Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

Books: The Art of Happiness, by H.H. the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler May 27, 2014

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for LivingThe Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living is based on conversations that Howard C. Cutler, MD, a psychiatrist, had with the Dalai Lama over several years. The author’s introductory note states that the purpose of the book was to collaborate “on a project that would present the Dalai Lama’s views on leading a happier life, augmented by [Cutler's] own observations and commentary from the perspective of a Western psychiatrist” (ix).

Cutler chose to organize the book’s content thematically. The topics include the following:

  • Part I: The Purpose of Life (hint: it has to do with happiness)
  • Part II: Human Warmth and Compassion
  • Part III: Transforming Suffering
  • Part IV: Overcoming Obstacles
  • Part V: Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life

Each part except for Part V is comprised of three or four chapters discussing related topics. Cutler will often introduce a topic by giving a brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts, then will delve into the psychology behind the issue before returning to H.H.’s viewpoint and suggestions for dealing with the issue. Overall I feel like Cutler succeeds in meshing the sometimes very different viewpoints of Tibetan Buddhism and Western psychiatry, and I enjoyed the stories that both of them had to offer, but there were times when Cutler just didn’t seem to get what the Dalai Lama was saying and vice versa. In those instances, I was more interested in hearing the Dalai Lama’s viewpoint and just wanted Cutler to stop harping on whatever it was already, but overall this was pretty rare; I tended to enjoy both viewpoints.

One thing that I found interesting was how the Dalai Lama talks about eliminating negative states of mind. Just as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Dalai Lama agrees that one of the best ways to eliminate these states of mind is to think of positive ones instead. For example,

“When talking about eliminating negative states of mind, there is one point that should be born in mind. Within Buddhist practice, the cultivation of certain specific positive mental qualities such as patience, tolerance, kindness, and so on can act as specific antidotes to negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, and attachment. Applying antidotes such as love and compassion can significantly reduce the degree or influence of the mental and emotional afflictions” (239).

This passage comes in Part IV, Overcoming Obstacles, in Chapter 12, Bringing About Change. This view fits in so well, to me, with Patanjali’s words in Sutra II.33: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” I was really impressed and excited that Buddhist thought on this topic meshes so nicely with the yoga sutras.

The Dalai Lama’s wisdom is practical and straightforward; you can tell that he himself practices the same techniques he recommends. The book also includes instructions for several meditation practices (like this one), written in the Dalai Lama’s own words from transcripts of his talks. These are scattered throughout the book, as this isn’t intended as a meditation manual, but it’s nice that they’re included in places that make sense thematically.

Overall, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the Dalai Lama, one of the holiest and most revered people alive today, and to understand his perspective, his kindness, and his compassion.

 

Books: The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg August 6, 2013

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:02 pm
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 The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles DuhiggIn The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explores what makes a habit – good ones, bad ones, petty little ones we can’t seem to manage to change – and how we humans, as creatures of habit, can examine our smallest actions and why we do what we do. According to Duhigg’s research, our daily habits may seem isolated and small, but making a small change to a daily habit may lead us to life-changing new patterns.

Duhigg analyzes the elements common to any habit, from nail biting to snacking to gambling, and finds the common thread: each “habit loop” begins with a cue, an event that triggers the habit to begin. Once the habit loop is activated, you experience a craving, and then carry out the routine of the habit itself, which results in a reward. Thinking about a habit in this framework allows you to isolate each aspect of the habit, helping you to figure out why you always need a snack at 3:00 or why you can’t stop checking Facebook. After establishing the habit loop pattern and some techniques to change it, Duhigg then looks at the habits of people in groups, at work or in social situations, and examines how these habit theories can be applied to effect change on a larger scale.

The Power of Habit is, from a readability perspective, nearly perfect. Duhigg uses compelling stories to make his points and weaves together multiple narratives to keep the reader engaged. He pulls together many different threads from his exhaustive research and hours of interviews, looking at the question of habits from every angle: neurology, addiction, education, corporate culture, and social change, to name a few. As a result, there’s something here to interest everyone, and because he distills each topic down to the individual level – one person who conquered her addiction, one CEO who changed a company – the reader can stay focused on the story and the prose never gets too dry. Duhigg’s own authorial presence is very light, telling each person’s tale matter-of-factly, without bias, and only rarely interjecting himself. Duhigg comes across as an expert, and as a reader, I trust his expertise and want to learn more.

