Savasana, the name itself (meaning corpse pose in Sanskrit) is a downer, morbid, death-invoking. It usually comes at the end of class and is a kind of “do-nothing” pose that sends some practitioners heading for the door, mat rolled up and tucked under arm.
About two months ago I got in the habit of climbing 8-9 flights of stairs 3-5 times a day in my office building. Instead of using the restroom on my eighth floor, I go to the one in the basement via the elevator and return by the stairs. I started because I notice that I was not getting to the gym enough to maintain my aerobic stamina—and I was putting on weight. It also helps me burn off accumulated nervous energy from sitting at my keyboard or the opposition, feeling sluggish because of lack of movement.
An additional payoff in my yoga practice is that I can hold chair pose (Utkatasana) without my thighs screaming for mercy after 20 seconds.
“What I’ve found, no matter what age we are, we can build healthy muscle tissue [and neurons / MLS] or we can rot. And the choice is always ours. And I’m not into rot.”
This quote (and personal annotation) comes from Ana Forest, the inspiring yoga teacher and practitioner, and used to be the tag line on my e-mail signature and I highlighted it on this blog’s sidebar. Forest’s comment caught my attention more than five years ago, but its intrinsic truth has really been driven into me the past few months as I sweated and grunted to get my yoga groove back, at least the more physically demanding vinyasa practice. Yoga requires you use your whole body in the dynamic sequences of asanas. It’s not something that you can turn on or off. The practice has to be sustained steadily and persistently over an extended period of time.
Thrive Yoga’s 40-day renewal program is not enough to whip me back into shape. It’s not meant for that. It did allow me to sense how much work I have ahead of me. Maybe I should just add another zero to the time frame.
How did I get so out of sync in my practice?
My parents’ death two years ago probably was a turning point because it completely disrupted my normal routines of work, yoga practice, family duties and other commitments. Then, my body started to tell me that it was breaking down under the stress. I found myself in a downward spiral: my peripheral neuropathy interfered with my sleep, leading to insomnia and sleep deprivation. While I was trying to deal with the neuropathy, I fell into a pattern of start-and-stop practice. When I tried to rekindle my yoga practice, I developed problems with my core (iliopsoas and SI joint), which added another layer of complexity to my physical conditioning. Then, I bruised my thigh bone, which felt like a knee issue. I sought out treatment from my body worker, chiropractor, personal physician, acupuncturist, neurologist, and lots of research into what might lie behind my symptoms.
During this whole period, I never stopped doing yoga: I have my evening practice of restorative yoga, hip openers and hamstring stretches, which allows me to manage the sleep-impeding symptoms of neuropathy (pin pricks on my feet and restless legs). I still do pranayama and meditation. This tool kit has allowed me to get through these two years, but it can’t replace a hatha practice.
I am 63 years old so Forest’s options (build health muscles or rot) are almost black and white. There’s no “holding pattern” or “maintenance mode” that allow a minimum practice to balance the effects of aging, disease, injury, wear, health and well being. On the other hand, I can’t overexert myself because that can be just as damaging, as I speak from experience. I have to let my body lead the way and become my teacher.
I’ve been meaning to get Forest’s book, Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit because yoga has helped her come back from a dark place, physically and mentally.
I participated in the 40-day renewal program at Thrive Yoga, which ended on February 11. I did not have a chance to comment on my participation but I did want to record some take aways. It was my second time and I was determined to take it mindfully. Indeed, I had to take it slower because it took me the first four weeks to get back into shape.
- My blood pressure went down by 15-20 points by the end. In early January, I had been caught by surprise when the nurse at work measured my blood pressure and found it over 135/85. I had never had blood pressure issues before, but stress had started to take a toll.
- My weight dropped, ending up closer to 200 pounds, than 210 pounds at the start. I can’t give precise numbers because, as with most people, my weight tends to swing by 2-4 pounds, depending on the time of day, birthday cakes, and health. Since my parents’ deaths two years, I’ve noticed how my weight had gradually increased, until it plateaued just below the 210-pound mark so all I needed was an illness or life style change to push my weight up even more.
