1.08.2015

Mental Laziness and Pain

"Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice, but only a lazy man cannot take practice."
 - Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
 "Now I ask the reader to pay attention to what I am going to say.  When we venture into some affair expecting a huge profit, only by being prepared to suffer any obstacles that we may encounter along the way will we then accrue the desired benefits.  If you leave it halfway, it is like falling down.  I ask you to bear the difficulty and pain you may encounter." 
- Krishnamacharya
This weekend I will finish my 500 hour RYT certification.  Next month, I will begin a 2-year yoga therapy training here in Austin.  I am on a mission to build a therapeutic haven within the Ashtanga community, where evidence-based therapeutics are largely lacking and dogmatic adherence to the method is a risk some students run.

My approach toward my own practice has always been therapeutic.  Not having had health insurance for most of my adult life, I have endeavored to heal myself with yoga many times.  Through practice, I have overcome stress-induced migraines which plagued me from a tragically young age.  I have worked within the sequence to rehabilitate sprained ankles, a frozen shoulder, two bulging discs, a host of knee injuries, a foot sprain, a wrist sprain, and various muscle pulls, tweaks, and tears.  With Ashtanga yoga, I have healed addiction, depression, and heartache.  I have overcome nihilism, pessimism, hostility, and hate.

It is my firm belief that, when approached with the right balance of faith, curiosity, diligence, and determination, the Ashtanga practice can be an incredibly effective tool for physical healing and personal growth.  But this practice has also taught me to discern truth and to love truth, so here's a little truth for you: Ashtanga is not magic.  It doesn't work if you don't do it.  It doesn't work if you don't pay attention.  It doesn't work if you don't acknowledge and respond appropriately to your pain.

Some discomfort in practice is inevitable, even necessary, but persistent aches and injuries will not heal if you don't change the way you practice, no matter how much you hope or trust they will.  Most of you will recognize the famous Jois-ism about how the only people who cannot practice yoga are lazy people, and this might be accurate.  One would think that if there is anything an every day Ashtangi is not, that thing is lazy.  On the other hand, the Ashtanga method lends itself to mental laziness.  We do the same practice every day, and we like the way we do it.  It is so tempting to seek familiarity over function.  I see this tendency so often in my students, and in myself.  Mental laziness perpetuates our suffering, an effect that is augmented if we continue to move forward through the sequence without making the necessary change.

I have been reading Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda and found the quote above to be especially provocative.  Krishnamacharya himself asks us to "bear the difficulty and pain" we may encounter, but it seems to me that to simply bear it is not enough.  This yoga is a mental practice.  Through the precise pairing and refinement of breath and movement, we train the mind.  If that pairing is compromised or ignored in favor of postural acquisition or attainment of sensation, suffering will ensue.  If that suffering is merely ignored or begrudgingly borne, injury is likely to occur.  Your pain is not a punishment, it is a call to action.  Do your practice.  Pay attention.  Heed that call.


12.30.2014

Winter Wedding

Winter is the time for pain.  While the summer months are free and easy, every year in late December, the wreckage of every injury I've ever had grows tight, weak, or inflamed.  My knees ache, my wrists click, and my shoulders stiffen and twinge.  This suffering humbles me, it quiets me, it puts me back into my body.  Winter is the time for coming home.

I began this blog five years ago, almost to the day.  Though I have written less over the past two years, it is in this archived pile that the origins and heart of my practice have remained.  Occasionally, I'll get a soulful email from a reader or a new comment on a years-old post, and be inspired to share with you, my darling friends and readers, once again.  But time has been so fleeting, and busyness the common mode.  However, now that school is over and I have finished my degree, I hope to reinvest my time in writing.  Writing is the key.  So much has happened in the last two years, too much and too uninteresting to tell, but in the spirit of transparency and friendship, I will summarize as briefly as I can.

I went back to school.  I studied English and Philosophy.  I graduated with a 4.0.  I met my partner.  In him, I found the sweetness I have needed.  He is an essential source of wisdom and support.  I have been healing.  I have been teaching.  My students are my inspiration.  Their awesome strength and beauty strikes me speechless every day.  I have done my practice.  It has served me.  I have matured beyond experiencing the Ashtanga method as a burden.  This has freed more time and energy for things that really matter.  As a result, my life has flowered.  I see opportunities in all directions.  I am grounded, I am hopeful, and I am largely unafraid.

