run run run run run

So I stopped practicing and teaching yoga about 3 months ago.  This is the only time in the past 11 years that I’ve abstained from yoga practice for more than a week.  I wasn’t finding any meaning or growth in my practice anymore, and I was getting frustrated with a lot of the culture around yoga (which doesn’t actually have much of anything to do with yoga itself).  I got tired of overhearing conversations about homeopathy and vaccine conspiracies and ear candling and Mercury in retrograde and rave reviews of someone’s new gluten free, dairy free, egg free, sugar free, chocolate free cookie recipe (as far as I can tell, this describes a cookie that is comprised chiefly of sawdust).

I have spent the past 15 years working in medical research (ACTUAL medical research, with science and numbers and peer review and stuff), and eating well is one of my few unmitigated sensual pleasures.  Anti-science and cuisines of deprivation?  No thank you.  Life is too short to be so ignorant and unhappy.

I’d started (and continued) practicing yoga because in it, I’d found a way to create some peace for myself and work on unresolved issues.  But it wasn’t working anymore, and maybe that’s partly because I’m dealing with a different set of issues now.  I remember hearing a great, great yoga teacher say that yoga is not a way to develop boundaries; if you need to work on your boundaries, practice martial arts.  Whoa.  Full stop.  So, so, so true.  How are you going to work on boundaries with other people if you’re just stuck on your mat, contemplating your navel, not interacting with other people?  It had become too easy for me to use yoga as a beard to avoid self-work, rather than engaging in it.  And boundaries, in the most general terms, are the issues I know that I need to work on right now.  So no more yoga.

I would have liked to take up martial arts again, but the martial art I’ve studied in the past, kendo, is not taught anywhere near me, and I’m not interested in aikido or karate.  Call me a snob, but if I can’t fight you with a sword, I’m not interested in fighting you at all.

suffer-runSo I’ve been running instead.  The benefit of running, for me, as I’ve been sharing with anyone who will listen (and some who would probably prefer not to), is that I already know that I hate it, so I don’t have to worry about discovering later on that I despise it and deciding that I need to quit and try something else.  No, I’m being honest with myself from the get go here.  Hating it in turn confers another benefit to running – I’m so focused on how much I’d rather be doing something else (anything else!  Please!) while I’m doing it, I can’t get lost in my head.  My focus is single pointed:  This sucks.  I can’t wait till I’m done.  And getting lost in my head (in addition to being sick of yoga) was why I started running in the first place.  I realized I was falling into a depression, and I needed a way out.

The downside to running is that I still have boundary issues to work on.  Which, again, in the very most general of terms, is why I was spiralling into a depression.  So maybe I should bite the bullet and sign up for karate.  I have friends who practice, and I’m sure they’d love nothing more than to beat the tar out of me once or twice a week (which, actually, sounds kind of great to me too).

Advertisements

The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad – a review

Hey, remember that book that caused all that ruckus in the yoga world a few months ago?  You know, before that other thing happened in the yoga world and caused that other big ruckus?  Well, I just read it.  And despite a few good chapters, most of it is pretty mediocre, with a few interesting forays into the bloody awful.  In more depth:

The good:

