Annual Kripalu Yoga Teachers’ Conference 2017: Rooting Down, Rising Up!

It had been 16 years since I was last at Kripalu.  Like any reunion, there was a sense of trepidation.  How much had Kripalu changed–would it seem dated? Would I seem dated? Can you go back in time and rediscover the excitement and curiosity that led you there in the first place?

Little did I know, the “Kripalu Experience” would start in the airport shuttle from Albany. My rowmate was named Dana, from Maryland.  Within half an hour, we had exchanged life stories and marveled at how you can have conversations with strangers at Kripalu we can’t have with people back home you’ve known for years.

Checking into my dorm room, my 9 bunkmates started trickling in– Sharon from Connecticut, Lily from  New Jersey (a Macalester alumna!). There was a German national, as well as a younger woman just in from China with major jet lag. At any given time, there are about 600 people staying in the center, plus some in hotels around Stockbridge/Lenox and maybe 10 programs running.  The common thread that binds all participants is the twice daily yoga practices taught by Kripalu staff. In an effort to be more guest friendly, I noticed they moved the morning practice from 6 to a leisurely 6:30!

While eager to meet and greet, we all had to navigate four intense days of programming. We would pair off with the people who selected the same workshops we did or with whom we made a connection.  These connections would be cemented and expanded over some of the healthiest, most flavorful food on the planet in the dining hall. I happened to meet a guy in line for the buffet  (I meet a lot of people in buffet lines) who owns a Kripalu-sanctioned school in the trendy part of Tokyo.  The dining hall exudes a strong college vibe as people are discussing everything from transcendental meditation to how to adapt plank pose for seniors.

I came to the realization that, as Kripalu teachers, no matter when we attended and the prevailing yoga style of the time, we were all systematically taught how to form healthy connections with our students and each other.  Connection permeates the Kripalu zeitgeist in a way I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

Replacing “guru worship” and Indian notions of caste and male hierarchy was a daunting task taken on by Stephen Cope, who lead the charge to rescue the program when it took a wrong turn in the 1990’s.  Having had a successful psychotherapy practice in Boston in his former life, he was just the man to oversee Kripalu’s transformation. He went on to be Executive Director and is now a “Scholar in Residence” and well-known author.

After a sex scandal involving Swami Kripalu’s chief disciple from India, Cope and his devoted team set out to rebuild Kripalu as a “safe space,” where no one person could build a “cult of personality,” adding plenty of checks and balances. For instance, Teacher Training Programs had co-leaders and numerous assistants.  Imagine the potential for abuse in programs where one person decides whether or not aspiring teachers receive certification? (i.e. Bikram).   You can read all about Kripalu’s rebirth in Cope’s first book,  Yoga and Quest for the True Self.  


The book Stephen Signed was The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seekers Guide to Extraordinary Living. I presented him w/ my tattered copy and said, “This is the book I live in, so this is the one I want you to sign–yes I have your new one too.” He replied an author couldn’t ask for anything more than that–to have his books “inhabited” by readers! 

Giving teachers and students a safe space to undergo the “Quest for the True Self” may be Kripalu’s greatest contribution to Yoga in America by offering the antidote to a popular culture that encourages the relentless pursuit of the material, egotistical, accumulative “False Self.” Back in 2001, my mentor told me, “People do crazy shit for this yoga.”  He then suggested I go out to the parking lot and see the cars packed to the brim with the earthly possessions of people rebooting their lives and getting back to what’s important through Kripalu Yoga. Astonishing!

In comparing the in-house Kripalu staff w/ some of the “outside” presenters at the conference, it dawned on me that, yoga is entering a new era.  What matters most these days seems to be how well you do YouTube videos and how many Instagram followers you have. Sitting through a couple of workshops with this new breed of teacher, many with media backgrounds, I realized what is being lost: the art of connecting to students.  When a YouTube star comes over to give you a hamstring assist while simultaneously promoting her website you just feel more like a prop than a person.

Contrast that to the in-house trained Kripalu staff.  Many have medical degrees (i.e. MD expert on pain management and physical therapy) and have been doing/teaching yoga for decades.  There is a sense that the students become the teacher’s meditation. Moreover, staff are extremely approachable after presentations.  No one is “handling” them, running interference, bringing them water, etc.  Yes, some Kripalu staff are published authors, researchers of note and have appeared in Yoga Journal–one even on the Dr. OZ Show.   The point is: there’s just less …”packaging.”

At Kripalu, they refer to a technique called “holding the space.”  Can you really just sit there in the moment, listen and connect with another person or group of people–without “performing” and calculating what you’re going to say next?  We actually practice it, and, at first, it’s scary.  They team us up with partners and we listen to, in some cases, very troubling life stories, without reacting, analyzing, judging.  Stephen Cope has been facilitating it for decades and we’ve all been through it, several times in our 200-hour training. Perhaps at the time, I wondered what the heck this kind of intense listening had to do with yoga.  Now, I suppose we all know it’s the ultimate yoga, the yoga off the mat. It’s the yoga that keeps you striving for your True Self and not some derivative the world is trying to sell you because you also learn to hear your own voice along the way.   Sure, we can study the latest developments in Down Dog elsewhere, but we can’t immerse ourselves in this nourishing terroir, cultivated as if by magic, in a former Jesuit monastery in the Berkshires.

I enjoyed observing a tightly-knit group of eighty-somethings at the conference; they had been attending year after year and had an amazing camaraderie.  Mary Lou had opened the second yoga studio in her town in the 1990’s.  She had been there when the scandal broke and filled me in during our shuttle ride back to the Albany airport, including the lesser known fact Kripalu had brought in that scoundrel Bikram to advise on sequencing.  I learned there are even mirrors behind the wall coverings in one of the practice rooms (horrors!). I was riveted.  She also praised the strength and determination of the people who picked up the pieces.

Mary Lou admitted she was sick the first day of our conference and wasn’t sure she was going to make it through the week.  Yet, she was hurrying back to train teachers in Charlotte that very evening.


Snowbirds: Meet Lori from Tampa!

We said our goodbyes and I remember thinking, that’s who I want to be when I grow up.  Passion and purpose can overcome a lot, maybe even old age.

Kripalu is aging gracefully, has made some improvements, updated techniques, but still keeps the original character.  It remains quietly confident, evolving in its own unique way under an ensemble cast of leaders.  They haven’t given in to the narcissism of the global yoga algorithm that dictates everything has to be slick and Instagrammable, but there has certainly been a good sprucing up–decor, brochures, even buffets!

Kripalu has also maintained its own unique brand of spirituality which I can only describe as a “tradition of welcoming all traditions.”  This results in a peculiar secularism.  The idea is, use Kripalu Yoga as a vehicle to be better at what you already are–Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic etc.  This draws an interesting international crowd. As a Christian, I can’t imagine limiting myself by only practicing yoga w/ say, other Christians. Maybe it’s my FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Perhaps the key to longevity in yoga is to be just commercial and successful enough to move forward on your own terms and to know your niche. Did I appreciate the improved gift shop featuring local designers offering extra long yoga pants?  You bet I did! Did I partake of the newly-added coffee at silent breakfast?   Yes, and I thanked God, Krishna and Jesus for it! Thirty-something Shaila was all-in and ready to give up coffee.  Now I know and accept, coffee is just part of my True Self.

Kripalu’s Back Yard:  A Great Place for a Cup of Coffee!

Top Doc Explains Why Women Over 40 Need Yoga

This post is brought to you by our own YogaHotDisher, Top Doc,  and  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old, often partnered with a significant other of varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for what they “should” be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.  If and when they sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they “rest” while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn’t enough they are also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant commentary that translates as “not enough or not good enough.” In fact, the incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe ourselves.  Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness, improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice (the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels good. “Doing” yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look at my thoughts and see, ‘huh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.” Or, “look, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and gee, I don’t have to be affected by that. I can still be me.” Or, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I’m way too important for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.” Which over time can become, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. I’ve gotten through this pose before. I am stronger. My resilience is better.”

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for myself. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability, I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

Kamakura: Buddhas, Beaches and Bad-asses

Kamakura Buddha

Kamakura for Kyoto?

I had my first meditation experience at Kyoto during college. I was sitting still in total silence, possibly for the first time in my life, mesmerized by snowflakes falling in the zen rock garden Ryonanji.  Our intrepid Professor Braulick at St. Olaf took the initiative to offer the first study abroad to Japan from a Minnesota college.  Had it not been for those miraculous moments on a freezing January day when myself and  24 kids straight outta’ Olaf managed to be quiet simultaneously and appreciate the rare treat of having a World Heritage Site all to ourselves,  I don’t think I would be writing this.

I managed to return to Kyoto some years later during peak season when I was working in Japan back in the 1990’s.  It was disappointing and about as “mystical” as Epcot Center.  Throngs of tourists elbowing to the front for photos–and that was before the selfie!

This year, I passed on Kyoto for reasons of crowds, cost, and time.  Moreover, my teen traveling companion was more interested in pop culture than high culture, understandably.   That said, we did visit another ancient capital, this one much closer to Tokyo, often heralded as “The Kyoto of the East.”  I dare say this (ancient capital) is as compelling as crowded Kyoto.

Here’s my not-so-short list of reasons to visit Kamakura:

  1. Where zazen, seated zen meditation landed in Japan.  Monks from the area traveled to China (circa 1200) to learn from zen masters and brought the practice to Kamakura where it was first embraced by the samurai class. They practiced a rigorous, disciplined version. Later, in the 1300’s, a kinder, gentler version was brought over for “the peasants,” known as Soto Zen.  Soto Zen is described as, “Meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.”  Sound familiar? Do you think zazen is some mysterious practice? It’s not, silly — you “peasants” do it at the conclusion of every class when we steady ourselves in a sitting position! It’s just old-school seated meditation, with roots back to India. In fact, the word zen is derived from dhyana, which is a Sanskrit word for meditation and appears in the Yoga Sutras (last stop before Samadhi) and in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna describes it as the yoga of meditation.  
  2. Kamakura is a samurai town.  When the Mongols were set to invade in the late 1200’s, the court of high-maintenance aristocrats in Kyoto would have caved and Japan would have been part of China!  The tough guy Samurai of Kamakura were the ones who rallied resistance with their southern flank in Kyushu to defend the country. They sent a strong message by beheading the Mongol advance/seal team. Then, the “divine wind,” or kamikaze turned up in the nick of time to take care of the naval force of 150,000.
  3. Kamakura has the same layout and design as Kyoto since the Daimyo (lord) who designed it was born in Kyoto.
  4.  Kamakura is a beach town–it’s close to the ocean on the Shonan Coast, where surfing and the surfing lifestyle was first introduced to Japan back in the 60’s. Dudes, it’s known for its laid-back lifestyle, thrashing waves and great seafood.
  5. The Great Buddha at Kamakura is amongst the best big bronze Buddhas (more beautiful than Nara’s, which may be more famous).  It was cast in the 1300’s and has survived all sorts of calamities, including earthquakes, floods and fires. What didn’t survive: the hall that encased it.  Finally, it was left out in the open, so you can get a good look at it. Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem about it, with stanzas appearing in one of my favorite books, Kim.

Indeed, we “feel the soul of all the East” in Kamakura and in Japan in general.  So much of Asia has washed up on its shores, like sea glass. The original origins are distant yet familiar, cloudy yet with some discernable details. The edges have been refined by a people who believe in perfecting everything from serving tea to handing out business cards.  Stay tuned and I’ll tell you how Japan has influenced another part of our practice: Yin.

And whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither creed nor priest,
May feel the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura.                                                                        

A tourist-show, a legend told,
A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
The meaning of Kamakura

~ Rudyard Kipling

 

 

 

 

 

Top 6 Reasons to do Private Yoga

 Barbie yoga
1) You’re a celebrity.  Ok, but even if you’re not Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Novak Djokovic or Barbie, more “regular” people do private yoga than you might think.  Maybe it’s the golfer down the street who doesn’t want his buddies to know the real reason behind his improved game or the Mom who can’t leave the kids alone, but doesn’t want to put them in the nursery at the gym to do group exercise yoga.
2) Your same ol’ strength training routine at the gym is feeling stale and tedious; besides, it isn’t really helping your yoga. People don’t think twice about paying a sometimes minimally qualified personal trainer $1+/minute to follow them around w/ a clipboard doing basic exercises and keeping them company on the treadmill.   But, just think about it:  yoga is a lot more complex and comprehensive than conventional fitness when you consider the intricacies of breathing and meditating on top of the physical postures. Yoga offers all the benefits of personal training and then some. Instead of over developing large muscle groups, you have more balanced development across more muscles, not to mention more balancing, more attention to posture and all the cognitive and immune system benefits of meditation.  Your “yoga body” will require less upkeep and maintenance when you go on holiday or hiatus, and you can practice anywhere with just a towel, no need for a gym. Try upping your yoga and hit the treadmill, walk or run, as classical yoga wasn’t really meant to be a cardio workout in the modern sense.
3) You want to get more out of your group classes.  Private yoga need not be a substitute for the group experience–community is key to health and wellness. Some things can’t always be covered in-depth a group setting like philosophy and more advanced versions of the poses. Maybe you just want to learn how to better adapt the poses so you’re more at ease.  It’s OK to want to improve and move up the curve a little more quickly.  Private yoga does just that but I like to give a price break on the group classes so you’ll keep coming!
4) You can’t quite trust yourself to keep that yoga appointment for your group class.  Nothing like someone showing up on your doorstep who’s not afraid to look in the windows and even head around to the back if you don’t answer. I know you’re in there; I know you don’t always feel like doing yoga, but I’m going to find you!
5) Yoga your way.  Want to do yoga with your dog–doga–why not? Want to involve your kids, spouse, BFF or maybe just not have to get in the car AGAIN?  Want to tailor yoga to your mood and energy level on a particular day?  Want to explore a therapeutic practice for a certain physical or psychological condition?  All great reasons for private yoga!
6) You have a health condition that can’t be accommodated in a group setting.  My students know I’m hands-on and offer a lot of assistance; that said, you can’t be too needy to the detriment of the group, leaving them feeling like bystanders to your yoga.  Maybe you have low energy, pain, or balance issues due to Lyme’s, cancer, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, MS, Parkinson’s, etc.  If you’re taking it “one day at a time” you need the flexibility to have totally restorative practice one day and something more energetic as your health permits. You also need someone who can take the time to understand your situation and meet you where you are.
How does it work? Is it expensive?
Private yoga is like anything else–you can expect to pay about a buck a minute.  If you live close and are willing to do an off-peak time, I can work with you on price.  You need to commit a month at a time. We look down the calendar together over the next 4 weeks, set a schedule and take care of payments.  As with all service providers–tennis pros, personal trainers, massage therapists–time is money.  I can’t accommodate last-minute cancellations when it’s time I’ve already set aside.  That said, I have more leeway to offer re-dos than most personal trainers in gyms or studios should an emergency arise.
Who is successful? 
As with group classes, the students who treat their yoga like a doctor’s appointment are the ones who thrive.  Having a partner, spouse or friend in a “duet” situation is good for commitment and a great way to spend time with loved ones.  It also helps keep the cost down; and, if you know you’ll have scheduling challenges and that other person is OK going solo, it’s better for all of us! Continuing the group class is also key. A twice-per-week commitment is solid and can be life-changing.
After so many years in this business, I can tell when it’s starting to “come off the rails” for people. I start to get emails about how busy they are, the requests to reschedule or postpone come more frequently offering more dramatic details about why they can’t keep their appointment with themselves or with me.  I file this all under “aversion behavior” and frankly, it’s nothing that I tolerate for too long.  I’ve been known to gracefully bow out of an aversion spiral beyond my control.  There are only so many time slots available and I want to teach people who understand the importance of self-care and make it a priority. Is that you?

Leave Your Troubles in Your Shoes: Yoga for Anxiety

Natural lighting, ballet barre for Wed 12:30pm Therapeutic and 7pm all-levels.

     When I first practiced yoga in Singapore, some of the westerners in the class were unnerved by leaving their shoes outside the studio which, like everything in Singapore, was located in a busy shopping mall. My beloved teacher’s response,  “Leave your troubles in your shoes, and if you’re lucky, someone will steal them.”  To this day, when I take off my shoes before yoga, I imagine them filled up with the infinite sandy grains of life’s problems.
     While many people stumble into yoga looking for a workout, I am convinced those who stay do so for the “work-in.”  The richest parts of the practice aren’t really mastering those difficult-to-dos like crow or headstand, but rather, the transformation of the mind that seems to happen in lockstep with the body.
     After reading the NY Times article, “Prozac Nation is Now The United States of Xanax” today, I thought it a worthy undertaking to try and explain to people who’ve never experienced it, how meditative yoga alleviates anxiety.  I say “meditative” to differentiate a more classical yoga from the trending fitness style where music, mirrors and large class sizes are the norms.  While you may find the music relaxing, its emotion and memory generating power make it a hindrance to meditation.  Don’t get me started on looking in the mirror–if you’ve been a teenager, you know that’s anything but meditation.
     So how does yoga work its magic on the Anxious 21st Century Mind? First, a couple of disclaimers:
1) It’s best to start the practice when life is easier, not when you’re in the throws of a traumatic event. Consider yoga a Wellness IRA: the sooner you start making investments, the better off you’ll be when you need the gains.
2) The effects of yoga may linger and weave their way into your day, or the spell may be shattered when you’re cut off in traffic trying to leave the studio.  That said, during periods of high anxiety, 90 waking minutes not thinking about your problems is real relief, boosting your immune system and giving you time to mentally regroup.
     So here’s how classical yoga works:
Better Use of Bandwidth:  Your brain only has so much and most of us are on overload.  You already know it’s difficult to learn and remember something new when you’re sick or not feeling well. That’s because thinking and feeling have to share the same bandwidth in the brain.  One way to prove this to yourself: eat a brownie.  For a few seconds, don’t your cares dissolve right along with the chocolate, tasty goodness?  This is why “stress eating” is a thing. A moderate, meditative yoga practice can have the same effect while actually burning calories–moderate because a too rigorous practice will only create more stress. Moreover, yoga develops the mind-body connection so you won’t feel so compelled to eat unless you’re really hungry.
Gets You Out of  “Crash Position”:   Modern life is conspiring to keep us trapped in our heads, subject to a siege of inputs from multiple devices to which we must respond in real time. We hunch over for hours peering into screens, and some of us add to the problem by driving cars that, put our bums into buckets and partially into the crash position.
     The brain and spine are interconnected, so how can we have a healthy brain atop an ill-functioning spine, fetaling forward, bracing for a crash/trying to anticipate the next tweet in a Twitter war? In fact, this kind of posture communicates “fight or flight” to the brain, made worse by the fact you can’t breathe properly with your chest concave. A shallow breath makes you tenser and more prone to fetaling forward leaving you in a downward spiral of muscle tension and poor breathing–anxiety’s BFFs! Maybe you’re in it now? Stretch your arms up over your head, take a big breath and arch your upper back over the top of the chair.  Feel better already? Yoga is like 90 minutes of that!
Decreases the Resting Tension of the Body: After teaching yoga for 15 years, it’s getting to the point where I can look at a person–their posture, how they move, and make a pretty good estimate as to how stressed out there are. We wear our stress in tight shoulders, flat necks, locked jaws, and in a myriad of other visible ways.
     Some of you might not even be aware of how achy you are until your first few classes when you finally rid yourself of some unnecessary tension.  It’s one of the great rewards of teaching: seeing a wave of calm sweep over a person after loosening up a tight area for maybe the first time in years. Know this: all those tense areas are sending SOS messages via the nervous system to your brain and adding to your anxiety.  Are you even bothering to read them anymore? Think of them like bills: just because you don’t open them, doesn’t mean they go away!
     I hope your frontal lobe will be convinced to allow you to get off the grid and onto the mat so you can experience yoga for yourself.  Realize that Frontal Lobe will come up with all sorts of seemingly urgent excuses not to, for it’s fearful of giving up its power and allowing you to frolic in body for a while.  I suppose we can forgive its hubris, leftover from the caveman days when it was in its glory, helping us dominate all those other species. 21st Century Stress is more incipient and chronic, but at least as dangerous as a charging wooly mammoth.  That stupid notification from some app you could care less about can wait while you put down your mental load and learn to let go for dear life!

No Virginia, there’s no such thing as a one-hour yoga class

clock-on-fire

Since classical yoga washed up on our shores in the mid 20th century, America has put her stamp, (make that time stamp)  on it.  What was a quiet meditative practice in the East, became, well, Americanized.

This wasn’t all bad; in fact, the practice has probably gotten safer and more accessible for a broader range of people and body types.  We’ve also contributed a lot in terms of fashion and accessories; hence, we need all those mirrors to see how good we look–and why not throw in some trendy pop tunes or new agey music to drown out all that constant chatter in our heads?  I can take it all in small doses, as long as I can go home and meditate a bit when it’s over.  There is one adaptation however, I simply cannot tolerate: the standardization of yoga classes around a 1-hour format. 

For that, we have the fitness “industry,” to thank–Arnold and Jane in the old days, now Lifetime Fitness, Core Power, etc.  in modern times.  Somehow, the American mind has been programmed that yoga should be like a cardio exercise class, even though yoga is pretty much meant to be anything BUT cardio. I’ve even seen some 40 and 50-minute yoga classes popping up.  Yes, I know, you’re busy, but who is that  1-hour format really serving: you the customer, or the business trying to cycle as many people through as possible?   

Think about it this way: isn’t yoga supposed to be the antidote to busy? Yoga in its purest form is a kind of meditation. But, can you really hurry up and meditate?  I say “no,” as the math just doesn’t work. 

If your goal is a yoga-butt and to move through a bunch of poses in rapid succession, you can certainly tire yourself out in an hour. There are some gifted instructors out there, many with a fitness background for whom an hour is more than enough time to set you up to walk like a cowboy the next day.  But, if you want the mental and cognitive benefits that only a meditative style of yoga can offer including boosted immunity, clarity, reduced anxiety, better sleep, etc., you will need more than an hour for that– 75 minutes minimum, 90 minutes or more ideal.  

Why?  Because, based on 15 years of teaching I know one thing is certain: it takes an average person on an average day at least 15 minutes to decompress and detach from their cares–and that’s on a normal day, not a bad one!   That means by the time your mind stops ruminating on all those problems, poof, ¼ of your class is OVER.  Now, if you perform poses in a truly meditative style, you will be into longer holding times–why? Only AFTER you get the alignment set can the yoga begin.  You have to get comfortable enough in the pose and fine-tune it to the point where you stop thinking and start breathing.

Considering most of my students hold their first down-dog of the practice for about 3 minutes, That puts us at 18 minutes.  Then there’s pranayama ( breathing exercises) deemed more important than the physical postures in classical yoga.   America loves to gloss over them. For starters, they make people feel self-conscious because they look funny (not good if there are mirrors everywhere).   They can also be subtle and difficult to learn.  Some classical styles devote 30 minutes to pranayama alone.  So, after some 15 minutes of centering, a down dog or two, and breathing exercises, you’ve nearly burned an hour! 

But, what about Savasana, a.k.a. “Final relaxation?”  Another corner Americans lop off with relish.  One of the worst parts about teaching in a health club environment was the people cutting out early, thinking they were just too busy and/or important for Savasana.  It’s the culmination of the whole practice,  further up the yoga hierarchy than even all those arm balances; in fact, it’s often referred to as The Most Difficult Pose.  There is a 12-minute minimum on Savasana for cognitive benefits so you get beyond concentrating on being still (it’s called corpse pose, get it?) and elevate up to the meditative state of Yoga Nidra.   

Uff dah! We haven’t even gotten to inversions and balance poses though we’re well past the hour mark.  I often threaten my advanced students with 2-hour classes and some do them semi-privately. They often report not feeling a huge perceptual difference as they’re in so deep.

Now, I assure you, I have been to my share of  1-hour yoga classes. I will say, in the workplace, perhaps over the lunch hour,  even 30 minutes is great to break up a sedentary day.   Some yoga is always better than no yoga, but to be honest, I wouldn’t waste a cute outfit on a 60-minute class.  In most cases, you’re  really doing group fitness with a yoga theme at best. If getting in shape is what it’s about for you, that’s fine.  But if you really want to manage stress and explore higher deeper practices, you need TIME.  Yoga is a lot like food: sure, we all hit the drive-through once in a while, just don’t confuse it with home cooking or make it a steady diet.  At least with fast food, it’s usually economical.

When comparison shopping yoga, consider the CPM, or Cost Per Minute of the class, and you’ll see that some of those  “unlimited” yoga packages (most people only get there twice a week if they don’t drop out by the third month) or community yoga isn’t such a bargain after all.  If you really want to do yoga right, then a 75 – 90 minute class, 2-3 times a week is where it’s at. Start with once per week, try not to miss a week, and wait for your body, mind and spirit to crave a second helping! 

 

Better Posture, Better Health in 10 Steps!

 

Better posture, better life!

Better posture, better life!

Classical Yoga science views poor posture as the root of many maladies from depression to respiratory and heart ailments; thus proper posture is the cornerstone of the physical practice.  Back pain is the most obvious affliction, but consider this: improper spinal alignment starts with the feet and works its way up through the joints–ankle,knee,hip, shoulder–affecting them all.  Rotator cuff tear ?  Poor rooting of humerus bones into the sockets perhaps due to thoracic kyphosis.   Knee or hip pain? Maybe toeing out the feet too much, misplacing the head of the femur bones  and throwing off the pelvis. These imbalances then ripple throughout the fascia (connective tissue) to neighboring joints, wrecking systemic havoc and causing pain.

Making matters worse, another side effect of poor posture is poor breathing.  The hunched position closes off the lungs and doesn’t allow for optimal diaphragmatic breathing.  Shallow breathing can push us toward  “fight or flight,” increasing the  overall resting tension of the body, making us feel irritable and worsening,…posture. Now, you’re in a downward “slouch spiral” –throw in a dark, 40-below windchill day and you too could be an extra on the set of Grumpy Old Men.

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Maybe you’re wondering if it’s too late? Can you correct your posture, reduce your ailments and improve your mood? Can you breathe better so you can have less “fight or flight” and a little more  “rest and digest?”  Yes–the fact that so few of us receive proper training on how to stand let alone breathe, most people are quick learners of the concepts once they have the information. The key is reprogramming yourself  as you move through the world and making it routine.  Start by following these 10 steps:

  1. Stand with your feet a few inches apart, whatever is “normal,” for you.  Notice, do the toes turn out like a duck or in, like a pigeon? Be a human! Set your feet straight so the insides of the feet are perfectly parallel to each other. Feel how doing that sets your knees, pelvis and maybe even shoulders in a better place.
  2. Notice if your ankles tend to roll out or in, and whether your toes are gripping at the tips.  Don’t worry, we’ll fix this all in the next step
  3. Place a yoga block between your thighs and you were gently squeezing it.  You can use an actual block or rolled up bath towel.
  4. Place a yoga strap around your shin bones, between the knees and the ankles. Press gently out into your strap as you hug the block in.  
  5. Once you activate these oppositional forces in harmony, you’ll feel the weight balance evenly over all your toe mounds, not just the big toe.  Now, push down your toe mounds evenly –picking up the toe-tips will help, especially if you have weak arches.  The muscles of the legs will activate and hug the bones. Lift the kneecaps to support the knees –a lot of knee problems result from not knowing to engage quads when standing.
  6. Now, picture the pelvis as a bowl of water.  Make sure it’s not spilling out–this may require a subtle pulling up and back of the lower abdominals and pelvic floor,  or “pelvic lift.”
  7. Place the shoulders in the sides of your body, so your upper back and upper chest feel the same width across. If you’ve been slouching for years, this may be difficult to sustain. 
  8. Now, the head– if you drive, use a computer or sit on a sofa, it has probably been craning out WAY TOO FAR in front of your body. Level the chin, drawing it back to the throat until you feel the weight of the head over the tailbone and the tailbone over the heels and ankles. You should feel rooted through the heels and lighter on the front of your feet.
  9. Breathe! Reach your arms straight up overhead and hug a block between your palms. Keep your bum and belly from spilling out with a subtle pelvic lift and pulling in of the floating ribs.  There should be NO neck tension.  Work your way up to holding this “Mountain Pose” for several minutes.
  10. As you breathe, look at a focal point.  ONLY nose breath, and try to make your exhalations longer than your inhalations.  

Minus the arms overhead (awkward) practice this Mountain Pose whenever you’re  standing–in line, at a party,  etc. Try to maintain the alignment while walking as well.  

What if it’s just too difficult? You’re either too tense, too weak or both but you don’t want to end up looking like Quasimodo?  Consider a more classical, mindfulness-based yoga practice where perfecting posture is a priority–not the ubiquitous rapid-fire “vinyasa flow”  yoga which can lead to injury. Holding poses for long periods of time is challenging, creates better body awareness, and sets you up for  a meditative state, resulting in additional health benefits. 

“Long Life Yoga” is such a class and has been running for over 10 years in the North Oaks East Rec on Wednesdays at 12:30 pm. Due to popularity, a new session is being added Mondays starting in October. Visit yogahotdish.com for information.

Men are welcome to these classes and actually need yoga more than women. They tend to be less flexible by nature and prone to back problems. North Oaks resident John Martin says, ” Yoga’s emphasis on breathing, balance and a level spine has led me to, among other things, much better posture. I am amazed at how much standing up straight contributes to a feeling of well- being.”   Dr. Bob Schubert adds, “The yoga practice has really increased my awareness of body position.  This kind of input is really helpful in improving posture and avoiding fatigue.” And, yes, it’s OK to come if you just want to improve your golf game!

 

Dr. Terrell: Why Women Over 40 Need Yoga!

This post is brought to you by  our own Yoga HotDisher, Top Doc,  and  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old, often partnered with a significant other of varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for what they “should” be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.  If and when they sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they “rest” while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn’t enough they are also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant commentary that translates as “not enough or not good enough.” In fact, the incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe ourselves.  Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness, improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice (the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels good. “Doing” yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look at my thoughts and see, ‘huh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.” Or, “look, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and gee, I don’t have to be affected by that. I can still be me.” Or, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I’m way too important for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.” Which over time can become, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. I’ve gotten through this pose before. I am stronger. My resilience is better.”

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for myself. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability, I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

PRINCE, YOGA and INDEPENDENCE!

Manadatory Credit: Photo by Brian Rasic / Rex Features (396812dh) PRINCE VARIOUS

Manadatory Credit: Photo by Brian Rasic / Rex Features (396812dh)

We Minnesotans have been mourning the loss of PRINCE. If you don’t know who he was, I can’t help you at this point.  He stood for a lot, but perhaps what he stood for the most was the right of an artist to control his/her destiny, material and distribution–essentially to run his/her own show.

Perhaps his strongest statement was  the word “SLAVE” on his face and changing his name  to a symbol to circumvent an oppressive contract w/ SONY.  In short, he was done, “workin’ for the man.”

As a small business owner, Prince has always inspired me.  Those of you who haven’t had the stress of running a small business may not realize that every day is a fight for independence. You fight to keep the bills paid, to stay true to your mission and, to not get swept away by the tsunami of market homogenization. You defend your  unique niche against the big players who want to eat your lunch and then hire you to work for a fraction of what your regulars think your worth.  When a company like CorePower sets out on a mission to “Build a Global Lifestyle Brand,”  they’re fine with your lifestyle being a casualty of their brand–hey, it’s business, right?

In my own neighborhood, Noodles and Company has moved in and put our local Pho shop out of business enjoying the “second mover advantages,” usurping  at least some of the business that family-owned shop grew over the years. Massage Envy has taken its toll on expert bodyworkers, hiring straight-outta community college grads to essentially give one-size-fits-few treatments.  On the flip side, the big brands get in early and block the entry of smaller, more creative offerings. We are flanked by 2 Caribou Coffees.   In a neighborhood of 3000 families, couldn’t we support one indie coffee shop that knows how to make a mocha with real chocolate!?

Just the other day, I was in Dinkytown thinking I’d join the “kids” for a little hot yoga on a cool day–now you know it’s not my thing, but I like to keep current. There’s a guy from NY who teamed up w/ a local to start Your Yoga.  They’re a good team, they have something worthwhile to offer. Imagine my dismay to find a TCF BANK had taken their place. I think the other location in Uptown is still going.

Even Santa Barbara, a haven for Indie Yoga is feeling the effects of a newly opened CorePower.  The indie classes aren’t nearly as full and the millennial crowd is noticeably absent.  Imagine my surprise at some of the world’s finest teachers having open spaces in their classes and offering free classes to get mats in the door.

So why is it when, we have so much info online about how to choose quality products and services,  independents scrambling to keep their prices competitive in the post-Walmart apocalypse, we see this trend toward homogenization all around us?  I mean, you know the Pho at Noodles and Co. isn’t the same Pho you get in Hanoi, right?  You’ve seen the travel shows, read the online reviews.  So why do so many of us acquiesce to the mediocrity of the mass-market?

I’m pretty sure it comes down to one thing, and it’s not price–heck, some of the mainstream offerings are more expensive.   I think it comes down to convenience.  The one thing everyone is short on is time. This cuts across all socio-economic classes. We all have too many messages to respond to, errands to run and places to be.  We’re just going through the motions w/o really thinking.  We all meet at Starbucks because it’s easy –our keyboard even auto-suggests it when texting and who wants to get into a big debate about where to have coffee?  We know exactly what’s on the menu, so we don’t have to ponder anything, which is good, right? Pondering takes time.  We know the service will be fairly reliable, so long as we don’t get the new trainee.  But, if we make all of our purchase decisions based on this, don’t we risk becoming, well…boring and predictable? Mediocre ourselves?

That said, isn’t it up to small business to become more convenient?  You bet. But there’s one thing a small business can’t be: BIG.  And, believe it or not, some of us don’t want to be big.  We left “big” jobs and “big” companies so we could do things right, our own way. We didn’t believe in cookie cutters and corporate culture.   We packed up our toys and carved out a little patch where we could play with like-minded individuals.

The thing is, when you have your patch of what you hope are unique offerings of higher quality, it’s difficult to find staff that can understand and execute your vision.  For instance,  it would be a huge commitment for me to hire someone trained by CorePower, Lifetime, etc.  I would have to clue them in on the subtleties acquired across a multitude of styles and years of travel and training. I would  also have to ask myself, if they chose to do their training with one of those outfits, do they really appreciate what I do and want to be part of it anyway–will they “get” me?  Are they just in a panic trying to pay back the hefty student loans they took out for the training?

When I speak to other small business owners, especially those providing services, the thing I hear time and time again as their biggest problem is in hiring.  Their clients want to see them. When they bring on new hires, they can’t get a following going, as they just don’t have the experience, understanding, similar style etc. –who knows? The owners end up w/ the lion’s share of work, no matter how much they try to delegate.

What I do know: I am lucky.  I am blessed. I have enough people showing up in my classes and actively participating in our little community, getting to know me, getting to know the other students and making it a great environment for growth and transformation.

What you need to know : You matter!  Each person matters in these small classes.  We notice when you’re not there, especially for a couple weeks. We wonder if you’re coming back, but we don’t want to pry or nag.  We all quietly hope we haven’t lost you to a more convenient offering, or, just to the demands of life –an illness, a loss, etc.  We hope you’ll make your way back to us and to the yoga.

In conclusion, I’d like to mention some of my FAVORITE independent, small business owners. Nothing means more to a small business than a referral, a little praise, gushing even.  This is what the Yelps and Groupons telemarketing me can’t comprehend: I don’t want to grow my business geometrically with their bargain shoppers off the Internet–  I want to stay small and just get better and better (kaizen!) at serving my people.  Big means all the things I don’t like: more administration, more staffing, more space, more time spent NOT teaching.

So what do I need? What all small businesses need.  You can help the most by telling someone about me and maybe inviting them to a class.  People are nervous to try new things.  But here’s the best part: if they’re friends of yours, they’re bound to be a friend of ours! They’ll fit in just fine, you’ll make sure of it. You’ll clue them in on the weird breathing before they come, the venue idiosyncrasies and how to set up best for neck traction so they’ll feel comfortable. Plus they’ll already know someone in the class and that’s worth a dozen walk-ins off the Internet!

FAV INDIES…

The Bru House (New Brighton–and they can make a mocha!)

Maryjo Lohn (White Bear –Massage, Cranial-Sacral, Lymph) 

Taj Salon and Spa (Bryan–repertoire goes beyond pink hair)

CWirth.com ( Celia Wirth is a one-woman Geek Squad specializing in senior computer needs)

Zen Asia (Behind Cub on Hwy 96–Nancy knows tea!)

Karta Thai (Central Ave –green curry is best I’ve had outside of Thailand)

Szechuan (Roseville by Outback Steakhouse)

Hummingbird Floral (Rice St.)

Ace Hardware (White Bear –they have Aussie licorice and answers!)

Scandinavian Bakery (North Oaks–they sell lefse by the piece)

Swedish Crown Bakery (Anoka– most everything is Gluten Free). 

Affinity Credit Union (Roseville–think of it as a banking co-op. Call customer service and talk to a PERSON, the same PERSON you spoke with last time if you like!)

Why not give some of the above a “Like” on Facebook.  Most small business owners don’t buy “likes” or “followers,”(did you know that was a thing?)  they grow their following organically. Help ’em out and see what they’re up to on social media. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Flow or Not to Flow?

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t get the question, “Do you teach Vinyasa Flow?”  Given the level of confusion and conflation of terms around yoga, I tend to ask, “What do you mean by that?”  The response I get is usually a description of a health-club, group fitness experience, with faster-moving sequences of postures to music.  Now, this is where it gets tricky for me–sure I could give a simple answer, but I can’t quite help myself. I usually ask, “Why do you think you want to do Vinyasa Flow?”  This often leads to an awkward silence. You see, Vinyasa Flow is The Trend and has become so ubiquitous, that people don’t always stop and think, “Hey, is Vinyasa Flow the right style for me?”  Or, as your Mom might say, “Just because everyone else is jumping back into chaturanga, does it mean you should?”

Let’s consider the origins of Vinyasa Flow.  The classical school of lineage (to India) and major influence for  Vinyasa Flow hearkens back to a guru named Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) and his “Ashtanga” yoga.  He came up through the ranks of a master named T. Krishnamacharya in the city of Mysore, India.  Krishnamacharya is also the guru of B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), another prominent figure credited with proliferating yoga successfully into the West. FYI,  Iyengar was also Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law, taken in as a disciple upon being orphaned.  So, how is it the styles of these two men — Jois and Iyengar — are so different, when they studied under the same teacher? Where as the Ashtanga yoga of Jois features set routines of poses choreographed together with movements familiar to Vinyasa Flow yogis, Iyengar’s method has longer-holds, giving time for intensive fine-tuning of  each pose. There are not much in the way of  flashy transitions.   Iyengar favored normal nose-breathing while Jois favored use of ujjayi breath (sometimes called “ocean sounding” breath ) in the poses.

It’s generally agreed that both Jois with his Ashtanga/ Vinyasa Flow and Iyengar with his mindful cultivation of poses are both heirs to Krishnamacharya’s Hatha  lineage.  But can they both be right?

Put it in a historical context, you get an idea that both styles had their place in the stew that was yoga of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Make no mistake, yoga draws a lot from modern gymnastics, even body-building.  Many poses we know today in mainstream yoga aren’t “ancient,” but rather borrowed from the West, re-packaged  with Indian names and themes.  Krishnamacharya was supported  by the wealthy Maharaj of Mysore,  and enjoyed  his own  studio in a wing of the palace.   Sharing space and  possibly equipment, was an elite gymnast of the era. Both men were tasked with improving the fitness of the local population (i.e. school programs) for nationalistic reasons.   Thus, the flowing acrobatic movements found in Ashtanga were for “performance” by adept adolescent boys (both Iyengar and Jois performed, often to exhaustion)  to entertain and entice people into the practice of yoga.   After all, watching someone perform the deeper practices actually found in the ancient yoga texts –like meditating in lotus position– wasn’t too thrilling!  But to see all that jumping and contorting at high speeds done in unison by a group of young boys breathing a thunderous  breath drew attention!  Once they signed on for yoga however, “ordinary” people would receive customized, therapeutic regimes of a few poses held for increasingly longer durations, as well as pranayama (breathing) and meditation guidance, a.k.a the Iyengar method.   The yoga sequences  of Jois were then  basically the “set lists” he and the other boys performed  for crowds and kings. It makes sense that Jois taught what he practiced  and what we now know as Ashtanga Yoga.

So the question isn’t really, “Which way is right?” but rather, “Which way is right for you?”  I often encourage my friends who did gymnastics or dance to try out an Ashtanga class or, if there isn’t one, choose a “Vinyasa Flow” at the local health club, CorePower, etc.  A person with some natural strength and flexibility will probably fare alright as rooms are often heated to induce flexibility, though not without risks: you don’t always sense an injury coming with your “heat goggles” on; and, the tensile strength of joints can be weaker in ultra-hot environments. For these reasons, I think beginners over 40 should start elsewhere. That said,  there are people who, for a variety of reasons, just aren’t ready for a slower moving mindfulness-based practice requiring as much discipline of the mind as the body.  ADHD, PTSD and other afflictions are examples–turning inward  isn’t a safe or calm place for them, so busier is perhaps better.  After working with a purely physical practice for a while, they may be drawn later to the inner practices.

So what’s so great about a slower, mindful approach anyway? Well, I find that many of the benefits people seek in yoga beyond strength and flexibility are mental, emotional and therapeutic. Most of the benefits you read about like improved mood, concentration, immune system, reduced back pain, regulation of major systems (endocrine, pulmonary, respiratory etc.)  are done on participants in a mindful-based  (Iyengar-like)  practice, as that’s what’s popular in university settings.  In any case, if you’re doing it for a health benefit, read the fine print on the study to figure out what kind of yoga was used–it might not be what’s on offer at your local health club or CorePower.

Finally, when in doubt, try it out. No one should expect first-timers to do every pose the first day.  Talk to the instructor right before class. No need to call and give your life story ahead of time.  I have found, the chattiest callers are the least likely to show up!  If you want to know what a style of yoga is all about, there is no conversation that substitutes coming to class!