Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Ahimsa and food April 14, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:33 pm
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For some yogis, practicing ahimsa (non-violence) means being vegetarian or even vegan. If you’re practicing ahimsa, then you don’t want to cause harm to anyone or anything; that goes for causing the harm personally or having it done on your behalf. They believe that, by eating meat, they are taking in and nourishing themselves on the animal’s pain and suffering. If “you are what you eat”, why would you want to be pain and suffering?

The counter-argument can be made that human beings are omnivores. We’ve been eating both plants and meat for thousands of years, and that’s what our bodies are designed to do. But humans haven’t been raising animals in factory farms for thousands of years, so there are different ways to look at this. How much suffering do my diet choices cause? As I understand it, chickens and cows in large factories are kept in small cages, fed food that is unnatural for them to eat, and are pumped full of hormones and drugs to make them fatter and their meat tastier. This seems to me to constitute a suffering overload. Also, I am lucky enough to live in a country where we have access to a huge variety of foods. In the past, humans had to eat whatever they could to survive, but our modern society allows for different choices than previous generations could even imagine. We have the luxury of not eating meat if we don’t want to. And… I don’t want to.

For a while now, F and I have been trying to buy our animal products organic, because the animals are humanely treated and allowed to live with a cow’s or a chicken’s natural dignity before they become our meal. We don’t buy beef anyway, but we’ve been buying organic hormone-free milk for a few years now, and we prefer organic chicken meat and eggs from free range, cage free chickens. It’s hard to make this kind of change on everything, though: we buy organic milk, and we’ve started buying organic yogurt, but I like Activia yogurts too – what kind of milk do they use? What kind of milk is used to produce the cheese at the deli counter? And (and this is huge) I rarely pay attention to this issue when we go out for dinner, and we eat out often. I doubt Panera is using free range chicken breasts or organic cream in their sauce. We should be thoughtful about what we eat; it’s not just food, it’s your lifestyle. If I’m going to make a lifestyle choice, I ought to be making it across the board, no matter where I’m eating.

We’ve also been working to add more vegetarian options to our daily meal plans – originally with the idea that we wanted more variety in our meals, but then more and more with the idea of trying to phase out meat. Our honeymoon in Belize was a huge eye-opener for me on beans, because people there eat beans with EVERYTHING, and the beans were always delicious. We haven’t managed to recreate Belizean rice and beans here at home yet, but we do a lot more with black beans and refried beans. I’m also in love with edamame, and F discovered this terrific chickpea salad recipe last week. There’s so much more out there than meat and potatoes.

All of this combined so that I had a revelation at dinner one night two weeks ago: I feel really passionately about this issue, and I am already ideologically a vegetarian. I was so surprised, but it’s true! I just haven’t totally stopped eating meat yet. In a typical week of meals, I was only eating meat maybe 1-2 nights, so I was already almost there. I’ve been paying attention since my first teacher training weekend, and I’ve been a practicing vegetarian all month now, even while traveling last week. With beans and soups and salads, and oatmeal with pecans and raisins and cranberries (yum), I’m already doing pretty well on the nutrition front, and that’s without even really trying. All I need to do is take the next natural step.

So I’m going to finish phasing meat out of my diet. I’m going to eat the last of the meat that’s in our freezer (because it seems worse and more disrespectful if I throw out the meat than if I eat it), and then that’s it. We have a free range bison chuck roast in there, and that will probably be Easter dinner, and then I’ll be done with meat. I’ll still eat seafood, dairy products, and eggs (I don’t want to try to make too big of a change, plus I can’t imagine life without cheese), and will try to eat these organic when I can, but no more meat.

