Yogis: If you’re interested in neuroplasticity, I highly recommend this book…

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I had been practicing yoga for seven years before I learned in a workshop that my down dog was likely going to be the death of my shoulders. And while it was the first time I heard that I had to externally rotate my shoulders so my back and chest muscles would engage and protect my shoulders from injury, it took me another five years until I actually started feeling what that meant in my body.

Sound familiar? Why is it that a pose we may have done 10,000 times feels suddenly very different on our 10,001st try?

After finishing “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,” I think it’s brain plasticity at work.

Every yogi should read this book. Sharon Begley is my new science writer superheroine. She does such a great job breaking down lots of rat studies in a really accessible way to tell the history of neuroplasticity and what happens when a bunch of the world’s most prominent neuroscientists get together with the Dalai Lama to talk about the latest in brain science.

Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years that meditating can transform your life, and now brain scans that are starting to back that up. Pretty cool.

Here are some nuggets from the book that made me think it was only after 12 years of downward dogs that I had made the neural connections in my brain to actually feel what it means to externally rotate my shoulders and activate my chest and back muscles.

  • Animals that move the same part of their body repeatedly grow brain cells in the part of the brain that governs that part of their bodies;
  • Mice who  are active and cognitively challenged have bigger brains and are better at performing challenging tasks than their couch potato counterparts;
  • Mindfullness-based cognitive therapy has been shown to actually change brain circuitry; and
  • Brain scans of Buddhist monks who have meditated for years are very different than non-meditators, with more activity in the regions of the brain that govern happiness.

I want to point out that I’m an English literature major who never took a biology class outside of high school and I’ve probably completely misinterpreted Sharon Begley’s amazing prose. So I think I’ll stop there.

But please, please, please—if you’re a yoga student or a teacher, if you’ve ever known someone who struggles with depression, if you’re just interested in being able to justify why taking that exotic vacation will be good for your brain (it is! Go buy the tickets now!), please read this book.

 

 

“Sickness is just as normal as health”

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This week, I’m at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine as part of a Teaching Yoga to Seniors training taught by Carol Krucoff and Kimberly Carson.

 

Today, we sat in on a cardiac rehabilitation yoga class. (Check out this cool 1985 journal article on the early history of cardiac rehab). We were lucky to hear the stories of four patients, one a former marathon runner in his 80s who has lived with coronary artery disease for the past 11 years. He started his story by saying, “I want you all to know that sickness is just as normal as health.”

 

What a powerful statement for an aspiring yoga teacher to hear. It makes me re-think how I’ve unconsciously treated people in my life who’ve suffered from chronic disease as they get older. One person in particular is my dad, who had heart disease most of his life He had quadruple bypass surgery in 1977 when he was 46, and he lived for another 28 years – some event-free and many with hospital visits for heart attacks, atrial fibrillation, and strokes. When I was a teenager and young adult, I have memories of not wanting to bring up the topic of his heart disease with my dad. I think I was afraid it’d make him feel sad or scared or depressed. Or maybe it was because I was afraid it’d make me feel that way. I realize now that by failing to acknowledge his disease, I could have been making it harder for him. Surely, having a disease that reminded him of his mortality every day, he thought about it a lot. And what a lonely place to be in, to not have his reality be heard and acknowledged by someone he loved. I wonder if that silence made him feel ashamed of his disease. I hope not.

 

But I do know that I have the power to do things differently. And as sibling, a friend, a daughter, a niece, and as a yoga teacher, I don’t want to cause any one to feel ashamed of any illness or injury or fear or sadness or anger that comes up on the mat or off of it – all of that difficult stuff is what life is, and it should not be ignored. It should be acknowledged as a very normal and natural part of being alive.

Yoga Theme: Acknowledging the Light and Dark Inside Us

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The world isn’t split into good people and bad people. We all have both light and dark inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That is who we really are.