  • The first three chapters are very interesting, and review both the modern history of yoga and research into the physiological effects of yoga.  For example, yoga is not an aerobic activity, despite popular beliefs to the contrary.  Yoga does not accelerate metabolism, it slows it down.  Also, yoga most certainly does not increase oxygenation of the blood, which is more or less constant in healthy individuals.  On the contrary, pranayam’s physiological effects are due to the changes it makes to blood levels of carbon dioxide.  Rapid breathing (kapala bhati, bhastrika) decrease blood levels of CO2, contracting arteries, and decreasing the absorption of O2 by the body and the brain.  Slow breathing (ujjayi) increases blood levels of CO2 (or rather, slows its rate of removal), thus dilating arteries and increasing the absorption of O2 by the body and brain.  This explains the exhilarating effects of kapala bhati and bhastrika, and the calming effects of ujjayi.
  • Yoga shows great promise as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety by drastically increasing levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) in the brain.
  • The nicest thing I can say about the chapter on injuries is that the writing underscores the importance of paying attention to what you’re doing when you practice.
  • In the chapter on healing, Broad makes the case that the lack of any sort of regulation or meaningful certification or licensing of yoga teachers and therapists is dangerous.  This is a good point, and definitely deserves further consideration by the yoga community.
  • The research on women inducing orgasms without any physical stimulation whatsoever is fascinating, but seems tangential.  Yes, these women are yoginis, but this is not a traditional yoga practice.  Nonetheless, it raises interesting questions.  Maybe this reflects an evolution of yoga?  Is this a capacity that only exists in women?
  • Page 218:  “If I have been hard on yoga commercialization [actually, he scarcely mentioned yoga commercialization, but I’ll let this slide], it is because the trend raises fundamental questions that seldom get addressed.  Today, as always, yoga has no social mechanism that sifts through the numerous claims to ascertain the truth, and the commercial blitz with its dynamic goals and competitive agenda seems to make that weakness all the more glaring.  Imagine if Big Pharma had no Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies looking over its shoulder.  The marketing of fake diseases and bogus cures – already a multibillion-dollar embarrassment despite all the bureaucratic scrutiny – would be much worse.”  I am inclined to agree.  There are a lot of charlatans in the yoga world, and a great deal of misrepresentation and outright lying that never gets challenged.

The bad:

  • Broad reports that salamba sarvangasana creates a distinct danger of stroke, due to the flexion of the cervical vertebrae.  Apparently, this risk was first identified over 30 years ago.  If this threat is so pronounced, and was identified decades ago, why does Broad not report on any instances of it happening?  His explanation is that sometimes a blood clot is thrown hours or days after the precipitating event, thus obscuring the cause, but surely if sarvangasana produces such a dire risk, there would be some evidence of this actually occurring.  Right?  So I find the threat of stroke overblown.
  • Most of the yoga injuries that Broad reports are the result of, for lack of a better phrase, practitioner stupidity.  If you fall asleep in paschimottonasana or sit in vajrasana for hours, the culpability for injury is your own, not yoga’s.  Where the injuries Broad reported were not due to practitioner stupidity, they were due to poor instruction or poor alignment/technique.  You should not be putting weight on your head in urdhva dhanurasana.  The cervical vertebrae should certainly not be pushing into the floor in salamba sarvangasana, the upper arms and shoulder blades should be carrying the weight.  And in sirsasana, the arms should be carrying the bulk of the weight, not the top of the head.  To quote one practitioner Broad interviewed (page 124), “I was doing it wrong, and I was pushing myself too hard.”  This seems to be the explanation of most, if not all, of the yoga injuries Broad describes.
  • A handful of case studies of injuries sustained during yoga practice do not amount to a systematic problem with yoga; they amount to sensationalism.
  • Yoga has exploded in popularity over the past ten years, yet most of the peer reviewed (ie, actual scientific) evidence of risk that Broad cites is decades old.  Where are the recent peer reviewed papers on risk?
  • Broad makes a big deal about the increase of US emergency room admissions related to yoga from 2000 to 2002.  From 13 in 2000, to 20 in 2001, to 46 in 2002.  These numbers are miniscule.  While statistically significant, this increase is scarcely worth reporting.  (Also, I resent that I had to run the numbers myself in order to determine their statistical significance; Broad is a science reporter.  He should have known to calculate and report the chi-squared value himself.)
  • Most of the risk/injuries chapter is anecdotal.  If there is a systemic problem with yoga instruction in terms of physical risk, Broad has done an incredibly poor job of reporting it.
  • Sex!  Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex!  Wow.  Broad is obsessed.  Unfortunately, he gets a lot of it wrong.  “Tantra” is not Sanskrit for “yoga sex cult.”  Tantra is much more complex than that, and even so, does not represent all of yoga.  Not by a long shot.  Broad’s reading of yoga as a sexual practice says far more about him, or perhaps, more generously, about Western taboos, than it does about yoga.  Yes, yoga texts sometimes refer to the genitals, to stoking inner fire, to “pleasures, enjoyments, and ultimate bliss.”  But interpreting this solely in sexual terms is awfully reductionist.  Maybe this reflects my own bias, but I think that the parallels that Broad draws between yoga practice and sex research or heavy breathing are a bit forced.  Likewise, his reading of sex into the ancient yogic texts (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita).
  • The scientific studies he cites often lack control groups and have few subjects.
  • In the chapter on creativity, Broad is again forcing the comparisons between yoga and sex.  His argument is essentially “Yoga lights up part of the right brain, and sex lights up similar portions of the right brain, therefore yoga must be sexual.”  Well… maybe.  But not necessarily.  On page 207, he states that “Yoga’s ability to promote a rightward shift [in neural activation] would seem to reinforce the idea that the discipline can act as a sexual tonic.”  Really, I think this is just evidence that Broad sees sex wherever he looks.
  • Suggesting that kundalini practices bear a physiological resemblance to being struck by lightning, and therefore can be expected to produce similar results in terms of creativity to what one lightning victim experienced, is ludicrous (see page 208).  Kundalini may well increase one’s creativity, but the suggested similarity to a lightning strike is completely forced and unnecessary.
  • Broad suggests that maybe in the future, yoga will be seen as a cure for “creative paralysis.  Creative blocks might go extinct…. Maybe world leaders would take up yoga as an aid to their deliberations.”  This strikes me as distinctly utopian.  I hope the reader will forgive my cynicism, but I think yoga – fundamental yoga, a method of calming one’s mental fluctuations – will always be a fringe activity, because it takes work, and we humans are lazy.