Will there be challenges? Of course. I keep coming up with new difficulties: Bacon. KFC. Hot dogs. These are things I adore, and so I may slip from time to time. But overall this is a new adventure that I’m excited about. I’m finally going to find out what lentils are for! Think of all the kale and spinach in my future! Maybe I’ll try beets! (Okay, not as excited about beets.) But being vegetarian just feels right. That was the biggest surprise in my realization the other night, that this is absolutely the right path for me.


books: The Royal Path, by Swami Rama April 13, 2011

Filed under: books,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 8:42 pm
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The Royal PathYesterday I finished up with this month’s assigned reading: The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga, by Swami Rama. This slim volume is a guide to Ashtanga Yoga: “ashtanga” means “eight”, so “ashtanga yoga” is the “eightfold path” of classical yoga described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The eight steps of the path are as follows:

  1. yama: moral restraints
  2. niyama: moral practices
    (you know all about these now)
  3. asana: posture
  4. pranayama: control of the breath
  5. pratyahara: withdrawal and control of the senses
  6. dharana: concentration
  7. dhyana: meditation
  8. samadhi: superconscious meditation or enlightenment

Rama explicates each step on the eightfold path, providing a chapter for almost every step (yamas and niyamas are covered together in one chapter). He does include some description of yoga postures (asana), and some helpful photos, but this is only a portion of what Rama covers; he spends much more time on morality, breath, prana energy, concentration, meditation, and the mind.

For the most part, I really enjoyed what Rama had to say, and I found that reading this book deepened my reading of the Yoga Sutras. There were a few areas, though, where this book fell a little flat for me.

First, Rama’s prose can be dated at times. The original book was published in 1979, and Rama’s writing is surprisingly gendered. Here’s an example:

The central teaching of yoga is that man’s true nature is divine, perfect, and infinite. He is unaware of this divinity because he falsely identifies himself with his body, mind, and the objects of the external world. (2-3)

The sentiment here is interesting and well worth discussion, but his phrasing makes me cringe: man‘s true nature? He falsely identifies himself? I thought we got away from that sort of rhetoric years ago, even before the 1970s when this was written, and even so, I would have thought that the Himalayan Institute would have updated this in the new editions published in 1996 and 1998. Clearly Rama is talking about not man but humanity, not male yogis only but any yoga practitioner, but it still feels exclusionary to me, and the whole book is written like this. I did not feel like I personally was included in Rama’s definition of a yogi except for the parts where he specifically discusses women. This could be easily corrected in future editions, and I hope the Himalayan Institute does so.

Another thing that bothered me is that Rama fully believes that any disease can be cured with the mind. I know full well that the mind has astonishing powers for healing, but at one point he says, “If unwanted and undesirable thoughts are controlled, all diseases will vanish” (94). Really? Rama’s sentiment has some value, because we’ve all heard stories about people who were able, through prayer or positive thinking or holistic measures, to cure themselves. But not everything can be cured that way. What’s more, to say that diseases can be cured by positive thoughts could lead to blaming the patient for not getting better or for getting sick in the first place. That one line on page 94 bothered me so much that I had to shut the book for a day.

Similarly, Rama will talk about how meditation has been known and practiced in the Western world for generations, but most of Western society wasn’t ready for it, so all our Western saints practiced meditation in secret, as if there’s a big esoteric cover-up going on. Yes, St. Teresa of Avila communed with God, and what she practiced may have been a form of meditation, but was she practicing techniques passed down in secret from Indian gurus? I think probably not. Hinduism and Buddhism are strong and powerful traditions, but there are many paths. When Rama made claims like this, I couldn’t help reading it skeptically.

I’m describing the things that I found troublesome in the book, but really these things are pretty minor in comparison to what Rama does achieve, which is a strong book and a good guide to the practice of yoga. It’s definitely a worthwhile read and I plan to return to it in the future as I progress through the sutras and work more on meditation.


Niyamas: Svadhaya April 12, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:20 pm
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The fourth niyama, svadhaya, can be translated as “spiritual study” or “self-study”. Devi translates it as “sacred study of the Divine through scripture, nature, and introspection”, which is wordy but a very complete description. Svadhaya is important because we’re all seekers on our own path of spiritual understanding. If you don’t seek, if you don’t study, you’re not going to get anywhere.