But winter is far from over.  This weekend, I will fly home to meet my family and attend my sister's wedding.  I will breathe deeply all the way there, and all the way back.  In between the travel, I will surely sob and gasp, and watch the young ones promise their lives to one another as the early sunset of these shortest days, framed by wall-to-ceiling windows, falls just beyond the lovers' eager smiles.  I will reflect on my first love and feel all the pain and disappointment, and hope they learn their lessons far more gently than I did.  There is a certain darkness to winter weddings.  One feels stiff and heavy, and hopes the brightness in the lovers' eyes will last well into spring.

Photo credit: Janelle Elise Photography


6.30.2014

The Swell

Ocean Swell I by Deborah Dryden

My practice has entered a new phase of growth.  I have begun working with third series.  When second began to feel like home, it seemed right to journey on again.

I am practicing all of second plus the first several advanced postures.  Second series is a joy, but right around Chakorasana ensue the grunting and sighs.  The work is hard.  The practice is becoming larger, and it will grow much larger still before it snaps back on itself and I am left to start again.

Still, it's good practice for everything else.  Things are on the rise.  This fall I will finish my dual degree.  By January, I will have completed my 500-hour training.  I sense big things lurking in the distance.  If I squint my eyes, I can just about make out their shapes.  But I might get crow's feet if I squint too hard.  With my birthday fast approaching, I see my actual age and my felt age gradually becoming one.  As a child and into early adulthood, I behaved as a person much older than I was.  As young as twelve years old, I was routinely mistaken for an adult.  I used to have a sort of pride attached to my deceptively old persona.  Now, of course, I am less thrilled when others misjudge my years.  I feel younger and more free than I did when I was young, but as a well-meaning friend recently said, "You're 28 going on 50."

Damn.  It's true.

Meanwhile, my siblings are getting married and having babies.  It seems like every time I go up north to visit, there is one more smiling spouse or one more little pair of shining eyes.  The family is becoming larger, and it will grow much larger still.  This is a good thing, or not a bad thing.  But I am a far-off satellite in Texas, only occasionally pulled to home.  The faster the family grows, the fewer are the members of my own family that I know.  This is strange and alienating.  Like a new posture.  You mean, now I have to put my leg behind my head and stand up? Who is this new person?  How does this work?

And this is just the beginning.  The postures keep coming.  The family keeps growing.  Certificates are piling up.  The question is what do I do with this stuff?  With all these new additions, how do I make it work?



3.15.2014

Ashtangi Self-Care: 5 Ways to Support your Practice


Ashtanga gets a bum rap for being an injurious practice.  I've definitely had my share of injuries on the mat and off, and while I don't believe Ashtanga to be inherently more dangerous than any other athletic endeavor, it does seem to be the case that this demanding daily practice draws a certain type of person.  Call them "type-A," intense, or just plain crazy, ashtangis who go all-in tend to expect a lot from themselves in every area of life without leaving any room for rest.

Unfortunately for these particularly driven folks, if not approached in a healthy, balanced way, the rigor of the Ashtanga method can provide a platform for self destruction, eventually resulting in fatigue, burnout, or even physical and psychological harm.  Fortunately, however, there are some simple things that we everyday practitioners can do to support our daily practice, prevent burnout, and restore balance to our lives.

1.  Castor Oil Massage

Weekly castor oil self-massage can do wonders for sore muscles, tweaked joints, and all those random aches and pains.  It can also help to remove excess heat and ama (the ayurvedic term for digestive sludge, the product of inadequate digestion) from the body, leaving you cooler, calmer, and cleaner from the inside out.

Castor oil is pressed from the seeds of the Castor plant (ricinus communis) which are also used to make the poison Ricin.  The presence of mildly toxic ricinoleic acid in castor oil, which the oil transports through the skin, stimulates an inflammation response -- the body's natural healing mechanism -- which increases blood flow and cellular regeneration in the affected areas.

Be sure to use high quality cold pressed, cold processed oil for your castor oil bath.  Follow the instructions for dry brushing and oil massage:  prepare the skin with vigorous brushing, then massage the oil through the skin from head to toe in long, firm circular strokes.  But instead of washing the oil off right away, lie down on a towel (preferably one you don't intend to use for any other purpose) and allow the oil to soak deeper into the tissues of the body.  Start with just 5 minutes of soak time and gradually work up to 20, 30, or even 45 minutes over the course of several weeks.  When you're ready, wash the oil off in a hot shower. 