The ugly:

  • The book unfortunately suffers from the usual pop-science failing of over simplification of the studies it presents, and unsupported conclusions and idle speculation on the part of the author.  I’ll not mince words; in many places, the journalism was shoddy.
  • This may seem picayune, but I found the way he did the end notes terrible.  It was difficult to determine which citations referred to which portions of the text.  Also, not all of his statements reference the appropriate research, causing me to doubt much of what he claimed.
  • The writing is mediocre; pretty much what you’d expect from a pop-science book (not my favourite genre).  He relied heavily on the formulation “X is by definition Y,” which smacks of laziness, and in some cases was confusing or misleading.

Still with me?  Good!  Here’s my summary:  The first three chapters were pretty good, but the rest of the book is not really worth your time.  Don’t be stupid when you’re practicing (or teaching), and you probably won’t hurt yourself (or your students).

Occupy.

I don’t know exactly where I first picked this up, but I think it’s generally understood among yoga teachers that it is best to avoid making overtly political statements (while teaching, at least).  I know that several of the books I read while training (and since) made this point.  We don’t want to run the risk of alienating students; we are here to serve whoever shows up to practice, regardless of beliefs or ideology.  Generally, I agree with this.  As a teacher, I am obligated to teach anyone who shows up for class, and make sure that everyone feels welcome and safe.  The point of teaching yoga is not to wave a banner or rile up my students into a frenzy of righteousness or anger.  The whole point of the practice is to CALM YOUR SHIT DOWN (Patañjali, 1:2 – translation mine, obviously).  If I’m not helping my students with that, if I’m taking actions that run counter to that, then I’ve failed, pretty much completely, as a yoga teacher.

But.

