Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's Good For You, Like Soup

Get your calendar marking pens out (or their smartphone app equivalent)…Saturday February 11th I’m bringing you ARM BALANCES: A ‘CROW’-ACTIVE APPROACH at HudsonRiver Yoga, 2-4 pm.  An opportunity to experiment, not to compete.

Flight School is back in session.  Dress up like Ice Man if you like.  We may even buzz a tower or two.
“Well, Ron. The New York Times says I should run screaming away all yoga, especially ‘advanced’ poses.” Replies the peanut gallery.

I am here to say that arm balances can be practiced safely, when they are approached with self-awareness, intelligence, and respect. And that’s exactly what we are going to do.

Our reactions to arm balances help us to build awareness of how we approach difficult situations. We are asking ourselves to completely change how we support ourselves.  We are quite literally taking a flying leap into the unknown, hoping that everything will be alright.  We are asking ourselves to completely operate on faith.

These are very useful tools for self awareness off the mat.  Forget nice arms and shapely abs, arm balances benefit us the most by forcing us to concentrate and purposefully operate on risk. 

Our focus will be on kakasana—crow pose. Some call it bakasana, crane pose.  As far as I can tell, the only  real difference lies with the lineage.  Krishnamacharya’s peeps call it baka- (crane), Sivananda’s peeps call it kaka- (crow).  Most people I’ve met commonly call it crow regardless of the Sanskrit term they use.  Both names have interesting stories, which I will tell.  I prefer crow, because of the connection to Rama, and ‘crane-active’ just doesn’t have the same ring.  But I digress.  

I have long considered crow the gateway to other arm balances.  Yes, there is an element of strength needed.  Yes, there is an element of flexibility needed. However, this pose is so much more about technique.  Set the hands, set the shoulders, apply bandhas, fix dristhi.  Then tipping into the balance.  It’s fairly easy to move gradually into the pose, testing balance, working with fear, backing out as needed.  Overcoming the fear of crow and incorporating into your practice opens the door for side crow, handstand, and a host of other arm balances.  And changing the point of entry. Oh yes, we will play with jumping into crow. Maybe Headstand 2 into crow.  Maybe maybe handstand into crow. The foundations for these balances (which require building confidence, strength, and flexibility, either for the pose itself or for entering the pose) all are contained with in our good friend Sri Kakasana.  Learn this one, and the rest will come.

The Jivamukti crew use “Let Go” as a focal point for meditation.  Breathe in “Let,” breathe out “Go.”  We’ll borrow this, and learn how the addition of mantra completely changes asana from a pure physical practice to a meditative one.  We will let go our fears, let go our “I can’t possibly” mind.  When we let go “I can’t,” the only thing left is “Maybe I can.”

Come to Flight School.  It’s good for you, like soup.  Contact me for details.

 Pink Floyd--Learning to Fly

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Trust the Machine

A Peasant spoke to Ramakrishna: “I am a simple villager.  Please give me in one sentence a method by which I can obtain happiness.”

Ramakrishna replied: “Totally accept the fact that you are a machine operated upon by God.”
(From Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy. He does not cite orig. source)

When I left class Monday night, the roads were pretty nasty.  A thin base of sleet covered by an ever shifting coating of snow.  Felt the wheels start to slip, so I shifted into 4H, slowed down, and made it home without a worry—I trusted the machine, in this case a 2800 lb. hunk of Detroit steel that is my Jeep Wrangler, to get me home.

We spend a lot of time in our yoga practice attempting to come to the realization that we are not the body and not the mind.  These things are changeable, impermanent, and compound, therefore they cannot be Truth.  The catch-22 is that the only tools we have to discover we are not the body and not the mind are the body and mind.  They can be useful tools, when used correctly.

The body is a wonderfully complex machine which provides us with all sorts of good information.  If our mind would only shut up enough to listen.  The mind can create resistance in the body (“I can’t do that,” the mind says, and <poof> that is impossible). The mind can remove resistance in the body (“I think I can. I think I can,” and <poof> the impossible becomes possible).  The mind can also override the good sense of the body (“I know I can do that.  I’ll just work through that sharp, shooting pain.  It’s only a flesh wound” <pop><agonizing screams>).

Contrary to popular belief, advancing in this practice does not mean adding more complex poses and going fasterdeepermore.  It means slowing down and paying attention.  We can make good use of the tools of our body and mind by paying attention, interpreting the feedback, and adjusting our actions.