There are many ways to practice svadhaya. The most obvious (possibly even the most direct translation) is to study spiritual books. The Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, whatever spiritual book calls out to you. But it’s more than just reading the book: if I pick up a Bible and I read a story about a guy who got eaten by a whale, then I think “What a funny story!” and I move on. What we really need to do is not only to read the story, but to think on it, ponder it, discover its deeper meanings. Jonah got eaten by a whale because he said no to God; he turned his back on the gifts and talents God gave him, on the work he was meant to do. It’s not a story about a whale, it’s a story about discovering and accepting your purpose. It’s also a story about surrendering to God’s will, which we’ll talk more about when we get to the last niyama, isvara pranidhana. There are many meanings to discover; each time we read the story, we may find something new that relates to our own lives. That’s why these are the sacred books: people have been finding meaning in them for thousands of years. These stories endure and have meaning for young people, old people, men, women, people of different races, ancient peasants and modern CEOs. We can do a lot worse than to study these books. By reading the Yoga Sutras, reading the commentary on them, and thinking it through to add my own commentary, I’m engaging in svadhaya right now (and I have been for weeks! Score!).

Books about sacred practice are also valuable. Before bed every night I like to read about Buddhism and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite writers of this sort of book. Written in simple, beautiful language, Hanh’s books calm my spirits and give me faith and hope (all of which makes it easier to sleep). I also read practical books about how to meditate: I’ve read Pema Chödrön, and right now I’m reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (who based on his cover photo seems like he must be the nicest man in the world). These books are most useful to me, again, when instead of just reading and saying “that’s nice”, I actually go on to use their strategies and practice the techniques.

Satchidananda says that any spiritual practice that you regularly engage in can be a practice of svadhaya. I think something like saying the rosary would fall into this category: it’s a spiritual practice that can be done regularly and that leads to a meditative or contemplative state. Whether you attend a daily religious service, meditate, roll out your prayer rug five times a day, light incense at your family altar, or just go hiking in the woods or ladle soup at a homeless shelter: whatever it is, if you’re doing it thoughtfully and with your full attention, it can be a practice of svadhaya. Mindfulness is key: most of us have known someone who practiced their religion in a huge, time-intensive way, but yet came out of that daily practice with a holier-than-thou attitude. The point of religious practice isn’t to pump up our egos (most of us don’t need any help with that!), it’s to deepen our connection to the Divine.

Last month in class, J told us that svadhaya is important because, simply, it’s really helpful to study the words of those who came before. If we’re following in someone else’s footsteps, it just makes things easier: we already have a map to where we’re going, and we don’t have to break our own trail. In the book Finding Your Religion, Rev. Scotty McLennan likens spiritual searching to hiking up a mountain. There are a bunch of paths going up the mountain already, some more and some less traveled. If you pick one, you’re going to have an easier time of it and will make more progress than if you were off hacking through the brush yourself. You’ll meet more fellow travelers who can help you on the path, and you don’t have to stick to just one path: the paths cross back and forth, all the time, so if you pick one, you’re not committed forever, you can switch to a different one whenever you want. Just pick one and get started. In my yoga practice, I have a lineage and tradition that I’m following (J was taught by Jai Deva Yogendra, who is the son of Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute and was a great guru). What J is teaching me was passed down to him from Sri Yogendra, so there’s an established path for me to follow, and I can look to Sri Yogendra’s teachings and example for help on the way. I can also look to others, like Patanjali in the distant past and Thich Nhat Hanh in the modern day. It doesn’t have to be someone from the East, either: I get a lot of inspiration from attending my Unitarian Universalist church. Many people look to American philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau for guidance, or poets like Whitman or Mary Oliver, or religious theorists like Thomas Merton.  They can all be guides on the journey.


mid-month check-in April 11, 2011

Filed under: checking in,Pose of the Month,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 3:22 pm
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It’s been three weeks since our first teacher training weekend, and there’s a week and a half until the next one. How am I doing?