Yoga also equips me with an understanding of right and wrong (not so much “thou shalt not,” more “work hard on avoiding these pitfalls”), and another way to fail as a teacher would be to neglect to impart this understanding to my students, or to fail to let it drive my practice both on an off the mat.  This creates a dilemma.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen images of police officers beating the stuffing out of people who have gathered to protest peacefully; I have read scornful opinion pieces about the Occupy movement in the Wall Street Journal and the vile, hateful reader comments which follow these pieces; I have thought more and more about how the deck is stacked in favour of those who need assistance the least.  And I wonder what my role is, as a yoga student, as a yoga teacher.  What I’m seeing here is wrong; clearly wrong.  Physically assaulting peaceful protesters violates the most basic principle of self-restraint in yoga:  ahimsa, non-violence.  Warping your words in such a way that you can call those who stand up in support of the vast majority your enemy violates satya, honesty.  And creating a system in which the rich get richer on the backs of the poor differs from petty thievery only in scale and deviousness; it violates asteya, not stealing.  Every time I sign in to facebook or check the news I am treated to more visions of these affronts to basic human decency.  I see them through the lens of yoga practice because that is the underpinning for my moral understanding of the world, but my interpretation is not unique to yoga.  It only requires a sense of compassion for the suffering of others.

I can’t pretend to be impartial on this.  I’m not about to start lecturing on police brutality and the failures of capitalism on those (unfortunately infrequent) occasions when I do teach a class, but neither am I going to hide the fact that I support what the protesters in Zuccotti Park are standing up for.  To hide my support would serve no one.  Yoga, as I’ve said before, is not a mild practice of spewing platitudes and pabulum; it’s fierce, and requires honesty on the part of both teachers and students.

Also, please see the open letter from Occupy Samsara.

yoga free verse

I’m procrastinating writing in my journal, so here’s something I wrote last week (and have been mulling over for much longer, and will no doubt continue mulling over for longer still).  I haven’t subjected it to my usual editing process yet, and probably won’t.  It’s not supposed to be pretty.

Yoga is not the Sanskrit word for mild pabulum.
It is not a hodge podge of poorly articulated feel good philosophies,
Nor is it a shopping list of bland platitudes.
Yoga is a fierce, intense practice
Of uncovering what is most difficult and frightening and necessary
And doing those things
Without avoidance
Or drama
Or shame.

Instant Karma (well, not completely instant)

I suspect that all serious yoga students have a handful of questions which keep them up at night. The idea of karma is a big one for me.

Obviously, yoga’s origins are Indian. The word “yoga” itself is Sanskrit, the language of the traditional scriptures. Yoga was heavily influenced by both Buddhism (which also originated in the sub-continent) and Vedic texts. In fact, sections of the Yoga Sutras (eg, the yamas) are practically lifted directly from Buddhist philosophy.

In our last monthly dharma discussion at Jai Ma, we talked about the idea of karma, the simplest translation of which is “action,” but which is often also understood to mean the fruits of one’s actions. My co-teacher, A, had just returned from several weeks of studying in India, and she talked about the idea that our karma is set when we’re born, and there is nothing we can do to change it. We just need to live it out. Obviously, this idea presents a problem for Americans, trained as we are to see ourselves as rugged individualists with free will. But do our (okay, my) issues with the idea of immutable karma mean I’m rejecting yogic philosophy? Put another way, is this idea of fixed karma central to yoga, or does it reflect some other aspect of Indian/Hindu culture? Am I supposed to believe this or not? And if I start picking and choosing what I’m going to believe and what I’m not going to believe, am I still practicing yoga? At that point, am I still actually practicing anything apart from ego gratification?

I like it best when complex questions can be resolved with relatively simple answers, but I don’t think there are simple answers here. There isn’t a very well defined dividing line between philosophy and culture, generally, or between yoga and Indian history/society, specifically. Each has had a role in producing the other. This means that yogic philosophy has influenced broader Indian ideas about karma, and Indian society and history have influenced yogic ideas about karma.

Warning: the following paragraph is largely speculative. I could find sources to cite to support my claims, but I am lazy and therefore will not. (But if you see problems in my argument, please do let me know.)