Pay Attention:  No one understands our bodies better than ourselves.  We have to be honest with ourselves and develop awareness of what working correctly feels like and what working too much (and little) feels like.  What was appropriate yesterday may not be appropriate today. You must take 100% responsibility for your practice. When you hit a roadblock, stop and listen.  Your body is trying to tell you something. 

Interpret the Feedback:  Something is happening, now we need to understand what that is.  Consult your teacher and other appropriate authorities about what is happening.  This is why it is so important that you study with teachers who have an active, consistent practice.  If they cannot motivate and safely conduct their own practice, they cannot advise, motivate, and safely guide you in your practice.  Seek advice from those who have experienced and traversed obstacles on this path.  Some obstacles are physical (seek appropriate medical attention), some are mental, some are in combination. An outside authority’s perspective provides valuable insight.

Adjust Actions:  Once you know something is not working, and you have input on why it may not be working, you have to act.  Knowledge without action is useless.  If you keep doing what you have always done, you will get the results you have been getting.  If the result is injury, then continuing to practice the same way will still lead to injury.  There are times when we need to dial back from our strength, flexibility, and what we have accepted as our practice if they are yielding negative results.  Just because I have 4 wheel drive does not make me invincible and entitle me to drive like a maniac; I have to apply the tool correctly in order to make it home safely.  Your teacher can offer suggestions, but you must take the action.

An example from my own practice.  For a long time, my practice (and teaching style) had been based in the Ashtanga Vinyasa System of Krishnamacharya via Pattabhi Jois.  I worked with the First and into the Second series.  About 6 months ago or so, what I had been doing, steadily, consistently for a long time was no longer working.  My body was not responding as it had and neither was my mind.  Road Block!  Orange Cone! Traffic Advisory!

My body told me something was wrong, I listened to it, and consulted authoritative sources.

 In Yoga Mala, SKPJ says that “As the bodily constitution of each human being is different, it is important to practice asanas accordingly.  The benefit to be had from one asana or pranayama can be derived just as well from another that better suits the structure of a person’s body.”  Swami Sivananda states: “Common-sense or Yukti should be used throughout your practice. If one kind of exercise is not agreeable to your system, change it after due consideration or consultation with your Guru. This is Yukti. Where there is Yukti, there is Siddhi, Bhukti and Mukti (perfection, enjoyment and salvation).” [Sivananda, The Science of Pranayama]

My practice needed to change. My practice was rajasic—perfect for creating discipline, strength, and endurance, necessary at one time, but no longer appropriate for me.  I needed to move to a more sattvic practice, less jumping about and more sitting still and shutting up.  I went on to identify and adapt to a practice which has proven to be more suitable to my current state of body/mind. Don’t worry, I still practice handstand (and full lotus handstand and other assorted cool tricks), but I no longer jump to handstand 25+ times a day with every vinyasa.   

As my practice changed, I had to alter my teaching—I could not teach what I did not practice.  That would be unfair and potentially dangerous to my students.  Mercifully and thankfully my students stayed along for the ride and adapted to the different style.

This speaks volumes to the caliber of students I am blessed to have.

The body and mind are imperfect, yet they are the tools we have.  Yes, always have unshakable faith in Truth [or insert the name that best suits you here—God, Divine, etc.], but it is also important to trust in the machine that lets you realize Truth.

After all, who do you think made that machine?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yoga Is Safe. Alarmist Articles Designed To Promote Books Are Not

Yes, I am going to comment on that article.  You know the one.  The one that is scaring many into thinking practicing of yoga will cause extreme catastrophic injury.  As you may have guessed by the title of this post, I am of a different opinion.

Certainly I agree that there is the possibility of injury when practicing yoga.  We are asking our bodies to perform in ways they are not used to moving (which is kind of the point), certainly presenting the possibility of injury.  Heck, I have experienced injury when moving my body in normal ways, and have had negative consequences from not moving my body much at all (I recently wrote a book, meaning extended hours sitting in one place typing), so why shouldn’t I concede the possibility for injury when doing things I don’t normally do)

I am not refuting the potential for injury. 

I take great issue with both the author and the “respected” teacher quoted throughout the article who state that yoga WILL cause injury, and I have great concerns regarding the motivation behind this article.

Everyone has, and is entitled to, their opinion.  When hearing an opinion, one must consider the source [NB see * below].  If you notice the by line of this article, it is adapted from an upcoming book by the author.  He mentions in the article that he began to practice yoga to relieve the pain from a back issue.  He states that his back gave way during a certain pose, causing him to re-think yoga as a healing art.  He never indicates a length of time of practice, nor his frequency of practice. He does not say that a teacher encouraged him to go beyond his ability, nor if he spoke with a teacher about the safest methods of practice given his injury.  Basically, we have someone without a consistent, dedicated, supervised practice claiming to be an authority on the dangers of yoga.  And by the way, his book just happens to be coming out next month.  And by the way, he is a writer for the NY Times. And doesn’t the NY Times have great writers who are publishing books?

The article is written from a sensationalist point of view.  I say this because the author offers no basis of comparison; he focuses the reader on the inevitability of severe injury.  How many were injured training for or competing in the NYC Marathon last year?  How many cyclists were injured falling off their bikes or being hit by cars (I am one of those)?  How many high school pitchers are undergoing Tommy John’s surgery because they are being irresponsibly coached to throw breaking balls since Little League?  How many injuries and illnesses occurred cooking dinner?  Yet where are the 5 page articles telling us to boycott baseball, not jog or ride bikes, or to stop cooking Thanksgiving dinner?  No where.  There are many, many articles educating us on how to do these things SAFELY.   No mention of doing the practice safely in this article, only the opinion that practice = injury.

What grinds my gears the most about this article are the statements by the respected teacher “whose clientele includes…gurus.”  This teacher is quoted as telling his clients to “not do yoga.”  That is the quote.  He is not coaching people on how to use the practice to heal from their injuries by avoiding or modifying certain poses.  He is saying “Stop.”  

Now this person is teaching “Master’s” classes and workshops at The Omega Institute. Read the article, he is currently teaching.  Someone who is claiming and being presented as an authority on the dangers of yoga, who instructs people to avoid the practice is CURRENTLY teaching.  Hinting that you will be injured unless you take his class. As I write, I am a 7 minute drive from the Omega campus.  If you have not been there, check out their website or call them up.  Ask how much it costs to take a workshop with this teacher.  Hundreds (plural) of dollars.  This guy has no problem taking a lot of your money to instruct you in a practice he claims you should not be doing in the first place.  Hypocritical and irresponsible.   

Oh yes, let’s not forget the conclusion of the article where this teacher (or the writer, cannot be sure of the original information) states he has had back surgery to repair damage done from yoga.  Not only does this further demonstrate he is not taking his own advice to stop, and indicates that he cannot himself practice safely (yet he continues to instruct others), he fails to mention that he was injured in a car accident. 

Any teacher who is not practicing what they teach is not to be trusted.  Period.
Dear students, here are three simple guidelines which will help make your practice safer.  I cannot and will not guarantee that you will 100% avoid injury, but I want to remind you that anything is potentially dangerous, especially if you are careless.

  1. Pay Attention to your body!  I will say categorically that any injury I have incurred while practicing yoga has been due to my own dumb a$$ed-ness.  Pain is not to be worked through.  Pain = STOP. Holding your breath or labored breathing = STOP.  Clenching your jaw = STOP.  Heartbeat pounding in your ears or temples = STOP. Forcing to get into a pose = STOP. Your body is an immensely intelligent machine which will let you know when something is not right.  Listen to it!
  2. If your teacher is belittling your ability, stating you “should” be able to do something, in any way acting like the Drill Instructor from Full Metal Jacket, or is not encouraging you to work within your own practice, LEAVE THE CLASS IMMEDIATELY AND DO NOT RETURN. We may practice in a group setting, but it is still your INDIVIDUAL practice.  You are not in competition with yourself or others.  You are not there to please the teacher.  The teacher is not there to put you into poses.  The teacher should be providing opportunities and encouragement only.  We as students are responsible for saying ‘when.’
  3. Progression in yoga (meaning both poses and spiritual development) will not come by practicing only 90 minutes once a week.  If you are not regular in your practice, you are much more likely to incur injury.  Do not attempt advanced poses if you are not preparing for them over a long sustained period of time.  Practice a little each day, and you will notice a difference at your group class.

Do not despair!  Do not give up the practice!  Work smartly and take ownership of your practice. 

For fairness, here is a link to the article Form your own opinions.

*For further fairness, let me give you insight as to the source of my opinion.  I am a yoga teacher.  I have been practicing off and on since the mid 90’s, and on average 5-6 days per week since 2004.  I currently practice about 2 hrs. per day, 6 days per week, beginning at 4:30 am (45 minutes- 1 hour is asana practice), which does not include the extensive study of yogic texts which I do during my lunch hour.  I work full time at a desk job.  In short, I have direct experiential knowledge of this practice, based in sustained, long-term practice while maintaining a “normal” lifestyle including a full time job and a family.

This practice can be done safely, if you are careful, by regular Joe’s and Jane’s like you and me.