Freedom and Pancakes

I have great respect for professionals who in a desire to stay abreast of the latest information will readily admit that whatever they know today may be found untrue tomorrow. The author of one of my anatomy books, and an anatomy professor, always tells his students at the beginning of each semester that 50% of what is known about anatomy today may in the next 5 years become false. This kind of openness requires a real commitment to truth.

But it is also essential. It is a real obstacle to our own evolution if what we know about food, exercise, the human body, medication, science, spirituality, WHATEVER – is not allowed to be challenged and changed. Without constantly allowing our beliefs to be altered by new revelations, we are choosing to be static. And what is more essential to the existence of life than adaptation and evolution?

headinsandThen why is it so hard for us to budge from our beliefs?

Usually it’s because we have become invested in believing a particular way about the world, have likely adopted habits and routines around these beliefs, and are even enjoying some benefits from this way of thinking.

This happens to me quite frequently around information on how to live a healthy life. Especially around food, but also concerning healthy movement patterns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed the way I eat based on the most recent scientific information about diet. Of course, I think I’ve found the right solution for now, but who knows?

And functional movement patterns to maintain a healthy body, this information is constantly evolving. I always know when I leave a Yoga training that my mind will again have to be stretched to let go of some old well-established ways of thinking about the body and accept new, proven truths.

I find refuge in the teachings of Yoga when it comes to adapting to change. Yoga says true freedom is freedom from one’s likes and dislikes.

From a practical perspective, we do this through mindfulness of our thoughts, seeing thoughts arise in our awareness and allowing them to pass through, without aversion or grasping. Mindfulness and meditation allow us to see the habits of the mind more objectively, acknowledging them as they are a part of the present moment, and consciously deciding what to do with those thoughts (instead of letting them hijack us as usual).

Mindfulness and meditation help us to see our belief systems and practice not getting too caught up in them. Constantly acknowledging them and letting them go.

They’re just thoughts, after all.

For example, take the thought that “It’s just not a Sunday morning with pancakes”. I know. Blasphemy that one should attempt to topple this mainstay. It’s a tough one. But essentially, it’s also just a thought. And can be altered should we decide this is the best course for ourselves. (p.s., I’m not shaming pancakes, it’s just a teachable example!)

A deeper understanding of Yoga teaches us that we are not our thoughts. In our truest essence, we are simply presence and awareness. Everything else is a part of the journey of experiencing our human selves.

But all of this is better understood in practice than theory.

Hope to see you on the mat soon!

Namaste,

Jessica

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At the beginning of class, I often ask students what’s going on in their bodies, where they’re feeling aches and pains.

Inevitably I get one person who laughingly calls out that he/she is old. Or another that they need a new brain. And we all laugh.

It’s good to laugh about these things, as we can all identify with having bodies that need attention and don’t always feel great.

However, I am conscientious about the kind of labels that we place on ourselves because a label like ‘old’ can subconsciously cause us to dismiss aches and pains as ‘normal’ parts of aging. And that’s not often the case.

I have had my own recent bout with discomfort in the form of headaches. It was confusing for me as I take good care of myself, eat pretty good, drink plenty of fluids, move a lot throughout the day, meditate, have good social support, creative outlets, and I sleep well on most days. I tried everything on my own and wasn’t able to figure it out so I finally went to the doctor. As it turned out I was very low in Vitamin D, which can cause headaches and other soreness (and host of other health concerns, so get yours checked!).

I tell you this story because I want you to consider that pain is a message from the body/mind that there is an imbalance that needs restoring.

I am often surprised at how much discomfort people are willing to accept as a ‘normal’ part of aging. Perhaps they feel there is no way to fix it. Or maybe they don’t feel like they have the time to find out what’s wrong. Or maybe they are so use to aches that they have forgotten what it feels like to enjoy being in their body.

It is important for anyone dealing with pain to take it seriously and seek appropriate resources and therapies (for the back, my current favorite book is Back in Control).

Addressing aches and pains in the body is essential. When we don’t feel good, how can we make healthy/sound decisions? Be supportive of others? Contribute to our community? Our health and well-being is crucial not only to ourselves but to those around us.

‘Aging’ is not an incurable state of discomfort that we must endure. We owe it to our body, which is our container and vehicle, to treat it with kindness.

So please be mindful about the way you label yourself and

take best care,

Jessica

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Ignore the Snore, or Not

There is a sign along the road I pass daily that says “Don’t ignore the snore”. It’s quirky enough that I’ve noticed it over the last few months, though not knowing exactly what it’s advertising. This week it made me laugh, seeing it through the lens of a recent Yoga class.

During the summer on extraordinarily hot days, it’s hard to keep the studio at a cool 72 degrees. I’m in a lovely, historic building which is not well insulated, so the outside sometimes feels incredibly close, particularly on extremely hot and cold days. This week was no exception.