–Sirius Black, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

 

I think we can all benefit from the wise words of Harry Potter’s godfather, mentor, and sometimes dog friend. Lagging far behind all my friends’ children, I finished all the Harry Potter books last year and now I’m going through the films (by the way, I’m a huge fan of Order of the Phoenix director David Yates, who also directed the British miniseries State of Play — if you haven’t seen it, please put it in your netflix queue immediately.)

After Harry has a dream that he’s trying to kill Mr. Weasley, he confesses to Sirius that lately he’s been angry all the time and he’s afraid his ability to get into Voldemort’s mind is turning him “bad.”

Sirius makes a point all of us need to hear: like it or not, we all have a little bit of Voldemort in us. On the yoga mat, our inner Voldemort shows up when we’re trying crow for the ten thousandth time and we can’t get both feet to stay off the floor. The one-who-shall-not-be-named shows up when we watch Jason Schramm of Detroit Yoga graciously flow into a reverse koundanyasana and we think “I’ve been practicing almost as long as him–why can’t I do that?” Voldemort is with us off the yoga mat, too, when we immediately get angry at someone at work or at home — but it’s not really about something they said or did, it’s more about our reaction it. Or when we do something we’re  ashamed of and we blame someone else so we don’t have to acknowledge we’ve failed ourselves.

By practicing yoga over and over again, I keep re-learning how to acknowledge my flaws on the mat in a more neutral, detached, kinder way. So instead of just saying to myself, “Forget it, you’ll never be able to do crow because you’re terrible at yoga and, btw, you shouldn’t be teaching yoga if you can’t do the poses,” I try to get one foot off the ground and be proud that I made the effort and didn’t give up.

Over time as yoga students, we begin to develop the ability to take a good look at what’s not working in our poses without freaking out. In that non-judgemental space, we can identify new strategies for growth and self-acceptance on the mat. And it’s a natural progression from there to apply these same tools off the mat as well, resulting in better choices that help us grow.

We all have light and dark inside of us, and it’s the part we choose to act on that makes us who we are.

 

Yoga at Work May be the Secret to Happier/Healthier Workers, New Study Shows

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Thanks to @HealthyFellow for letting me know about a study released in January by the Journal of Science and Healing that showed  on average, employees who signed up for a 6-week work-based yoga practice lost weight and body fat, gained flexibility, reduced their blood pressure and reported improved quality of life on physical, emotional and spiritual domains.

Particpants ranged in age from 24 to 76, and they practiced a power yoga class with breathwork, meditation, journaling and mindful eating exercises six days a week for an hour at 5:10 am each day. While six days a week is a huge commitment, I know that having access to yoga at work even once a week could make it easier for many more people to be introduced to the benefits yoga can bring.

Need a break? Try this restorative class

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Not feeling so great today, so went to Restorative Yoga at Tranquil Space and thoroughly enjoyed yogini Abby Strunk’s sequence. It went something like this.

Opening Pose: Supported Savasana

  • Prop set up: 1.) place bolster under your knees; 2.) take a blanket off the pile, fold in thirds and place it across the mat (parallel to front of mat) so that if you lay down, it would hit your back up to the shoulderblades; and 3.) roll up a blanket under your neck to keep the natural curvature of the cervical spine.
  • Sit for 10 glorious minutes

Reclined Supported Supta baddha konasana

  • Prop set up: 1.) place block at back of mat; 2.) place bolster (parallel to side of mat) on top of block; 3.) place another block at end of bolster; 4.) fold blanket in thirds and place on top of block and bolster. 5.) Scoot hip right up to bolster/block/blanket contraption. 6.) Before you sit back, take another blanket and shape it as if you pulled it off the blanket pile, and unfolded it, then make a long, thin roll with it and wrap the blanket above your feet and below your ankles so that your hips don’t drop to the floor.
  • Sit for about 10 more glorious minutes.