For this blog in particular, I found this book fascinating because of the way Duhigg’s research fits in with my recent posts on identity-based goals. According to Duhigg, the reason people often fail at achieving their goals is because they’ve failed to change a key habit. By changing the cue-routine-reward habit loop and changing just one habit, people can make much bigger changes and achieve larger goals. This fits in really well with the idea of identity-based goals, which encourages people to not only set a goal but to (1) change the way they think about themselves, and (2) make small progress every day in becoming the sort of person who can achieve what they want to achieve. According to Duhigg, those little successes are key to reprogramming our brains with new habits that will drive us towards the goals we seek.

For myself personally, this book gave me new ways of looking at my own habits: on the negative side, I’d like to change my nail-picking and Facebook habits, and on the positive side, I’d like to strengthen and deepen my yoga practice. I now have some ideas about how I can transform these habits: for example, improving my 5:45am yoga practice to deliver a stronger reward, therefore increasing my motivation to get out of bed early. (More specifics on that plan coming in Thursday’s post!) Overall, I strongly recommend Duhigg’s book. Whether you have bad habits you’d like to change, good habits you’d like to strengthen, or people in your life whose habits drive you nuts, this book will be a fascinating read.

 

books: Step-by-Step Yoga for Pregnancy, by Wendy Teasdill June 18, 2013

Filed under: books,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:04 pm
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Step-By-Step Yoga for Pregnancy by Wendy TeasdillStep-by-Step Yoga for Pregnancy is an excellent guide to all aspects of prenatal yoga, from physical postures to pranayama and meditation. Teasdill discusses the implications of pregnancy on yoga practice at each step of the way; she makes the poses fresh for those already familiar with yoga, and her warm tone is encouraging for  new beginners without being overwhelming. This nicely illustrated book is appropriate for new students as well as experienced practitioners.

In chapter 1, Teasdill begins with an overview of how the body changes during pregnancy and how yoga can facilitate good health; chapter 2 discusses some yoga basics and describes how yoga can be beneficial in everyday life. Chapters 3-5 detail the physical asanas appropriate for each trimester, with drawings and descriptions of how and why to do each posture. Teasdill links the asanas in several sequences to accommodate different times of day or energy levels. As the pregnancy progresses, Teasdill focuses the chapter on a different aspect of yoga practice: pranayama in the first trimester (chapter 3), asanas in the second trimester (chapter 4), and meditation in the third trimester (chapter 5). She finishes the book with chapters 6 and 7, discussing labor and birth and life after the birth, respectively, including yoga postures to help heal the body after childbirth.

Teasdill explains clearly which poses are safe to do at which stage of pregnancy and offers plenty of options for modification or support with props like chairs and bean bags. For the spiritual side of prenatal yoga, Teasdill includes several nice guided meditations to foster relaxation and connection to the growing baby. Yoga teachers will find this book an excellent reference, and expectant mothers will appreciate Teasdill’s expertise, guidance, and sensitivity.

 

Books: Caretaking a New Soul, edited by Anne Carson March 28, 2013

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:24 am
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Caretaking a New SoulCaretaking a New Soul, edited by Anne Carson, is an anthology of short essays about spirituality, education, and young children, aimed at families who don’t follow a traditional Christian path. Most people in the US are Christian; of adults who no longer practice, or practice a different faith, many were raised in a Christian household, chose a different path later, and are now searching for meaningful rituals and traditions to share with their children. Caretaking a New Soul fills that need, exploring a variety of faith perspectives, from Buddhist to pagan to the “buffet style” spiritual practitioner who likes a little bit of everything.

My favorite pieces in the collection are those from the Buddhist perspective, as that’s the faith closes to my own ideals.Raised Catholic myself, I appreciated the advice on how to teach meditation to a child in two essays: “The Education of the Buddhist Child,” by Rev. Jiyu Kennett, and “Call It Something Else,” by Karey Solomon. In “The Education of the Buddhist Child,” I really appreciated the perspective shift in discussing the differences in raising a Buddhist versus a Christian child. In “Call It Something Else,” Solomon talks about one specific method for teaching meditation to preschoolers. I’m looking forward to helping YB learn how to “make her star shine bright.” I’ve made copies of both articles for future reference.

The book was first published in 1989, with only a new preface added for the second edition in 1999, and this shows a bit in the content. I didn’t see any essays from a Hindu perspective, which would have been a welcome addition to me, or a Muslim perspective, which would have been great to include, but the second edition was published before Muslim spirituality came onto the scene in such a negative way with 9/11. Understandably, the need to demystify Muslim spiritual practice and childrearing wasn’t yet a major issue. There’s also very little discussion of alternative families. This issue doesn’t necessarily affect spiritual practice, but there are a lot of mentions of mothers and fathers that just wouldn’t be applicable for many modern families. And there are many “new age” sorts of references, and the pagan perspectives felt a bit dated to me. Overall the book still has a lot of excellent content for parents as spiritual seekers and teachers, but the reader has to be aware of the time lapse.

Interestingly for me, the pagan pieces made me think about my own bias: even in essays where I agreed with every substantive thing the author had to say, I still rolled my eyes at terms like “Goddess” and “Magick”. Why? As my husband F pointed out, a child is more likely to comprehend the idea of saying a magic spell over terminology like “the power of positive thinking” and “self-actualization”. Who cares what you call it, if it works? And reverence for the earth and the environment is important to my own spirituality, even if I don’t talk about the Earth Mother, and it’s definitely something I want to share with my daughter. Regardless of the words used, respecting the spiritual practices of others is important to me, and I will always want YB to be respectful, so I definitely have to examine my attitudes before I pass negative perspectives down to her.

In one section, Carson talks about how parents want more for their children. For many of us, our parents wanted us to have more than they did, largely in the sense of material goods and status: a good education, college, and fancy house and car. Carson, writing in the 1980s, notes that she wants her daughter to have more in the emotional and spiritual sense: more freedom from violence and prejudice, more self-confidence, more strength. That statement struck me hard, because those are the exact things that I want my daughter to have that I didn’t (and doing the math and realizing the Carson’s daughter is probably just a few years younger than I am makes me a bit sad, but also glad for the steps forward that have been made just in my lifetime). Thinking critically about spiritual issues and education is one of the main ways we can begin to build that future for our children.

 

books: The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin February 26, 2013

Filed under: books — R. H. Ward @ 1:24 pm
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The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More FunI recently reread The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Winter, and February in particular, is a hard time of year for me, so I wanted to remind myself of little things I can do to improve how happy I am in my every day life.

Rubin conceives of a “happiness project”: paying attention to all the elements of her life and experimenting to find ways to increase her daily level of happiness in small ways. While Rubin admires writers like Thoreau and Elizabeth Gilbert, who change their entire lives to explore a happiness project, Rubin wants to see if it’s possible to improve her happiness without leaving home. She spends a year exhaustively researching happiness – what famous people have written about it, what conventional wisdom says will make us happy, what studies show is important, and more – and works to distill “happiness” down to what it means for her specifically to be happy. Every month she focuses on a different aspect of happiness (energy, marriage, work, parenthood, fun, spirituality, etc.) and identifies key areas to focus on, things she can improve right now in her own life.

Rubin is what could be described as a Type A personality: having decided to tackle happiness, she examines the subject from all angles, researches it exhaustively, and comes up with charts, journals, and other benchmarks to track her progress accurately, and she starts a blog, where she both inspires others and receives inspiration from around the world. Those who don’t enjoy the book find Rubin to be obsessive and annoying, but personally, I think she’s charming, and I found her journey to be fascinating, fun, and endearing. With all her little foibles, Rubin seems very real. The book is well written, and Rubin choose the right details, stories, and quotations to make her points clearly and make the text resonate for the reader.

Over the course of the book, Rubin tries out a lot of methods, techniques, tips, tactics, and theories, and by the end, she’s discovered the ones that work well for her and her family. The operative phrase here is “for her” – Rubin openly acknowledges that many of her resolutions won’t work for someone else. She urges readers to embark on their own happiness project and find out what will work for them. This is really the best takeaway from The Happiness Project: in writing the story of her own experimental year, Rubin has become a happiness coach, full of inspirational examples and information that readers can apply in their own lives. Rubin also quotes liberally from reader comments on her blog; these comments are often as interesting and thought-provoking as Rubin’s own prose, and provide even more examples and food for thought. Overall, The Happiness Project succeeds as a memoir, a research book, and a self-help guide for anyone wanting to be happier.

 

books: The Magicians January 24, 2013

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 1:03 pm
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The Magicians, by Lev GrossmanLast week I read a book called The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. We meet the main character, Quentin Coldwater, during his senior year in high school. He’s a brilliantly gifted but awkward kid, dreaming of his best friend’s girl and trying to get into Princeton because that’s what seems to be expected of him. Instead, he receives an invitation to attend a secret college for magicians. Quentin had practiced card tricks and sleight of hand, but apparently he has a gift for the real kind of magic also.