  • I’ve read most of The Royal Path (I’m on page 109, so I really just have one more short chapter to go, since the glossary doesn’t count)
  • I covered all the yamas and three of the niyamas, with two niyamas to go (and I read the sutras on those niyamas this morning)
  • I’ve been blogging like a fiend and posting almost every day (I even scheduled a post for Saturday, when I was out of town!)
  • I made it to yoga class twice the first week, twice the second week, and once last week, and I’ve taught twice in class

The thing giving me the most trouble right now is the Pose of the Month. I’m finding it really frustrating, I feel resistant to it, and I admit I haven’t been doing it. It’s not being asked to do a certain pose every day that’s the problem – at first I was enjoying focusing on a specific pose, and after a few days of practice I noticed my body was improving and I was able to go deeper into the pose. I also understand that practicing the pose will help me to understand it better and therefore be better able to communicate how to do the pose to my future students. The part I’m having trouble with is being aware of and examining my feelings while I’m in the pose. This is surprisingly hard.

These particular poses (forward bends: I chose a standing forward bend and paschimottanasana, seated forward bend) do not inspire a lot of strong feeling in me. They’re enjoyable poses; they feel good and I like doing them, but I don’t have any particular feelings around them. When we got the assignment, N gave the example of a woman in a previous class who hated paschimottanasana because when she bent forward, her stomach got in her way, reminding her that she was overweight. That’s gold right there. There are other poses that I do have strong feelings about: I don’t like chair pose because it’s uncomfortable, I do like tree pose and warrior 2 because I feel strong and confident when I do them. I like dancer pose because it’s challenging and I feel accomplished when I do it. With forward bends, though, I don’t feel anything really. Good pose, good to do, I get a good stretch, end of story. So I feel kind of like I’m being asked to make something up. Seriously, I don’t feel anything earth-shattering here. What I feel is kind of annoyed that I have to analyze my feelings about this pose, which is perfectly nice but not really noteworthy.

But then I started to second-guess myself. Maybe I’m supposed to be feeling something that I’m not. What do other people feel in this pose? N and J always describe paschimottanasana as a pose of surrender, when I learned it as a much more active pose. So I started trying to practice it in a surrendery way, but I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right. And this hooked right in to my worry that I’m not doing meditation right. There will be a longer post on meditation later, I’m sure (so save your comments about that), but I’m really struggling with quieting my mind, and when I’m doing these poses, instead of noticing what I feel while I’m in the pose, I spend the whole pose thinking about the fact that I’m doing the pose and wondering what I should be feeling right now. Not the most useful thing ever.

So I started to feel resistant to the Pose of the Month, because doing the pose was no longer the pleasure it was before. It’s hard enough to fit yoga time into my schedule, but when yoga time isn’t enjoyable, when I have to spend all my yoga time analyzing my yoga, then yoga time becomes and chore and I don’t want to fit the yoga time in. So I haven’t done the Pose of the Month since probably Wednesday. I’m trying to be gentle with myself about this while still trying to enforce the fact that this is a requirement I need to fulfill. I don’t want to get to a place where I think, “I haven’t done the pose in five days, so what’s one more day?” I still need to practice the darn pose.

But if the weather’s nice tonight, then I’m skipping yoga and going jogging. (Hey, at least I’m not skipping yoga to eat cheese puffs on the couch.)


Niyamas: Tapas April 9, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:54 pm
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The third niyama, tapas, is a tricky one. Along with svadhaya and isvara pranidhana, the fourth and fifth niyamas, tapas shows up in several places in the yoga sutras, so we know it’s really important, but the translation is hard. Tapas means “to burn”. It can mean “austerity”, or a “purifying flame”, or “self-discipline”, or “self-restraint”. So what is it, and how do we practice it?

When J makes us hold a challenging pose for a long time in yoga class, he’ll come over to me and whisper “tapas” to me while I struggle (he has seriously done this at least twice now). Tapas means to feel the burn of the pose, and instead of giving up, to grit my teeth and stick it out (and to not punch J who is just trying to encourage me). Tapas is a purifying burn because when I hold the pose, when I stick it out, I become stronger. Tapas is both the burn itself and the self-discipline to stay there and experience the burning.