Supported Child’s Pose Twists

  • Prop set up: 1.) place bolster in front center of mat (parallel to side of mat); 2.) fold two blankets in thirds 3.) place on on top of the bolster, and one perpendicular to that one (so you’re making a “T” with the blankets) 4.) come into child’s pose (if your knees hurt, you can roll another blanket and place it between your heels and your buttocks; and if your ankles hurt, you can roll the blanket into a thin long roll and place it under your ankles
  • Sit for 5 minutes in child’s pose with your right cheek on the blanket
  • After 5 minutes, switch sides

Supported Bridge Pose

  • Prop set up: 1.) keep bolster where it is; 2.) place two blankets, folded in thirds, next to the bolster so you can lie down with your shoulder blades coming off of the blanket and your feet on the bolster (if they slide off, you can use a strap to strap your feet to the bolster so they can relax completely; 3.) make sure your shoulder blades hit the mat–if your neck feels compressed, you can roll a blanket to support your cervical spine
  • Try to stay in this pose for 10 minutes — if you’re like me and your upper back isn’t very flexible, this may be a difficult pose. Hang in there. Breathe.

Final Pose: Supported Legs Up the Wall Pose

  • Prop set up: 1.) Place bolster 2 inches away from wall, parallel to wall; 2.) place a blanket, rolled in thirds, on top of bolster; 3.) place a second blanket, rolled in thirds, perpendicular to the bolster; 4.) sit on the bolster sideways, with your bum facing the wall, and roll over so you are sitting on the bolster with your legs in the air — try to scoot your bum as close to the wall as possible and lie back on the blanket that is perpendicular to the bolster; 5.) hands at your sides, palms up.
  • 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, more!

I loved Abby’s playlist, an amazing mix of mellow contemporary and yoga tunes. Yoga teachers out there: any good songs you recommend for Restorative classes? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

So what if you’re the bad horse?

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I saw an old friend of mine today who, like so many of us, is his harshest critic. He asked me about the Buddhist parable about the four horses I sent him a few years back for his birthday.

I read about it in Pema Chodron‘s The Wisdom of No Escape, and it generally goes like this: there are four kinds of horses: the excellent horse, the good one, the poor one, and the really bad horse.

The excellent horse moves before the whip touches its back, at the slightest sound from the driver. The good horse starts running at the lightest touch. The poor horse doesn’t go until it feels pain from the whip. The bad horse doesn’t move until the pain is so intense it is unbearable.

Chodron mentions that in Shunryu Suzuki’s retelling of this story in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he says when people hear this story, they always want to be the best horse. But if you think about it, contentment doesn’t lie in which horse we are. Contentment lies in finding our own true nature — acknowledging the whole mix of good and bad — and being ok with that imperfect mix of strengths and neuroses that is part of being human.

Many times in our yoga practice, we feel like the worst horse. Certain poses can bring up harsh self-criticism. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on doing bakasana (crow pose) differently — with my knees on my upper arms rather than splaying out to the side. I Just Can’t Do It. I can lift one leg up at a time, and sometimes I get up for a second or two, but generally I’m stuck to the mat. And I’m definitely feeling inadequate about it. Every time I try crow, I’m coming to it from this place of judgement and inadequacy. And I am sure that affects my ability to do the pose.

There are real advantages to feeling like the worst horse, Chodron goes on to say.  We don’t have to be harsh with ourselves when we think that, in any part of our life–our job, our relationships, our yoga practice–we’re in the category of worst horse. Chodron says that if we can acknowledge  those parts of us without shame or  judgment, “we could be very sympathetic with that and use it as a motivation to keep trying to develop ourselves, to find our own true nature. Not only will we find our own true nature, but we’ll learn about other people, because in our heart of hearts almost all of us feel that we are the worst horse.”

Chodron ends the chapter by saying, “The point is that our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It’s who we are right now, and that’s what we can make friends with and celebrate.”

So my takeaway from this story as it relates to my yoga practice is the next time I’m going to try to get into bakasana, or headstand, or forearm stand — or any of the many poses I struggle with — I’m going to try to acknowledge my struggle but not label it as something I’m ashamed of.