Quentin is no Harry Potter. Frequently depressed, Quentin’s life is characterized by disappointment that all the things that were supposed to make him happy never do. This makes some sense when he’s younger – what smart awkward kid is ever happy in high school? – but his disillusionment returns again and again. A magical school is what he’d hoped for his whole life, but after the wonder wears off and the hard work sets in, Quentin isn’t happy there. And later on, with graduation looming and afterward, Quentin still isn’t happy, despite the fact that with his powers he could do, literally, anything he wants.

Quentin keeps expecting the circumstances of his life to bring him happiness. He thinks that if he works hard and does what he’s supposed to do, happiness will happen to him, like a reward. What he doesn’t realize is that he’ll never be happy if he doesn’t change his attitude. Alice, the girl Quentin loves, sees his problem and tells him he needs to recognize just how lucky he is. “You can’t just decide to be happy,” Quentin says, to which Alice responds, “Yes, but you can decide to be miserable.”

Although our problems are less magical, most of us are a lot like Quentin. We work hard and then expect happiness to come to us, always looking ahead to something else that, like magic, will make us happy. We expect happiness to be a country we can inhabit where, if we can just get there, we’ll never be sad again. But happiness has to come from within. It’s an attitude, a state of mind. If we can let go of our expectations about what it means to be happy and open ourselves to the possibility of being happy right here, right now, then we can experience what happiness truly can be.

 

books: Healing Back Pain Naturally, by Art Brownstein November 14, 2012

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:08 pm
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Healing Back Pain Naturally, by Art Brownstein

 

My father has had three spine surgeries to date, and as a yoga teacher, I’ve wondered what I could do to help him while at the same time fearing to damage his back further. My friend Kyle recommended this book. Dr. Brownstein’s program is one that a yoga teacher can really get behind, focusing not just on recovering from physical injury, but on the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of healthy living as well.

Dr. Brownstein begins the book by telling the story of his own struggles with debilitating back pain and his journey to recovery. His experiences give him a special understanding of what those with back pain are suffering. Because of his own search for healing, Dr. Brownstein has a unique perspective on how to heal from a back injury and prevent future problems.

Dr. Brownstein’s program for healing is based on his concept of the mind/body connection, described in chapters 2 and 3. According to Dr. Brownstein, mental and emotional stress can result in an increase in muscle tension and tightness, leading to injury. Dr. Brownstein urges the reader not to overmedicate, or to leap ahead to treating back problems with surgery and other invasive techniques; rather, he advocates spending some time with the pain, to understand what’s wrong and what the body is trying to communicate. It’s important to understand how the back works physically, and chapter 2 describes back anatomy in detail so the reader will understand the structures and terminology and know how back pain can result from weakness, imbalance, or strain elsewhere in the body. But sometimes the best and most permanent solution to a back problem is to make changes to lifestyle and behaviors that cause stress.

This book covers the full lifestyle spectrum in Dr. Brownstein’s approach to healing the back. Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the physical body. Chapter 4 includes a wide variety of stretches for the back; most of these are taken from yoga asanas, and may are simple and gentle enough to be done in the midst of back pain and can lead to some relief when done properly. Dr. Brownstein outlines how to use these stretches, in the order he lists them and over time, to regain mobility and reduce pain. Once the back has been fully stretched and the pain is gone, the reader can move on to strengthening the back as described in chapter 5. Back muscles that are both flexible AND strong are less likely to be pulled or strained.

Chapters 6-10 cover stress management, healthy eating, work, play, and spirituality as they relate to back care and overall health. Dr. Brownstein takes a holistic approach based on his mind/body concept: since anxiety and stress can affect the body, causing muscle tension and contributing to injury, it’s important to heal not only the body but also the mind, heart, and spirit to truly recover from a back problem. By reducing stress, reducing caffeine intake, improving one’s outlook on work, opening the heart in personal relationships, and cultivating a sense of humor and fun, the reader can improve her overall health and happiness and remove many of the stressors that can lead to future back pain and injury.

I’ve never suffered from a chronic pain condition, so I can’t comment on the book’s usefulness for those actively in pain. However, as a yoga teacher, this book helped me to understand better the perspective of someone in that kind of pain and gave me some tools to help those future students. I plan to buy a copy of this book for my dad as well.

 

 
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