2.  Foam Roller & Trigger Point Release

It is easy to convince ourselves that yoga is all we need, especially if we do it every day, but for many of us with persistent soreness or joint problems, our bodies vehemently disagree.  To this end, professional massage is wonderful, but the effects are short-lived.  Since few among us have the time or money to see a massage therapist every time we feel a kink, foam rollers and massage balls are great options.

A basic, firm foam roller is fabulous for massaging tight quadriceps, calf muscles, IT bands, and sides.  For trigger point release in the hips and back, use a tennis ball, your body weight, and breath to untangle knots and tension.  A golf ball or similarly sized massage ball works well for releasing hands, feet, forearms, and face.  

Just a few minutes a day on problem areas can make all the difference in your practice.  Immediately after practice when the muscles are warm and soft is the best time for massage, but before bed or any time on an empty stomach is good, too.  It is best not to do deep massage work during menstruation, but if you need to release a knot, it is my opinion that a bit of upper body trigger point release would be just fine.

(For more information on how to use your foam roller and massage balls, see my post on self-massage.)

3.  Epsom Salt Baths

Though the science behind why epsom salt baths work is murky, there is loads of anecdotal evidence that epsom salt baths alleviate muscle tension, soreness, and reduce joint inflammation.  One theory is that they provide the body with a boost of magnesium, an important mineral in muscular and nervous system functioning that can be difficult to absorb adequately through diet.

You can find epsom salt for cheap at your local health food store or pharmacy.  Just put 1-2 cups in a warm bath and soak for 15-30 minutes.  Feel free to add 10-20 drops of any essential oils that you like, and a tablespoon or two of bentonite clay if you know that your water supply is thick with heavy metals.  

I find epsom salt baths to be particularly helpful the night before my practice, as the warm water gently releases muscles and frees the joints without diminishing energy or muscular force.  

4.  Electrolyte Supplements

Electrolytes are essential minerals that regulate many important systems in the body, from nerve and muscle function to blood pressure and tissue regeneration.  Normally, we ingest electrolytes through our diet, particularly from fruits and vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil.  The kidneys and endocrine system regulate electrolyte levels, but when we sweat -- and we ashtangis tend to sweat a lot -- we lose electrolytes at a rate faster than the body can regulate effectively.

Coconut water is an increasingly popular choice among yogis for restoring electrolyte balance after practice, but if you leave puddles around your mat like I do, coconut water alone isn't going to cut it.  I take an all-natural, sugar-free powdered electrolyte supplement almost every day, and the difference it has made on my endurance is pronounced.

I like Hammer Endurolytes powder, but there are other options out there.  Just steer clear of sweetened, artificially flavored or colored sports drinks.  And for pete's sake, don't even think about drinking a 5-Hour Energy or Redbull... not even as a last resort.

5.  Rest

I know you think that if you miss one day of practice, all your hard work goes down the drain, but you're wrong.  Adequate rest is absolutely essential to a healthy, sustainable practice.  Rest on Saturdays.  Rest on moon days.  Take short practice when you need to.  There is nothing about the Ashtanga method that says you must do a full sequence every day.  On the contrary, a more-is-better attitude can be a great impingement to your progress.

And ladies, by all means, rest during your monthly holiday.  Your body requires rest.  If you give your body what it needs, it will give you what you want.  You want to be stronger?  You want to better backbends?  You want liberation?  Work hard, and then rest.

Final Thoughts

I share these restorative practices with you because it breaks my heart to know that this method that has been such a powerful force of healing in my own life can also cause such injury, distress, and pain.  Help me to share this practice by treating your own body with respect and by treating your practice as the precious thing it is.

I'll leave you with wise words from two of my favorite balanced ashtangis:
"Learn, also, to not practice." -- Matthew Sweeney
"When in doubt, take a nap." -- Kimberly Flynn


3.02.2014

Anthem

The official Damn Good Yoga anthem:


PS:  I am still waiting for Carl to claim his Gaya rug, so if I don't hear from him by Wednesday, I will select another winner.