Both Satchidananda and Devi have useful things to say about tapas (although I had to cross-reference to the other mentions of tapas in the sutras to get a fuller understanding). Satchidananda says that anything that causes us pain will make us stronger and give us steady minds. Rather than running from pain, he encourages us to welcome pain, to suffer through it, because we’ll emerge on the other side purified and strong. He gives the example of washing cloth. When a shirt is dirty, do we just spray some perfume on it and then fold it up again? No, we wash it. In the US we have machines to do this for us, but whether you’re using technology or river water and a rock, the shirt gets soaked, spun around, scrubbed, thrashed, and beaten. Then we squeeze it out, leave it to dry under the hot sun, or put it in a clothes dryer, where it tumbles around under high heat. Then we take it out, lay it on a table, and press it flat with a hot iron. All of this can’t be fun for the shirt, but afterward, the shirt is purified, free of dirt and wrinkles, and fit for us to wear. So it is with tapas.

We can make a practice of tapas with all the worst people in our lives. Satchidananda says that when someone insults you or frustrates you, the best response is just to smile and accept it. Try to bring love and compassion to the challenge, and as well as the understanding that you’ll be stronger afterward. And Satchidananda says we should even try to thank the person who causes the pain: “Thank you for causing me so much frustration today. I know you just want to make me stronger. Bring your friends next time.”

The other day a friend asked me which yama I’d use to deal with a frustrating person. She had done her best to help this person, going out of her way to do so, but what she had to offer him wasn’t what he wanted, so he just got annoyed. My friend felt like her sincere and generously given help was thrown back in her face, and she spent the rest of the day seething about it. I told her I’d try to practice ahimsa, which is still a good thing to practice, but now I’m thinking this is a job for tapas. “Yes, annoyed guy, I see that my help wasn’t enough for you. That’s fine. I’ll still try to give you what you need.” What an incredibly hard thing to do! Thank goodness we have so many chances to practice, right?

So tapas is the burn of our muscles as we work physically, as well as the flame we feel internally in tough situations. Tapas is also our self-discipline to persevere with the exercise, our self-restraint in not yelling at the other person. With tapas, we can turn the everyday annoyances of our lives into opportunities to respond to others with love and compassion, or at least serenity. With tapas we can reflect to ourselves that, no matter how maddening this person seems to me right now, he deserves my compassion for whatever he’s suffering in his life today. What I like about tapas is that it forces us to see the silver lining, even if it’s just “if I get through this, I’ll be a stronger person.” With tapas we can turn frustration into opportunity.


Niyamas: Santosha April 8, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:54 pm
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The second niyama is santosha: contentment or satisfaction. This is a pretty easy one; we can all understand why it’s good to be content. Santosha means looking inside yourself for your happiness instead of to external things, and being satisfied with where you are and what you have no matter what’s going on around you.

One of my dear friends has a motto: “It is what it is.” Good or bad, every situation or problem is the way it is: you can’t change it. It’s raining; your boss is in a bad mood; the coffee shop is closed for renovations. We can’t control these things. So my friend reminds herself, “It is what it is,” and accepts the situation, which allows her to move forward and make better decisions. Over the years I’ve seen her make it through many a tough time with grace, kindness, and humor.

Another friend has a similar approach: she reminds herself that she’s only responsible for her own actions. When the boss is being a jerk or the coffee shop is closed, we can’t change that – the only thing we can control is the way that we ourselves act. So do we yell at our boss, cause a big scene? Or do we find a way to respond with serenity? After all, we don’t know what happened to the boss this morning. Maybe his kid is sick and he’s acting angry because he’s worried. That’s no excuse for taking it out on us, but when we try to see things from his perspective, we can react with compassion. We’re not responsible for his bad behavior, but just because he’s behaving badly, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same.

Practicing santosha helps us to stay calm and balanced. There’s no reason for these external things to affect us: we are who we are no matter what’s going on. It is what it is. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I respond to the world. I am enough in myself to be content.


Yoga News: Yoga Teacher Agents, Yoga Fights Heart Disease April 7, 2011

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 8:02 pm
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Here’s an interesting yoga-related article from the NYT: An Agent Pursues a Cut of the Yoga Boom

I know the NYT has been problematic for some people lately, so here’s a brief summary: This woman started a business as an agent for yoga teachers, the same way that movie stars, athletes, and rock stars have agents. Last year her agency arranged more than 100 gigs (for example, speaking engagements, modeling shoots, or workshops), and it already has that many on the books for the first quarter of this year, so it looks like the business is taking off. She currently handles bookings and “strategy” (not sure what that means) for 45 high-profile yoga teachers, including Leslie Kaminoff, whose yoga anatomy book I’ll be reading later this year.

On one hand, I could see this being a useful service, freeing up valuable time for the big name yoga teachers to just go teach yoga and not worry about the administrative stuff of handling the events (and, as Kaminoff pointed out in the article, not knowing how much to charge). On the other hand, do we really want yoga to be a “rock star” type profession? Do we want to feed into that culture? Do we even want “big name” yoga teachers? (I personally have never met or studied with any of the “big names”, although after a year of reading Yoga Journal magazine religiously I can now at least recognize most of the names.) I always wonder how much value these people can really deliver at the workshops and events they do.

In other news, yoga is good for your heart! I actually found this article through my job. A new study has shown that when patients suffering from atrial fibrillation (a chronic heart condition) participated in a supervised yoga program,  their arrhythmia improved and they also experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Yoga made them both healthier and happier! Obviously *we* all know the health benefits that come with yoga, but it’s nice to see that serious medical studies are being done to prove it statistically!


Yoga and injuries April 6, 2011

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 2:24 pm
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Some folks have sent me interesting yoga links lately, so I thought I’d share. Today we’ll talk about injuries!

Bend, don’t break: How to stay injury-free in yoga: This article looks like it was originally published a year ago, but it’s still interesting. I like the idea of differentiating between “impact injuries” (those that happen quickly and dramatically) and “cumulative injuries” (the ones that happen gradually over time). I’ve had some of both, and there are two that I’m currently struggling with.

  • My latest “impact injury” happened during a yoga class back in December, the day before New Year’s Eve. I liked the teacher who usually taught the class, but that day there was a sub I’d never met before. He had us do “fire hydrant pose”, where you’re on all fours and, yes, lift a leg out to the side. I’d never encountered this pose before and was having a little trouble getting the hang of it, and the teacher adjusted my right leg, pulling it up and into the pose and then holding it there. My right hip hasn’t been the same since. I had a lot of pain and soreness and lack of flexibility in the hip in the weeks right after the injury, and even today, going into triangle pose on my right side makes me gasp. At this point, stretching the hip feels like a good thing, so I keep doing it, and hopefully it’ll continue to improve, but it’s still troublesome for me.
  • I did something to my neck that seems part impact injury and part cumulative. When I write in a journal, I like to lie on the bed on my right side, ideally with a pillow under my right arm, and write with my left hand. On my honeymoon last fall, I was journaling a lot to capture all the special moments of the trip, and this positioning seems to have put a strain on the left side of my neck – maybe I was tensing my neck or something? Then we also had wimpy pillows at the jungle lodge where we were staying, and I slept on it funny, which made the injury worse. There were times during the trip when I couldn’t turn my head to the left at all; since then, the pain’s come and gone, but a sudden motion (like having to look quickly over my left shoulder to change lanes on the highway) can still be problematic. I’ve been trying all kinds of things to solve the problem: one pillow, two pillows, starting with two pillows and getting rid of one midway through the night (it was great fun the time I flung a pillow and knocked over my water glass), plus any variety of yoga stretches. What’s helped the most are a series of neck warm-ups I learned in African dance class, so I like to do those as part of my daily yoga practice. The dance class ran for the month of February, and by the time it ended, I had almost eliminated the neck pain. Now, though, I’m doing much of my practice at the studio, so I haven’t been doing the exercises every day. I need to get back to this.

Of course, I’ve also had problems with my wrists and knees. I would guess that anybody seriously pursuing yoga (or working all day in an office, or both) has also had some sort of problem in these areas. My wrists were bad enough at one point that I went to the doctor, who didn’t have much to say other than to keep wearing the wrist brace I got at Walgreens. It’s just a generic carpal tunnel brace, but it did help. I now have one for each wrist that I keep around just in case, plus a pair of more flexible wrist supports that I’ll use from time to time. Now that I’m stepping up my practice with teacher training, I’ve been considering getting these wrist support gloves, but they’re a little pricey and I haven’t experienced any actual pain from my new yoga schedule. I know, that’s a cop-out answer, if I’ve had pain before I should be trying to prevent pain in the future. But I haven’t been practicing a lot of wrist-intensive poses lately, either (handstand or handstand prep, crow, wheel: the sorts of poses where a high percentage of your body weight is resting on your hands). If I start practicing these sorts of poses more often, then I will look into getting the gloves, but for now I think I’m okay. I do wish that, in the Swenson article linked above, they’d given more detail on how to avoid and/or deal with wrist injuries.

I had some worries about my left knee recently too, but mostly that was in the winter: when I wasn’t walking or running or dancing. Once my dance class started up in February, and then it got warm enough for me to go jogging occasionally, it started feeling better, and I haven’t had any pain now for quite a while. This seems to me to agree with the article, that some cross-training can be good for strengthening the muscles around problematic joints. (I’ve also had issues in the past with twisting this knee, so I’ve been careful of that lately and I think that helps too.)

What yoga injuries have you experienced, and what insights can you share into resolving them?

(And keep the links coming when you see ’em!)


Niyamas: Saucha April 5, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 7:47 pm
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Today we move from the five yamas (restrictions or restraints) to the five niyamas (observances).  (I’m hoping that when I’ve finished with the niyamas, I will have formed Voltron.)

The first niyama is saucha: “purity” or “simplicity”. Saucha involves keeping the body clean, because that’s important for keeping both body and mind healthy. One shouldn’t be prideful about her appearance, but paying attention to cleanliness and hygiene is part of life. We should also practice mindfulness about what we put into our bodies (for example, choosing an apple over a Big Mac), since the food we put into our bodies affects our internal cleanliness. Saucha is also about purity of mind. We need to make mindful and discriminating choices about everything we take in: not only food, but also books, TV, movies, and the company we keep, because these things have an affect on the purity of our minds. For example, I decided a long time ago that I can’t watch horror movies. Although horror movies are exciting in the short term, the bloody violent images get emblazoned on my brain and I have nightmares for days – but horror movies are cool and lots of people like them, so I kept watching them and kept having nightmares. Finally I decided it wasn’t worth it and said goodbye to Freddy and Jason. I’ll still freak myself out over things I saw a long time ago, because I can’t erase those pictures from my mind, but I’m much happier not adding new horrible things to the gallery.

Satchidananda and Devi have pretty different translations of the sutras on saucha (2.40-2.41):

Satchidananda: By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.  Moreover, one gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses, and fitness for Self-realization. (142, 145)

Devi: Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within. Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms. (206)

Satchidananda’s version sounds a little crazy. He states that our bodies are dirty: always excreting waste, even through our pores, and never truly being clean no matter how often we wash. He says that when we realize this, we lose our attachment to the body and our desire to join our dirty bodies with other people’s dirty bodies (see, I knew Voltron had a place in this post somewhere) and we are able to focus more closely on spiritual practice. Satchidananda then goes on to say that once you understand the body, the heart and mind become purified as well, making us ready for meditation and Self-realization. For this one, I’m glad that I’m also reading Devi, since her commentary really provides a nice counterpoint to Satchidananda’s and helps me make sense of what he says.

