I’ve been reading and thinking about a book that surprised me by its fresh perspective on yoga practice and yoga teaching. The book is Overcoming Trauma through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD (Boston: North Atlantic Books, 2012). The book should be required reading for anyone who plans to teach yoga, even if they are not going to specialize in yoga therapy or deal specifically with populations that undergone high levels of trauma (war veterans, sexual abuse victims, battered wives, etc.).
The credentials behind the book are impressive as well. It has two forwards, one by Peter A. Levine, PhD, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and a leading advocate for a somatic approach to healing trauma, and a second one by Stephen Cope, the head of the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living and an author of yoga-inspired books. The introduction is by Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center and one of the intellectual thinkers behind this approach to treating trauma through yoga. The lasting physical and psychological consequences of trauma is a growing field of investigation, theory and application. Certainly, the mangled bodies of veterans from two decades of American wars abroad and related stress have forced greater attention on this issue. But trauma is also present in child and sexual abuse, which are both widely prevalent in our society. Trauma can also be the result of neglect, of lack of human affection at the most formative stages of life.
While lamenting the distortions that my Kindle Fire HD has introduced in my reading habits, I did managed to finish a book this past week. In fact, I recommend that you buy a print copy because it comes with an audio CD that may be helpful in getting the knack for a breathing technique. The Healing Power of the Breath: Simple Techniques to Reduce Stress and Anxiety, Enhance Concentration, and Balance Your Emotionsby Doctors Richard P. Brown and Patricia L. Gerbarg (Shambhala, 2012) is a useful primer on why you should develop a breathing practice even if you are not into yoga. It reviews the scientific research on the use of breath work in improving resilience to stress as well as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and trauma-induced emotions and behaviors. Brown and Gerbarg recommend a simple technique that slows your breathing to five breaths per minute, combined with simple visualizations of moving energy along the spine or from the head to the soles of the feet. They call it Coherent Breathing, and it can be modified to resemble the ujjayi (Darth Vader) Resistance Breathing that most yoga practitioners already know. I’ve used the technique to slow my mind down before going to bed or while seated on a train or waiting in line.
The key is to slow down the pace, and that can be harder than you’d expect. For instance, with my sudarshankriya practice, the tendency is to speed up the pace and make it energizing. After working with the practice for a while, you’ll catch on to the pace and it will become second nature. The slower pace makes it easier to slip into a meditative mindset.
The CD contains a half dozen instructional takes on breathing techniques, and then it moves into a full 15-minute session, plus a short body scan.
More information is available on their website. There are also some audio files of radio interviews, podcasts and other material. Additional information can be found at Coherence, which goes into science behind the technique.
I’ve gotten into some bad habits, which has messed up my goal of being more relevant on this blog.
For Christmas, I got a Kindle Fire HD 7″, Dolby Audio, Dual-Band Wi-Fi, 16 GB and my reading habits started to scatter in all directions. Lots of impulse buying because I get immediate satisfaction (if I’m near WiFi; I did not buy the model with the wireless connection). I have not finished reading a book before I find another interesting literary detour. The Kindle Fire has a great color screen so it can handle magazine subscriptions and long reads from the web (sent via Evernote). This is a major improvement over my old Kindle 2, which was monochrome and optimized for pure text.
To make matters worse, I still have a weakness for print books, especially when I can get them at discount prices: I visit Bookcloseouts.com once a month to see what bargain books are available. Frequently, they are cheaper than Amazon (digital or hardcopy), even after adding shipping.
At least, I can be sure that the yoga-related books I buy will have a longer life span of usefulness than the shelves of computer books I bought for my daytime job.
Hitting the target
For the past three days, I’ve been reading Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body by Carol Horton (Facebook). I’ve always admired her blog, but it takes discipline and smarts to switch to an extended narrative for hundreds of pages. Bluntly, it’s the kind of yoga book that I would like to write: well-researched, thoughtful, curious, insightful, and compelling. She managed to hit my sweet spot for yoga books by combining the virtues of her own academic background with journalistic instincts and the first-hand experience of an evolving yogini that becomes immersed in the cultural waves that are cresting over us all. Once I read the Preface, I had to drop my rotation of books, and focus on Horton’s book. It’s not a book about proper alignment in asanas or the depths of yogic philosophy. It looks at the big picture of how we might understand the expansion of yoga in Western mainstream culture. I am not going to attempt a full review here and now (She got some good reviews of GoodReads.) because I want to read the whole book. But I did not want to let the initial flash of enthusiasm get by without laying down a marker and link (my scatter-shot mind has led to many incomplete blog entries, as well as abandoned books.)
I’ve also purchased a hard copy of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practicethat Horton and Roseanne Harvey edited, but have been carrying it around since December without making a dent in it (See what I mean about attention span). I know that I should read this collection of essays about postmodern yoga in (North — don’t forget the Canadians) American culture from 10 authors, but my frontal cortex fights my heart and soul. Horton should also be commended for self-publishing both this essay collection and her own book.
Finally, I am also motivated by selfish interests: in her bibliographic essay at the end of Yoga PH.D., she mentioned this blog as one of the online sources that fed into the process of reflection for the book. She must have been reading Prana Journal a couple of years ago, because I haven’t been doing much insightful writing lately. I was deeply touched when I read my inclusion in the list of influential blogs and it spurred me to pop off a blog entry.
So I will be reading Yoga PH.D. on my daily commute for the next few days, nodding when I agree, questioning if we should explore further in a particular direction and jotting down the stream of ideas that my reading stirs up.
Wow! One of my favorite yoga sites has just undergone a remodeling: The Magazine of Yoga has taken on a cleaner look, a more straight-forward organization and a splendid use of photos. I could never really understand what kind of site it was trying to be (but loved its content) because it shirked the standard chronological order that predominates on most sites and didn’t seem to fit any other mold. MoY also has undergone a reshuffle of its sections: Conversations get top play, for good reason, and a penchant for writerly kind of articles.
I must confess that over the past two months, I have not had time to dig into the MoY articles and interviews, which tend to be longer than most web articles, even running into two parts. I don’t have time at work to steal time for reading a long-ish article, and at home my time is occupied with other tasks. My parents’ deaths have really emptied my life of open, reflective space. I am lucky to squeeze in time for meditation.
My problem is that I’m running into more yoga sites that deserve more than a brief visit: Yoga Modern is enticing; Elephant Journal is just vibrating with life; I just discover YogAnonymous a few days ago; and Carol Horton/Books, actually a Facebook site, just knocks me back with its pace and depth (her longer pieces appear on Think Body Electric blog). I can barely find time to check my RSS feed, much less read everything on these sites. I don’t even think to go over to YogaJournal.
While we’re on the subject of Yoga Journal’s history, you can see the full archive at Google Books, with the last issue being December, 2008 and the Practice at Home Guide (2009). Truly amazing! I have not check each and every one, but there they are, with all their content and in full color (except early issues when it was black and white, plus a color cover). Is this legal?
Susan Maier-Moul over at The Magazine of Yoga has done it again! She has an conversation with David Gordon White, the professor of Religious Studies and author of multiple books on yoga and Hindu cultural history. In this chat, Susan and David zeroed in to the cult-like status that Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras have acquired:
By the 17th century the Yoga Sutra had disappeared from the Indian philosophical landscape. This also explains why Krishnamacharya couldn’t find a yoga expert for his own studies.
There is a second part of the conversation. This line of inquiry can be read together with the interview with Mark Singleton, the book review of Sinister Yogis and other pokes and jabs at the conventional wisdom on yoga. I think I am detecting a pattern here.
I had been debating in my mind whether I should add White to my list of required reading (his titles and subject matter did not hit my sweet spot), but I am beginning to see that one way or another I am going to have to get around to reading his work. Damn, too much reading, not enough writing!
Someone has put his book The Alchemical Body on Scribd, which might be a copyright violation, but it does provide low hanging fruit for getting a quick taste of White’s writing.
I should note that I read Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America on my netbook, having bought the book online at Amazon. While reading on a netbook is not as nice as on a Kindle or Nook, it is convenient since I carry it to and from work, and I can dump the heft of a book or two from my shoulder bag. It’s cheaper than a hard copy, and saves my book shelf space. And you get immediate gratification because it downloads straight to the netbook.
I will probably still buy physical books, but I’ll select those that really have to be in a print format, say color illustrations or large art work. There are still many books that are not available in electronic format. I’ve always had a psychological fixation on books, viewing them as the distilled essence of knowledge: By having the right library, I ensure my access to wisdom.
What comes through the book clearly is that most of our assumptions about how the brain functions are completely off the mark. We tend to equate our senses with modern-day devices: eyesight = television or movies; hearing = telephone; memory = computer hard disk. Actually, our brain really masks highly complex functions that have evolved and adapted over thousands of years. And each individual brain is itself a unique jumble of learned circuits and neurons created over a life time. Using a quirky simile, the human brain is like a World War II fighter that has been adapted for intergalactic missions: an ingenious, but still primitive contraption that has been transformed and utilized as a vehicle that had never been imaged when it was first created. The great discoveries of neuroscience over the past 20 years are showing that we are just beginning to understand how the mind works.
If there is one point that seekers should take away from the book, it is that mindfulness has a real role as a quality control on the human brain. The brain takes so many shortcuts to make sense of both the external and internal world and our place in them that it can easily jump to the wrong conclusion. To cite a single example: the human eye has a blind spot in the middle of the cornea and the brain fills in that blank space based on a series of logarithms, assumptions about how the real world exists. That’s one of the reasons for “looking straight at something and not seeing it.” By being fully present in the moment and exercising non-judgmental awareness, we have a chance to pause, see more truly and not fall into those snap judgments that can lead us astray.
In this book Medina has extracted some of these traits of the human brain and shown that they have a real impact on our lives and that we need to re-examine many of our base assumptions as applied to our productive lives.
I have cut back my subscription to the Washington Post to Friday/Sunday. The main reason I did it is that the only real time I have for reading is on the Metro, going to and from work. I can get through the whole paper on the two rides. Many times, however, I find myself leaving the paper at home because I want to do other things with that time. Some weeks, I find that the paper stacks up by my desk. Most of all, I want to read books. I have books stacked up all over the place. I could probably go for more than a year (or two) before having to get new books. On the other hand, as a former stringer for the Post, it’s hard for me to abandon a daily reading habit and the emotional bonds that have developed over the past 25 years.
I have started reading the book by John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Pear Press, 2009). I’ve had it for over six months. In short order, I am two-thirds of the way through. Medina is an entertaining writer, especially considering his academic background. I really like how he delivers a practical message to go along with the big picture. He published his Psychiatric Times column from on his blog and he has some interesting videos floating round YouTube if you prefer to capture information through audio-visual media. I am always surprised about how the conventional wisdom about our brains and mental processes are being thrown out the window by new science.