Class structures are probably as old as agrarian culture itself. Settled societies require different people to have different roles, and movement between roles can be difficult, if possible at all. If every other week, half of your farmers decided they’d rather be doctors, and half of your doctors decided they’d rather be priests, there’d be chaos. Fields wouldn’t be tilled, crops wouldn’t be harvested, the ill wouldn’t be healed. So some stability in class structure is necessary for settled societies. Cultures have sometimes codified this stability; European feudalism is the first example that comes to my mind. Another, of course, is the caste system in India. It requires very little imagination to see that the idea of immutable karma plays directly into the stability of the Indian caste system, and therefore Indian culture. And that brings us back to the tricky question of where yogic ideas about karma end and where Indian cultural ideas about karma begin. Is this idea of immutable karma really yogic, or is it borrowed from the rest of Indian culture? Or is it a codification of a necessary condition for any settled society? Does the idea of immutable karma really have anything to do with yoga at all?

It’s meaningless to talk about karma with respect to yoga without discussing the Bhagavad Gita. One of the Gita’s central themes is that one is entitled to one’s actions, but not to the fruits of those actions. In other words, we do have karmic obligations; and these obligations are inherent; they are not related to whatever outcomes our actions will bring us or others. Sounds quite a bit like immutable karma, doesn’t it? We are all born with our karma, and cannot change it. BUT – the Gita is a conversation between Arjuna and the Lord; which is to say, it is a conversation between the self and the Self. There is no external authority telling Arjuna what to do or what his karma is. So his karma may be beyond his control, but only he can know what it is. THAT, I believe, is the yogic perspective on karma.

I think this is a little more palatable for Western minds. We’d sure prefer to harbour the delusion that we’re in complete control of our lives, but if we’re not, then at least no one else can tell us what our obligations are. We need to work them out on our own.

 

down, dog!

I got called in to substitute teach an advanced yoga class on Saturday.  This was a bit last minute-y (the regular teacher had food poisoning), so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare a lesson plan, and I walked in thinking to myself, “Well, we’ll work on down dog for a bit and see where it goes from there.”

I started by talking about down dog.  Obviously, it’s a forward bend, but there’s also a backbend component in the alignment of the shoulders and the lumbar spine.  It’s also a hand balance.  It’s also an inversion, because the head is lower than the heart.  It’s also a hip opener.  So there’s really quite a lot going on, though there’s a tendency for students to take the pose a bit for granted because we do it so often.

So here was my sequence; I’m relatively pleased with it, though I think if I teach it again I might make some changes.

  1. Down dog.  Assess everyone’s dog, see who needs work on what.  Bend knees deeply, find length in the spine and lumbar curve; keeping the lumbar curve, work on straightening the legs.  Repeat.
  2. Down dog with head on block; encourage drawing the shoulders on to the back, heart melting towards the floor.
  3. Down dog with hands to the edge where the floor meets the wall, thumbs in, fingers out, grounding through the thumb mounds – upper arms outer spiral, fore arms inner spiral.
  4. Take unsupported down dog again; find the same action in the shoulders and arms.
  5. Handstand prep – basically, down dog rotated 45 degrees.  Work on strength in arms (arm balance).
  6. Down dog.
  7. Supta padangusthasana with belt to the sole of the foot of the raised leg, other foot pressing into the wall.  Raised leg to 90 degrees.  Work on opening hamstrings, grounding both thighs into their hip sockets.  (Forward bend).
  8. Down dog – find same action in hips/thighs and hamstrings.
  9. Pigeon prep/pigeon.  Focus on alignment of thighs/hips.  (Hip opener).
  10. Agni stambhasana, with hands in anajali mudra behind the back to prevent the spine from rounding.  (Hip opener).
  11. Down dog – find same action in the hips/pelvis.
  12. Sirsasana.  (Inversion).  Make dumb joke about Barbie feet (pointed with toes flexed) versus G. I. Joe feet (flexed).  Jonji would be proud.
  13. Down dog.
  14. Supta baddha konasana.
  15. Savasana.

hip openers, backbends

Fantastic class yesterday in Rhinebeck; blasted Ani DiFranco’s Living in Clip the whole way there and back, and did most of my favourite poses during class.  A sample of what we worked on: