Tag Archives: Kelly McGonigal

Sf-based yoga instructor, Stanford psychologist, yoga therapist, author

I’ve got a daily yoga practice

Photo: a hand mudra during meditation
A classic hand mudra during meditation closes the energy circuits

I went to my first session at Thrive Yoga since last Friday, a vinyasa flow 2/3 that should have been beyond my reach because of my lack of practice. I could have panicked; instead, I let the yoga find me on the mat. If I felt winded, I went into child’s pose. If I wanted to keep my own pace, I did not let the lack of synchronization with the rest of the class throw me off. I paid attention to how a particular pose felt, what muscles were taxed and twitching, what was different from previous sessions. It was fine. I made it through the class and did not feel worse for the wear.

During the past week, my 9-to-5:30 job seemed to  stretch into a 9-to-6:30 because last-minute requests required extra time at the end of the day. So I don’t make it home in time for the 6:30 or 7:30 classes.

At least I have my yin/restorative routine in the evening, but that does not condition me for a vinyasa flow class. It keeps my muscles and fascia from shortening into my old habits of being a keyboard slave. I am more interested in learning to release my muscle tension that building muscle strength so I am not going to berate myself. I am more interested in monitoring my daily yoga practice, however modest it might be, to see how it changes than focusing on the peak performances that come from an advanced vinyasa class or master workshop.

That’s an important shift in perspective: I used to look to a formal yoga class and a trusted instructor to produce the substantive change in my condition as a yogi; now, I see daily practice as being the more powerful leverage point in altering the balance of my being.  I need my daily practice to feel at ease and sane. It’s taken six years, but I think the turning point came when I heard Kelly McGonigal give some advice in a Google Talk when asked what kind of yoga a novice should do at home: she said go for whatever your body is asking for, listen to your body. So in the evenings, I started to do the poses that my body seemed to be asking for. Kelly may have written this point in her book or made a point of  it in her online class five years ago and it never sank in.

Yoga for Pain Relief — what I read during the snow storm

Cover art of McGonigal's bookKelly McGonigal sent me a copy of her book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger Publications, 2009) and I’ve been sitting on it for nearly two months.

Kelly does not need another review of her book. Eighteen endorsements from yoga experts, health advocates, pain relief specialists, and scientific researchers are spread over four pages. Timothy McCall, the medical editor of Yoga Journal and author of Yoga as Medicine, wrote her foreword. She got a review from Yoga Journal in the March issue and also publishes an article on Surya Namaskar (Sun Salulation) in the same issue.

She has a blog, The Science of Will Power, on Psychology Today (looks like it comes out twice a month), as well as her personal blog, Science and Sutras. Also check out her Facebook page.

She’s giving seminars at the Omega Institute (New York). She’s quoted in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She’s starting to make appearances on TV.

As a psychologist at Stanford University, she’s uniquely positioned to see where yoga is interfacing with Western scientific investigation and medical practice, both in terms of theory and practice, at a time when neuroscience is redefining and re-dimensioning our understanding of the human mind. She’s also an accomplished yoga instructor and teacher of instructors, as well as the editor for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

Do we see a pattern developing here?

She definitely does not need another book review or endorsement from a blogger.

New Harbinger has produced an understated book format, looking similar to the scores of other “Yoga for …. [name your disease, symptom or preferred body part].” Clean design, large font size, gray scale photos. So what sets this book apart from all the stock in the self-help section?

Photo: deepening the twistOnce I started reading her book, it impressed me as an important blueprint for yoga in the United States. It’s a book that I would recommended to anyone who wants to understand what you can get from yoga/meditation. The book hits a kind of “sweat spot:” this is yoga’s entry point with the minimal initial physical investment, the lowest opportunity cost and the biggest pay-off. You don’t have to get in shape, build up your aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility before seeing results. You don’t even need to know what’s wrong with you for yoga to do you some good.

The book is extraordinarily accessible: No jargon, either from the Sanskrit or from the academic/scientific lingua franca, no intellectual arrogance, no magical incantation, no gateway to esoteric wisdom, no complicated sequences of poses. Within the first 25 pages (out of 183 pp), she’s giving you easy routines to start using what’s she teaching, in this case, observing your breath.

One of the things that Kelly said five years ago has stayed with me and she repeats it in the book: people seek out yoga because they are suffering, either physically, psychologically or spiritually. Human suffering is a great motivator and a constant of human existence. The book’s virtue is simplifying yoga down to a concise, clear message: Relieve your suffering; start with these easy steps. If Patanjali had written like Kelly, yoga would have taken over the world (kidding — a little).

Kelly also understands the value of personal narrative alongside the findings of randomized, blind control experiments, and she has included compelling stories of people impacted by yoga throughout the book.

I also appreciate her thoughtful listing of resources: meditation and yoga instruction books, audio/DVD, music for movement, meditation and relaxation, books for people with pain, non-profit organizations supporting people with pain, and organizations supporting research, education, and professional training in yoga and meditation. In addition, she has 50-item bibliography. If you poke around her blogs, personal website or her book site, you’ll find lots of pointers to central reference texts, scientific studies, resource centers and specialized knowledge hubs — stuff that she did not include in the book because they would have gotten in the way.

New yoga book comes highly recommended

Cover art of Kelly McGonigal's book— and I haven’t even read it yet. Kelly McGonigal has written a book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger Publications, 2009). Kelly is a health psychologist at Stanford University (and got the PhD to prove it) and teaches multiple classes on campus and in the San Francisco area, as well as workshops and teacher training. She is also the editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a peer-reviewed journal of research on yoga and meditation.

Why am I so sure that Kelly’s book would be worth reading? Because I took an online course on the question of “Can Yoga Really Change Your Life?” and I followed her career over the past six year. She was instrumental in steering me through the first year (maybe, more) of my yoga immersion. She came to yoga because of her own pain, helped others by becoming a teacher, applied the rigors of Western scientific methodology to yoga and finally shared her knowledge, skills and gifts by writing about yoga and editing others’ articles.

I’ll tell you more once I get my hands on the book.

Postscript: Kelly has contacted me and offered to send me the book.

You have to be in Down Dog to appreciate the humor

NYTimes.com Yoga Classes Play Up the Lighter Side opened the year with a chuckle about the use of laughter in the yoga studio:

“I do think there’s a trend toward lightening up in the yoga community,” said Kelly McGonigal, 31, the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (found at iayt.org). “Mostly around the rigidity and humorlessness of doing things ‘the one right way’ &emdash; always having to get better, feeling like every yoga practice has to be one big self-improvement project.”

I was struck by the lameness of some of the attempts at humor cited as examples of a trend in this article. I really had to search for some text to pull out in a quote. I suspect that the context gives more meaning to the words. The point about yoga being taken too seriously is right on target; I am guilty of it myself.

Yoga Peeps

I spent part of my lunch breaking listening to an audio interview with Cyndi Lee while I was filling out checks to pay the monthly bills. I really enjoyed the conversation. Cyndi brings a Buddhist vibe to yoga so she emphasizes meditation and life style. She’s involved in a lot of interesting projects in New York and around the world.

Lara Cestone, the founding spirit behind Yoga Peeps, really does a fantastic job bringing together lengthy (30-60 minutes, I think) interviews with yoga instructors around the United States and Canada. She has 19 episodes now, available as podcasts or mp3 files, with people like Ana Forest, Shiva Rea, and Kelly McGonigal, as well as lesser known instructors. Lara does this out of the goodness of her heart because there are no ads on the site and there does not seem to be a business model behind it.

12 months later

Throughout 2005, I participated in an online/e-mail course that was led by Kelly McGonigal. We were supposed on answer the question “Can yoga change your life?” Here’s my response:

Answering the question “Can yoga change your life?” is is a lot harder than I would have though 12 months ago — more complicated, more subtle, more covert. To answer it in one sitting is almost impossible since I have consciously chosen to nurture my silence as part of my practice. When I started the course, I was eager to lay out my experience for all to see. As my yoga experience has matured, deepened and broadened, I have become less concerned with writing about it explicitly.

