught my attention.

Winston believes that “progress is made in the little things, the tiny details.” He tracks all aspects of his practice carefully so at the end of each day he can trace whether it was successful, measured by his improvement in processing necessary information. He scrutinizes daily films evaluating areas of progress. He reminds himself that there are 31 other quarterbacks with similar goals and work ethics and asks himself daily what he is doing to make himself better than those other 31.

The main way he ensures that he is, is by resisting the urge to look ahead to the future imagining big games, playoffs or Super Bowl rings. Instead he stays focused on “what’s now.” The current drill, film session, healthy meal, current weight workout etc.. His coach helps reinforce this by instilling the mantra “patience.” As a companion mantra, he also emphasizes “understanding the situation that we’re working with in any moment, what the practice is that particular day and how he has to subtly adjust his game accordingly.” Sounds like yoga to me!

The practice of yoga, most readily accessible in the asanas or poses, is one of being present and accepting of “what is” in the moment. Our body/mind shifts constantly, always subtly and sometimes more dramatically and we must develop the maturity to tolerate the changes. As we become more dedicated and advanced practitioners, our powers of observation and awareness must keep pace. It’s not enough to simply progress to more challenging or impressive poses much like it’s not as helpful for the football players to simply practice play after play, they have to know where they are in the game. We as yogis need to know where we are in our “game”; the game of inhabiting ourselves, fully supported, truly aligned, moving with intelligence and integrity. We have to be honest that perhaps the lumbar flexibility of our present may or may not allow for all the backbending poses of our yesterday but if we are discerning, creative and adaptive in attitude and practice we can always discover alternatives. When we develop the awareness to notice the placement of our right big toe relative to the left, the effects of our habit of engagement for one shoulder blade compared to the other or how by moving the  skin of the hand from the outside edges inward creates a more evenly balanced  dog pose, we are on our way to subtle yet deeply profound change. Our ability and tenacity to integrate the necessary adjustments is what leads to transformation. That requires patience and long, uninterrupted, unceasing practice.

Winston’s coach allows that the player seems to be getting better at this business of patience, characterizing it as “slow and steady progress.” Winston himself says things are slowing down for him, in a good way. “Patience is a way of controlling everything. To be an effective game manager I always need to be calm, cool and collected. Everything can be going fast for others but it has to be slowed down for me. I have to be the person that brings everybody together and puts us on ‘chill mode.'”

This wisdom isn’t the byproduct of age, he’s 23. It comes with putting in the work, the intelligence of that work and the unceasing practice and patience sustained over long periods of time.

B.K.S. Iyengar reminds us that there is a great difference between just practicing and sadhana. He says, “Sadhana is the way of accomplishing something. That something is by correct execution, the achievement of the real. What is real must be true and so lead us toward purity and emancipation. This is yoga sadhana and not the mechanical repetition merely of yoga practice. The end of yoga sadhana is wisdom. Here he is translating yoga sadhana as ‘the yoga pilgrimage’ as it is a journey that leads somewhere, not the mere treadmill of thoughtless practice. ” Hmm… words to practice by.  Namaste

 

How to Stand up Straight and Why You Want to Know How

If the three rules of real estate are” location, location, location”, the three rules of health should be posture, posture, posture! It’s estimated that 80% of the U.S. population will experience back pain at some point in their life. Understanding proper alignment and practicing it is crucial if you don’t want that eventuality. Additional side effects of poor posture and alignment include:

  • Shoulder, neck and back pain (it’s all connected baby)
  • Kyphosis (forward curvature of the thoracic or upper spine)
  • Tension headaches
  • Depression – a collapsed chest literally weights the heart, pushes the head forward then dropping it downward. The classic depressive incarnation.
  • Restricted breathing
  • Cardiovascular irregularities
  • Increased stress
  • Decreased energy
  • Decreased libido

Hopefully that list is unappealing enough to get your attention and prompt an immediate self assessment. Stop – right now. Are you slouching your chair with your shoulders rounded and head pushed forward? Are you standing with a similar silhouette and/or weight shifted to one side and/or arms crossed in front of your chest? If so, recalibrate by finding an empty wall to stand against, heels at the baseboard, hip width apart. Weight each foot evenly, bend knees slightly, keeping buttocks, back of chest, shoulders and head against the wall. The chin should be parallel to the floor and not upward tilting and arms should be extended downward in line with the hips. Now tilt the pelvis until the tip of the tailbone points straight down toward the floor and the navel is lifting upward and backward toward spine. Slowly lift and tighten the kneecaps until legs are straight. Keep chest lifting upwards toward chin without lifting chin.

That’s proper alignment!

It should feel much more open and supported though not necessarily familiar or easy to maintain as very few folks are practiced in this posture and most lack the awareness and musculature for maintenance. Great news is that it’s a completely accessible and free fix, just not super quick. All that is required is sustained motivation, (see above list as often as necessary, or have a family member take a quick photo of you when you aren’t paying attention, revealing!) awareness and practice. I encourage clients to post visual reminders in places they inhabit most frequently, e.g. car, office, kitchen etc.. They can be as simple as sticky notes with written cues, codewords or a photograph. The more often the old, bad posture is interrupted and corrected, the more likely it is to be sustained increasingly over time. Conditioning ones core, legs and back is also helpful as is habituating the standing practice of holding one arm behind the back, with hand encircling opposite upper arm above the elbow. Just remember to alternate sides!

 

 

Quote for the Week: What we want

“What most people want is the same. Most people simply want physical and mental health, understanding and wisdom, and peace and freedom. Often our means of pursuing these basic human needs come apart at the seams, as we are pulled by the different and often competing demands of human life.

Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit the broken pieces together. Yoga allows you to find an inner peace that is not ruffled and riled by the endless stresses and struggles of life.

Yoga is not meant to be a religion or a dogma for any one culture. While yoga sprang from the soil of India, it is meant to be a universal path, a way open to all regardless of birth or background.”

-B.K.S. Iyengar

 

Understanding True Meditation

In the yogic tradition, meditation (dhyana), is the seventh of the eight petals of yoga yet is simultaneously present in every aspect. All require a reflective or meditative mood.

The speed of modern life promotes a baseline of stress for most of us. That chronic stress and pressure can build up emotional disturbances within individuals. Often one will hear instructors/educators recommend meditation to combat or remove the stress but this is where it gets a little confusing; meditation is only possible when one has achieved the practiced state of a cool, calm and relaxed brain. For true meditation to be practiced, the practitioner must actually be free from stress, internal agitation and be physically and mentally strong, Meditation requires the strong foundation of the asanas (yoga poses) and pranayama (breathing practices) combined with the withdrawal of the senses (pratayahara) and concentration (dharana). True meditation leads one to wisdom and awareness and this insight is what helps us understand that we are more than our ego.

To relax the brain we develop a consistent daily asana practice. As we mature in the practice we understand experientially, that our mind exists in more than our head as it spreads through our body, extending and expanding through our limbs, creating a more complete awareness. Stressful thoughts are eliminated as the mind focuses on the body, intelligence and overall awareness. The brain becomes more receptive and deep concentration becomes natural. Through this process the brain is taught to maintain a receptive, relaxed yet concentrated state, now trained and ready for the practice of meditation.