On sweltering summer days, I tend to move students through a slower class staying closer to the floor. The air to me feels thick and these days often make students even more relaxed by the end of class. I had such a day recently and during relaxation/meditation a few students fell deep asleep. Falling asleep during relaxation is not uncommon in my classes. I’m glad students can become that comfortable in a group setting. However, there are differing views on whether students should or should not sleep during relaxation/meditation.

During my teacher training in India I fell asleep frequently during the relaxation moments between poses. I was exhausted. It was hot. The perfect combination of circumstances. Some students fall asleep during relaxation because they are exhausted. This is common as our culture is sleep deprived and insomnia is pervasive. Other students always fall asleep when they are lying on their backs in stillness, regardless of whether they’re tired or not. Most often it is newer students that are prone to crash.

Some schools say that if a student falls asleep, they must need the rest. Others feel students should stay awake otherwise the benefits of being relaxed while alert are lost. I agree with both.

Sleep is an incredibly healing therapy and can be the best medicine for what ails us. On the other hand, acquiring the skill to be both comfortably relaxed and completely alert benefits our every day lives in infinite ways. Our default mechanism associates a relaxed state with sleep and an alert mind with tension. This shift towards being relaxed and alert is gained through a regular Yoga practice which includes relaxation/meditation – if you can stay awake for it :-).

Ignore the snore?

Of equal importance is how the sounds of sleep (or any sounds) affect others in class. I tend to agree with the opinion that any distraction – whether it’s the sound of a bus going by, a siren, coughing, labored breathing, or snoring – are all tools for Yogis to practice strengthening their ‘letting-go’ muscles. (This does not mean that cellphones can be left on during class as unplugging is also a healthy letting-go practice.)

When I did a 5-day meditation retreat at Kripalu, during one of our sessions there were sounds of voices and a vacuum cleaner just outside the door. At the end of the meditation, our instructor brought up these sounds. He said that he had been annoyed by them at first but then realized they were valuable teaching tools. How easy it is to relax when we are surrounded by gentle sounds of birds chirping, waves on the shore, or bubbling brooks. These sounds easily facilitate the relaxation process and have their place in healing. But the real work and the next level is learning to relax around every day, or even disrupting sounds as this is the true background music of our lives. Yoga as a therapy becomes more practical if it teaches us skills that we can translate into better handling and coping with life’s messiness.

So maybe it’s not so much about whether to ignore distractions, but instead to be with what is, while simultaneously connecting to the ever-present, deep inner sense of calm, always awaiting our attention.

Namaste

Posted in meditation, relaxation, silence | 2 Comments

radical act of lovingkindness

ImageI often borrow Sharon Salzberg’s words when reminding students that slowing down, letting go of distracting thoughts, and turning inward is a radical act of lovingkindness, as it is! This way of being so contradicts our modern Western paradigm that it takes new Yoga students awhile to understand and experience it. At the beginning of class, I’ll see some breathing shallowly, unable to close their eyes as they look around the room, or up at the ceiling seemingly lost in thought. For those who’ve had a busy day, this can be a normal initial response to quieting down and turning inward.

In fact, it takes many people awhile to slow down. And some only choose to do so at the end of the day as they partake of their evening nightcap, pill, or until they become so exhausted that they get sick.

Some clients have admitted that slowing down would be detrimental to their lifestyles. One woman told me that she was a New Yorker and was afraid that if she relaxed this much at the beginning of her day, she was never going to do all that she needed to accomplish. Another man said he was concerned that Yoga would make him lose his ‘edge’ and that would affect his performance as a stock trader. Neither returned.

I get that our society’s praise of accomplishment and success makes it hard to prioritize slowing down and becoming more mindful.

In addition, who of us isn’t too busy to neglect our own self-care – whether you are a parent, business owner, caregiver, and/or have lots of social and community obligations? There can always be more than enough excuses to neglect this responsibility to ourselves.

“If we want to live a wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating rest and play, and we must work to let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self worth.”
~ Brene Brown

So what if we did slow down a bit and as a result didn’t finish everything on our to-do lists? Or became a little less productive at work? How would this impact our lives? And those around us?

Whatever reasons have kept us from taking care of our inner-selves, we must know that living from the heart involves a radical act of lovingkindness towards ourselves. The result is immeasurable in it’s gifts of open-hearted clarity that comes from a life who’s busyness is sandwiched by moments of quiet stillness.

I think I’ll go out in the backyard for a few minutes to watch the trees grow, and just be.

Posted in compassion, loving-kindness, mindfulness, openness, silence, svadhyaya (self-study) | 2 Comments

The Proof is in the Pudding

I’ve gone to enough Yoga trainings from different traditions to know each time I will learn something new that bumps up against my current way of thinking or contradicts what I’ve learned previously. This is not unique to Yoga, as I see the same thing when I look at, for instance, nutritional information or medical advice. Is wine good or not? Are eggs healthy or not? Is this medication more effective than dangerous?

When bumping up against information that challenges one’s world view, I normally see a few different responses.

First, there’s resistance. This is healthy, in my opinion, if done for the right reasons. Resistance helps the individual buy time to consider their previously held views and how they look in the light of this new information. Resistance out of an inability to change is not healthy, and may result in people holding onto old beliefs that are at best irrelevant, or at worst, harmful.

After further consideration, sometimes we find that the new information is true but not universally in all situations and for all people. For instance, the debate about breathing from your belly up vs. from your chest down. Supporters of breathing from the belly up (inhaling from the belly, then mid torso, to chest and on the exhale just the reverse) say belly breathing is very relaxing and grounding and most people in today’s society are stressed/anxious and could benefit from bottom-up belly breathing.

Supporters of the top-down breath (breathing into the chest, then mid-ribs, then belly and on the exhale contracting the belly, then drawing the mid ribs in, then softening at the chest) say this type of breath better supports one’s structure. Expanding first into the chest on each inhale reminds the student on each in-breath to broaden their front body and by only moving into the belly at the bottom of the inhale, the abdomen stays contracted and supports the lower back for a longer period of time.

Both are true, depending on your focus and needs.

This is what can be challenging in a group class and is one of the arguments for individualized one-on-one Yoga Therapy – to tailor a practice of movement, breathwork, meditation and relaxation for each individual’s needs.

There is also new information that appears to conflict, and yet both appear to be true. The paradox. These are hard to wrap your mind around, in my opinion.

Then there is new information that comes to light because people and lifestyles change and the old ways of doing things are no longer relevant. For instance, the recommendation that people sit cross-legged for meditation. This information was fine for people who grew up in India and never stopped sitting cross-legged all their lives. But for the rest of us who grew up in chairs, sitting cross-legged puts too much strain in the lower-back, hips, knees and is thus not the best meditation position for many folks in the West. For that matter, seated poses are not particularly effective for many beginners because their hips and hamstrings are tight and they are not able to get the intended benefits of the poses because their lower-backs are rounded due to tightness.

Along that same line of thinking, over-extending the neck in cobra pose is not as effective for today’s population because many people already carry too much tension in the back of their necks from adopting the forward head position while on the computer or looking at their iPhones. These were not issues a hundred or thousands of years ago, but they are now which means that for many of us lengthening the back of the neck to it’s neutral position (which does include a slight extension) is the most effective position for the neck in cobra. This does not mean that some people get benefits from over-extending the neck in cobra and stretching the front of the neck, but for a group class erring on the side of caution for the greatest good is my philosophy.

And of course there is new information that is just wrong.

Faced with contradictory information, some like to spout ‘moderation in all things.’ Ideally, this sounds good. A nice compromise. Unfortunately, this could mean that some could adopt a dangerous practice in moderation which leads to negative health consequences. Contrary to popular belief, moderation is not always the best option.

My favorite response upon learning new information, and after careful consideration, is ‘the proof is in the pudding’ test. If the new knowledge seems credible, reasonable, the next step is to test it in my own body and see how I feel during and after wards. A teacher that asks you to test the knowledge in your own body and see how it feels and trust what your body/mind tells you is leading you towards critical thinking and trusting yourself. You can have no greater guide than your life, as real wisdom is born of your own experiences. In my opinion, the teacher is there to guide you towards different techniques and expand your way of thinking, but then also asks you to find the courage to see if your internal compass reinforces it.

As The Dude says, new information has come to light, now the rest is up to you.

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Why I Namaste

After class one evening, a student came up to me and confessed she loved ending class with Namaste, but felt self-conscious when others did not chime in.

I always end class with Namaste. Some respond back with it and others don’t. Awhile ago, I opted to end class with a chime instead and a few of my more experienced students came up and asked why I had made the change. One told me she didn’t feel like the class was complete without Namaste. I added it back in.

Truth is, I love ending class with Namaste. The Sanskrit word is roughly defined as “The Divine Spirit in me recognizes the Divine Spirit in you.” It’s an appreciation of the Divine Spark in all of us – a recognition of our Oneness. There are other translations, but for me this is the one that resonates.

I find it a perfect balance to the end our practice in which we’ve strengthened and stretched our bodies, coming face-to-face with our weaknesses, judgments and vulnerabilities.