- By the end, in savasana (corpse pose), I noticed that my thighs and calves rested on the ground. Previously, my hip joints were well off the mat and made it impossible to rest all my legs on the ground. In fact, I can remember having problems with my heels because they were bearing much of the weight of my legs. That change signaled that there had been a shift in the tilt of my hips, along with a major realignment of the muscles descending from my core to my legs.
- Since I started in bad physical shape, I was trapped in a dead-end: I couldn’t boost my yoga practice because I did not have the strength or stamina to go full bore in a normal vinyasa class; I frequently sought relief in child’s pose. I didn’t want to force myself because I had injured myself before from over-efforting. I couldn’t fit some aerobic exercise at my fitness club because I did not have the spare time—and the time required for meditation went up each week. I ended up developing a routine in my workplace: every time, I needed to go to the restroom or take a break, I went to the basement and then climbed the nine flights of stairs up to my office cubicle. It only takes five minutes, but done 3-5 times a day, it allowed me to improve my strength. I also tried to do some of my desk work standing up, instead of sitting. These changes probably had a lot to do with my improved blood pressure and weight. But it was the 40-day renewal that made me focus on how fit I was. I couldn’t brush it off as something insignificant or passing.
- Because of the conditioning and injury issues, I had to think of myself as a beginner, but with the advantage that I had already learned the poses. I did not have to obsess about getting perfect alignment. I could just focus on being in the asana. I had less preference for which instructor was giving the class or at what level. I was adapting the rigors of the class to my own body’s needs.
- I avoided any pose that might injure me because I felt as if I was learning to handle my body all over again. My hips seemed especially problematic, which affect the stability of my spine and my balance. I did not go into binds, which are kind of icing on top of an asana or escalate a pose from its basic form to a more advanced variation.
- Coming back from injury or a long layoff gives a fresh perspective on the body and practice. I paid as much attention to where my body felt numb as I did to where I was fully aware. My proprioception has taken a major hit from my peripheral neuropathy. I found that some poses provoked numbness in my feet. It’s hard to single out which ones because I am usually moving through the sequence of a vinyasa when the numbness happens, and it usually dissipates with a little time. Indeed, restorative poses and hip stretches are the best medicine in the evening to relieve symptoms to let me sleep.
- I discovered far more flexibility than I had had: deeper forward folds, more space and movement between my shoulder girdle.
- The hardest part of the 40-day renewal was maintaining discipline in the meditation practice. It is so hard to be still in my own skin and life. And when I settle down in the evening for my transition routine, it’s so easy to slip into sleep so I doubt the quality of my meditation at that time.
- By the end of the renewal program, I was back to where I felt I could participate in a vinyasa class without undue distress. But it will take time and persistence to generate additional shifts in my well being because you can’t flip a switch to change the body or the mind.
Clarification: I did not want to let this post slip beyond the end of February. I’ve found it so hard to find time to write here, and I hate the thought of letting an entire month go by without an entry. Guilt is not the best motivator, but sometimes I just need a kick in the pants.
I decided that I wanted to pick up a challenge from a year ago, and use it to revitalize my yoga practice. But I did not count on the flu epidemic giving me a glancing blow.
Last year, I signed up for the 40-day Renew program at Thrive Yoga, and about 30 days into the effort I injured by my iliopsoas/hip flexors and I had to stop short of completing the whole program. The injury set off a long period of investigation, healing, recovery, restrengthening, re-injury and starting all over again. It seemed to stretch out over the whole year. I learned some lessons, and I had to recruit of whole team of specialists to deal with the specific condition, but other complications.
This time, I hope to tackle the 40-day renew challenge more mindfully, more aware of my body, less aggressively, less mechanically. I certainly need to improve my physical conditioning and stamina to embrace my yoga practice more wholeheartedly. This year, David and Susan Bowen signed up 18 people to go through the program, several of them for a second time, like me. We make a commitment to practice yoga six days a week (three times in class, at a minimum), meditate twice a day (starting at five minutes each teaching, increasing by five minutes each week), studying course materials, sharing our experience among ourselves and seeing how a focused practice can make a shift in our minds and bodies.
Last weekend, I started out taking a vinyasa class on Thursday, and then sat crosslegged for the 40-day renew orientation session. On the weekend, I took Susan Bowen’s 2/3 vinyasa class, which always challenges, and this time around she focused on the hips. I took a hatha class on Sunday. I felt sore and exhausted by the end of day.
Other forces intervene
On Wednesday evening, I reached home with the intention of going to class at Thrive, but I seemed to turn into a zombie, walking around the house pointlessly, trying to pull together my kit and get changed. I sat down and my wife put dinner in front of me and I ate, thus ruling out a yoga class immediately afterwards.
The next morning, I heard the alarm go off, turned it off a couple of times but could not get out of bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, with clear symptoms of exhaustion, muscle and joint pain and loss of appetite. I got out of bed the next day, but called off work again. Yesterday, I was feeling better. I had my flu vaccination in November so I guess I got an indirect hit from one of the flu strains, dodging the bullet of the worst flu symptoms, like a cough, a runny nose. It may have something completely different, a cold or virus. I may have been fighting it off for some time, and my defenses collapsed.
So today I went back to Thrive for a restorative yoga class, restarting my 40-day renew initiative even more modestly than I had planned. Carla Kasun starts off her class with a light hatha sequence to get the muscles warm. Within 20 minutes, I was gasping for air and had to seek relieve in child’s pose. I was flabbergast at how low the flu had laid me. Luckily, the second half of the session, I was flat on my back. I am going to have to be careful about how I stress my body during this 40 day renewal because I am starting from a low baseline.
I have kept up with my home practice, but scaled back and more inclined towards restorative poses and hip-openers. I also keep up with my pranayama and meditation, which I think may have mitigated my symptoms.
I have did not write a single entry in November so to alleviate my share I am going to date this one as November 30, even though I am writing it on December 12.
Since August, I’ve been attending yoga classes twice a week during my lunch hour at my workplace. Once a week, a long-time teacher comes in and delivers a briskly paced class in 45 minutes for $7 in a style that I can’t identify (we start out rolling the soles of our feet on tennis balls — I actually love that part). This workplace yoga has been going on for more than four or five years, but I never attended because it did not seem worth the effort for such a short class and I preferred to do my yoga in the evenings. But now, my evening routines are as unpredictable as my lunch hour so I decided to take the class as often as feasible (meetings frequently stretch into the 12:30 pm time slot). At least, I am getting some yoga practice in.
The setting is in a windowless room on the loading dock floor with a carpeted floor and mirrors on some walls. It’s chilly and austere, but it’s one of the few spaces in our building that’s available for non-work activities. Some mats, blocks and resistance bands are available. Other days they may have choir practice or dancing lessons.
My workplace is an international organization with a distinct Latin flavor, and not a hot bed for mind-body innovation. Our neighboring organizations (World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) put us to shame with the quality of their fitness facilities and the range of services provided. They’ve had Art of Living courses and meditation training (and probably more than that, but I don’t see their wellness schedules). Our nurse is lucky to get a meditation teacher to come in once or twice a year to give a chat.
There is a core of four or five regular students, and once in a while a new participant will show up to sample the session. The more veteran students take the lead on the non-teacher day. I’ve had a chance to contribute a couple of vinyasa sequences and it was a valuable lesson. I had to think and give instructions for each movement and posture while going the vinyasa myself. It’s interesting how some yoga sequences, like Sun Salutations, have become second nature, almost instinctive. Giving instructions is almost as if I came outside my body to observe what I was doing and to lead the class.
Just a short yoga practice during the day does so much to break the accumulation of stress in my body. I’ve started finding moments when I can take mini-yoga breaks, doing forward folds or simple arm and shoulder sequences.
Wouldn’t you know it — I write about going to yoga class at lunchtime at work, and then miss both classes this week because of noon meetings that overlapped with my class.
This morning I got up early and did a few sun salutations to get warmed up and limber and then sat for a short meditation. It had an amazing effect. After a night’s sleep, my mind seemed refreshed and reordered, and I seemed to fully inhabit my body, with the sensory system engaged and active. As I sat on my zafu, I felt several ideas bubble up from within — I took note of them and set them aside from after the practice, later in the day. I searched for the plumb line of my breathing and abiding there. When I released myself from the sitting, I seemed to step firmly and smoothly through the necessary actions to get me out the door and to my office.
I have rarely done a morning meditation/yoga practice, in part because I need my first cup of coffee to get going. Mornings are always rushed, muddled, and sleepy. But I may have been missing something. This morning, that something clicked and I felt a surge of energy and focus.
I’ve noticed that it’s getting a lot harder to fit in all the components of the 40-day challenge, especially the 20-minute meditation twice a day. It’s just harder to bite off that slice of time and block out all other activities until I come out of it. The 20-minute length is also pumping against the limits of my attention span.
The other issue is that I’ve found that I’ve been putting some tasks on the back-burner to meet my challenge targets. The first couple of weeks, I let things slide. Now I find that the backlog is demanding for my attention. And then, there are the unforeseen emergencies that throw everything out the window (too many of those have been happening recently) — but that precisely when I need a mindfulness practice.
I have not had much free time to post about my progress. That’s what happens when I focus on practicing yoga, pranayama, meditation and mindful living, all while holding down a 9-5 job and balancing family life. Some things get squeezed off the schedule. Or there just is not enough mental energy to sit down and digest the whole vinyasa of life. Rather than being something like a retreat (single-minded concentration) or a bootcamp, it’s more a question of consciously interweaving the yoga-plus with my daily routine.
Ice and fire
Last weekend, I did not take any classes. On Saturday, all class at Thrive Yoga were cancelled because we had our first snow/ice/slush/rain event of the winter and no one could make any plans overnight. Then, on Sunday, I went to class, but we got no further than the opening chants when we smelled burning plastic. Out in the hallway, a candle had somehow lit up some personal belongings that may have been hung too close (or fallen on the candle or whatever). Flames were climbing the walls, and smoke covered the ceiling. Fire alarms went off. Luckily, there were lots of blankets to throw on the fire and it was brought under control quickly. We hauled the smoldering debris outside. Susan and Dave got to explain to the Fire Department how it all happened. Ironically, a hook-and-ladder truck, plus an ambulance, a fire truck and assorted cops, arrived to deal with a fire in a lower level/basement of a strip mall. I decided to go to the gym to do some aerobic exercise. Thrive Yoga reopened later in the afternoon so there was no serious damage done. My yoga sessions that weekend were all at home, but I did get back to Thrive for a class on Monday evening.
It was unfortunate that I did not get to any classes over the weekend because I had had my first massage therapy session in over a month, and wanted to gauge how my body would respond on the mat. Howard Rontal had been traveling over the Holidays so we took a break, and I’ve cut back from once a week to twice a month. For the first session, we started working from the feet up, and made it up to my hamstrings. My tissues had tightened up substantially over the past month, despite my own attempts at self-massage, and we needed the full hour to peel away the superficial layers of tension. I am looking forward to combining the rigors of my 40-day challenge with bodywork. In my classes since the therapy, I can tell that there are some sharp contrast between muscles that I have habitually used (and overused) in my practice and more raw tissues that have been opened up by the therapy session.
More precisely, the second week is drawing to a close.
I missed yoga classes on Tuesday and today because of other commitments. But I did fit in a restorative practice on those evenings. The biggest revelation for me was seeing the accumulative payoff of regular practice. On Saturday, in Susan Bowen’s 2/3 vinyasa flow class, she had us do wheel pose five times. I was able to get up for each one. Even more surprising, I did not do a preliminary step of going from bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) to wheel supporting some weight on my head and then in full wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana). I did a bridge in which I made sure that my legs were doing all the work of sustaining the pose, my back was arched and then I placed my hands on the mat by my ears and pushed straight up. It was a smooth movement. In the past, the half-way head on the mat modification seemed to jam my neck into my shoulder girdle, making it much harder to push up into full wheel. I could feel the pressure on my spine.
I had seen this trick done by Sadie Nardini probably in a YouTube video. I had been able to do it a couple of times, but then my practice got completely disrupted and I lost the strength to push up. Doing it on Saturday just showed me that I had recovered enough to strength and improve my spinal flexibility to handle this power move into wheel.