And I think the reason why I sent this to my friend is that I wanted to let him know that some times feeling like the worst horse gives us opportunities to try harder and to not give up on ourselves. It gives us compassion for others who are overly self-critical. So maybe it’s time to just be ok with those parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Maybe only when we do that can we pave the way for growth.

Dealing with Perfectionism

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Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.  Leonard Cohen

Starting a yoga practice can be so frustrating. For many new yogis starting out, yoga brings up underlying perfectionist issues. We want to master every pose and do them the “right” way. It seems like the harder we try, the farther away we get from doing poses “right.”

I have learned the long, hard way that there is no “right” way to do a yoga pose. Yes, there are things we can learn about practicing a pose that will protect us from injury–those are very important to learn. But it takes a long time to figure out the intricacies of each pose, so when you’re starting a yoga practice, I recommend instead of striving for the “perfect” pose, you try really, really hard to listen to your body.

An important part of that process is learning to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort.

There is no place for pain in yoga. But there are many opportunities for discomfort. Physical poses (asanas) often put us in situations where we may feel uncomfortable, frustrated, angry, exhausted, and ready to give up.

Yet it’s often those times of discomfort that give us opportunities to get stronger.

So if you’re new to yoga and you’re feeling frustrated in a practice because you feel you’re not “getting it,” take a deep breath to clear your mind. And think of each new breath as a new opportunity to start again.

I’d love to hear from other yoga teachers out there about any quotes or stories they use to illustrate the struggles that come with dealing with perfectionism…

Namaste!

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“There may be a thousand little choices in a day.
All of them count.”

Hi there. My name is Diane. I’m an apsiring yogi from DC, and I’m starting this blog to help  me make sense of what yoga means to me and to help me find my voice as a yoga teacher.

I took my first yoga class in a hot Baron Baptiste studio in Cambridge in 2001, and from my first downward dog, I was hooked. I remember telling my friend Andrew Lee after that first class (by the way, Andrew, I’m forever in debt to you for that first class)  yoga was the only exercise that seemed to completely stop the downward spiral of negative thinking that ran in my head.

I started yoga for the physical benefits, and somewhere along the way, I realized my yoga practice has helped me make better choices for myself both on and off my mat. Part of writing this blog, I hope, is to help me understand how that transition happens.

When I took my first teacher training, I didn’t think I wanted to teach. But the first time I taught one of my friends, she said that yoga class was the first time she had taken time for herself since her baby was born and she thanked me for the gift I had given her.

But what she didn’t realize was that those words from her were a huge gift for me. Because of those incredibly kind words, I kept teaching friends and realized while I have so much to learn as a teacher and it is not always easy, I get so much joy out of teaching. My students challenge me to keep on learning, trying, and growing.

I have a Jack London quote in my office I look at every day:

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

For me, I practice and teach yoga so I can live, not merely exist.

I’m currently working towards my 500-hour training at Tranquil Space, a DC studio that has become a nurturing home base for me. I am constantly learning from their excellent teachers – Kimberly, the amazing studio owner who has taught me that a serious yoga practice and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive; teachers and mentors I learn from with every class–Danielle, Kevin, Anna, Carol, Susanna, Siobhan, Dave, Diborah, Niyati, Melissa, Chuck, Melissa, Colleen, Todd, Abby, Laura, and all of my yoga treacher trainer classmates who inspire me with their curiosity and unique perspectives on this ancient tradition.

And I’m learning so much from my students past and present – Amy, Ari, Brian, Cal, Deborah, Eddie, Havi, Heather, Jodi, Joyce, Julie, Kelli, Karen, Kristin, Larry, Lynne, Melissa, Pam, Pat, Rachel, Robin, Ron, Santa, Susan.

I’m grateful to have found yoga. I’m grateful for the people my yoga practice has brought into my life. And I’m excited to start this journey into writing about my experience.

Welcome, and namaste!

Diane