For Devi, saucha is about simplicity as well as purity. When we eliminate needless complication from our lives, we can distill down to the pure essence of who we are, who and what we love, and what we want to do. Devi also talks about purity of heart. She notes that nurses kindly take care of sick people, no matter what bodily discharges are involved, because they have the purity of heart to serve others with patience. This is such an interesting counterpoint to what Satchidananda says about bodies being dirty. People like Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, and the nurses at your local hospital know exactly how disgusting the body can be, but they’re able to rise above it with compassion. Satchidananda’s description makes me think of an OCD monk, so I find Devi’s real-world example very moving. Of course that’s what purity is really about! I think too of a mother with a young child: whether it’s a baby with a dirty diaper or an older child with a stomach bug, the mother cleans up the mess. It’s simple because it’s really about love.


Teaching a seated twist!

Filed under: Pose of the Month,teacher training,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 8:54 am
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Last night in yoga class, there were three of us teacher trainees there, and we all got to teach. (I don’t think I’m going to get to relax and enjoy a yoga class for the next 9.5 months, but hey, it makes sense that I actually have to work for my almost-a-year of complimentary yoga classes.) Julia did a balance pose, Nancy did a backbend, and I did a seated twist.

Seated twist.(Hey, check it out, I added an item of visual interest to my post! Thanks to F, special guest photographer, who somehow managed to climb halfway up the wall to get this shot. I went back and added a photo to my Tree Pose post too!)

So here’s the seated twist I chose to teach. And of course, J asked us not to do the pose ourselves, just to talk through it. I understand why he wants us to do it that way, but what I discovered is that this is a difficult pose to tell someone how to get into.

OK, so first, you start out sitting up straight with your legs out in front of you. Easy. Now you’ve got to get the leg bend. What I said was something like, “Bring up your left knee, and then let it drop off to the side, and press your left foot against your right thigh.” That’s how I personally do it, but based on the class response, it might not be the best way ever to tell someone else how to do it (I then followed up that clear and accessible bit of instruction with, “Look, Julia’s got it!”). Not totally sure what the best way would be. Maybe, “Bend the left knee and slide your foot up your right leg”? Or just, “Bend your left knee and place your foot against your right thigh”? But then you miss the bit where the left leg is parallel to the floor, not up.

Anyway, hopefully now we’ve got the leg bent, so next is the twist. What I said was, “Raise your left arm – no, just to shoulder height – and now twist toward your left leg. Let your left arm lead you into the twist, and when you’re at the limit of the twist, drop your left hand to the floor. Bring your right hand to your left knee, and look over your left shoulder” (I’m not looking over my shoulder in the photo, but you should be when you try this at home). In retrospect, I should have brought the right hand to the knee first, then done the twist, because I think the hand on the knee gives you some leverage and helps keep your back straight, which people were having some trouble with. I also might have offered some guidance on where the left hand should drop behind you – i.e., right behind your tush – because having the hand too far back possibly caused people to be leaning back too much. A few people were confused about the whole darn thing and J had to go fix one woman, which I was a little embarrassed about.

Things I neglected to mention: keeping your right foot flexed and right leg active instead of just letting it lay there, and using the breath to deepen into the pose (breathe in and lengthen your spine, breathe out and move a little deeper into the twist). I also neglected to count my breaths as a way of telling how long they’d been in the pose so I just had to guess.

And then, you untwist and do it on the other side, which hopefully is less confusing because you just did it once. It seemed to be less confusing on the other side in class.

Overall, I don’t think I did the best job ever teaching this pose, but it helped to deconstruct it a bit here to see what I can do better next time. (I don’t know that I’ll always post here after every time I teach anything, because that would be a lot considering I’m trying to get to class twice a week. Maybe I’ll post for every new pose I get to teach? Or every interesting and out of the ordinary teaching event? We’ll see.)