For me, this one word is a realization that although our bodies are important and need to be cared for, we are so much more than our bodies. These vehicles, which carry us and support us, need our compassionate attention. Our bodies are our friends, and most all of us have spent a goodly amount of time treating them like machines – forcing them to go beyond their limits, ignoring signals, pushing them into submission so that we can meet particular goals. It is therefore a warm-hearted act to befriend our bodies and take good care of them. We do that for ourselves but also for others with whom we share our world as a body in good working condition can contribute to our own well-being as well as to others.

It is important to acknowledge that our bodies age. They get sick, injured, and disappoint us. To identify our happiness solely with the health of our bodies is to limit our capacity to enjoy life.

We are all so much more than our physical bodies.

After class one day, one of my students asked about the meaning of Namaste and I proceeded to tell her what I just mentioned and she responded – “but my back hurts!”

I get that. It is good to take care of the body because when it is not well, it can impact your well-being. But it does not always have to. Consider those who live a full life with an impairment – be they blind, or without limbs.

And so it is with the broader scope of Yoga and it’s more traditional leanings that I end with Namaste. Yes, I am invested in offering a class that allows you to feel more comfortable in your body. But Yoga also asks us to remember that Divine Spark in all of us, undefined by the limits of our changing bodies, and made-up of the same essence in you, and me, and all living things. And in that place, we are all the same.

Or not.

The choice is yours.

Namaste.

Posted in aging, asana, compassion, oneness | Leave a comment

The Game Changer

There are a cacophony of reasons why people find Yoga. Many initially come to Yoga for the relaxed buzz they feel after class. The quick fix to reboot from a draining day, stressed body, worn-out mind. But over time, the reasons they often continue their regular practice is due to the positive change in how they inter-relate with themselves and their world. These long-term changes to their ‘default settings’ are significant, for this reason I’ll call them the Game Changers. There are truly too many to list in this post, but I’ll unpack a few of the more common ones.

Posture
Students regularly tell me that their posture has improved since beginning Yoga. That’s partly due to the poses that we do to create more balance in our bodies by opening the front of the torso, strengthening the back, and realigning the neck. But also because people who do Yoga regularly are more mindful of what’s going on in their bodies, and will more quickly notice and correct bad body mechanics before it starts causing pain. And bad body mechanics is at the root of much of our pain!

Stress-Reduction
I love hearing students tell me that they regularly use breathing techniques to release tension – whether it’s a few mindful breaths while in rush-hour traffic or during a difficult verbal interaction. Releasing stress before it creates a health crisis is incredibly powerful. Stress causes all sorts of health issues from migraines to digestive issues. How would your life be impacted if you were more proactive in managing your stress?

Mindfulness
The positive impacts of mindfulness cannot be fully appreciated as they are vast. Anything and everything done mindfully will change the way you see and interact with your body, mind and the world. Living mindfully allows us to better see things as they are, in the moment, which allows us to make the best decision in that moment. We miss so much of what’s in front of us when we are caught up in our thoughts. Mindfulness is the game changer that allows us to be more available in the here and now, which is truly all we have.

Sleep
One of my favorite tributes to the benefits of Yoga for better sleep came from a student who told me that after using Yogic breathwork to fall asleep, she slept the best she had in 10 years, without medication. “I felt like I had become one with the mattress,” she said. That works for me!

Distracted vs. Calm Mind
When people first come to Yoga, they become aware of how distracted their minds are. Meditation brings this realization to the forefront. Our minds are incredibly powerful and can be used for all sorts of creative and useful endeavors. However, it is the restless, ruminating, distracted mind that is terribly fatiguing. Meditation teaches us that we can change that default by bringing our awareness to the breath when we aren’t using our minds in a purposeful manner, thereby calming the mind and conserving energy. This is a practice, like all others, that is ongoing. No one ever masters meditation, which is why it is called a practice. This fact can be at first disappointing for the new student, but the good news is that we can still reap the benefits of meditation, just from practicing.

Relaxation
It is our nature to contract our bodies when we’re focused. You probably already know where you tend to carry tension – typical places are shoulders, neck, face, back, glutes. Let’s test that out now, since you’re likely (hopefully) focused on reading this. Scan your body and see… are you’re tensing anywhere? (Yes!) As we become more adept Yogis, we become more aware of these patterns and release them as soon as we notice our shoulders lifting, our glutes tightening, or our jaws clenching. Tension is not relegated to the awake state. If your body is tense during the day, you will likely tense it while asleep. This ongoing tension is draining and over time causes physical pain and uneven wear and tear on our joints. Thankfully, Yoga teaches us to change this default and be more relaxed while being engaged/focused.

With all this good news, you can see how Yoga, the miracle drug, will change your game.

I hope to see you on the mat soon!

Warmly,

Jessica

Posted in abhyasa (practice), asana, brain, discipline, freedom, meditation, mindfulness, pranayama, relaxation, svadhyaya (self-study) | 2 Comments