This cure of silence is best summed up in my personal mantra — “let the yoga take care of it,” with “it” being whatever distraction, worry or whim is pulling me out of the present moment. That mantra sums up what has changed in my life in a year that seemed to swing me in opposite directions. At the worst moments (when I was literally in an employment limbo, not knowing if I was drawing a salary), I turned to my refuge in yoga, pranayama and meditation — and through my practice, I could return myself to a baseline of my intrinsic humanity, peace, and balance. By saying “Let the yoga take care of it” I recognize the hidden powers that I possess, and trust that I will eventually tap into them — or accept that the dynamic is beyond my control and that I just have to ride the moment.

Pattabhi Jois likes to say, “Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory.” He may have his percentages wrong — or they may vary at different stages of your practice’s maturity — but the underlying principle is true: You just have to show up on the mat with the intention of practicing honestly and genuinely. You don’t even have to try hard. I found that I acquire a whole new vista on my practice when I decided not to push my effort to the max, that I should focus on being aware of my body and my breath. The more I practice, the more I am rewarded in unexpected ways.

Paradoxically, my mantra “let the yoga take care of it” has the opposite effect. By releasing me from my preconceived mindset, I gained a sense of freedom and control over my body, my mind and my life. For almost all of my life, I’ve felt as if I was at the mercy of forces beyond my control — that I was at risk of doing something wrong and I was often beset by a sense of impending doom. This self-imposed stress accentuated my own predisposition to depression. Since I did not know that I was depressed, my sense of helplessness and despair was even more intense. I always seemed to be battling from behind, at a disadvantage.

Since I started with yoga, pranayama and meditation, I feel that now I have the physical, mental and spiritual tools that allow me to manage my life, that allows me to restore my balance. I still get into trouble when I forget that I have these tools at my disposal. But since I get to go to yoga classes, they bring me back to my refuge.

I feel at a loss to express what’s going on inside me, but I am going to take another year of the online course, this time dealing with the Yoga of Connection.

Vulnerability and Courage

As I was walking to yoga class last week, I found myself with tears welling up in my eyes. During savasana, I held back sobs. It was unsettling because I had gotten into yoga to strengthen my body and correct my bad posture. It was going to bring my life back into balance and give me inner peace.

I do sense that yoga is changing me in ways I had never imagined, but it is disturbing. I feel unexpectedly exposed, vulnerable, even raw. In our practice, we are constantly doing hip openers, heart openers, backbends that crack open the crusty exterior of our musculature, the hard shell that each of us has built up around me over the years.

I often wondered why there was all this military imagery in yoga — Warrior’s pose, Hero’s pose. It seemed odd for a discipline that was based on ahimsa — doing no harm. But it is clear that you really have to be brave, courageous to accept this sense of vulnerability and risk that comes out of a yoga practice. By opening up from within, we are exposing ourselves to the world around us in ways that we had avoided before. By opening up to the possibilities of inner change, we initiate a dynamic that breaks out of the hardened channels of our lives.

Post data: This posting was originally written for the Open Mind Open Body forum. My yoga mentor, Kelly McGonigal, pointed me to The Heart of the Bodhisattva by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, who describes the traits of the bodhisattva-warrior. [ MLS: The text is no longer available online.]

An encounter with pain

I went to a dental appointment in the morning; it was a follow-up to treatment that had been done last week. By the time the anesthetic started wearing off, my jaw was throbbing. The nerve endings must have been hypersensitive the second time around. The pain was distracting and made me feel like a zombie. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which is about using meditation and yoga to face pain. Of course, Kabat-Zinn is talking about chronic pain from serious illness, not just pain resulting from a dental visit. But pain is still pain, in the last count.

I decided to see if my yoga practice could help me. At lunch, I went to an available meeting room at work and shut the door. I did 15 minutes of pranayama and 30 minutes of meditation. It really did help me. The pain was still there but it seemed to shrink. It was no longer throbbing and radiating down my neck.

After work, I went to my evening yoga class. During warm up, I scanned my body and noticed that the pain had stiffened up the muscles in my neck and shoulders, even though the pain in my jaw was less severe that earlier in the day. By the end of the class, the tension had been released and I was drenched in sweat and energy.

And to top it off, I shared the class with my 27-year-old daughter. We had a light supper afterward, talking about yoga, football playoffs and life plans. Talk about feel good.

I originally wrote this account as part of my participation in the online course with Kelly McGonigal. It’s been quite enlightening and empowering. We’ll see how it plays out over the next 50 weeks.

Playing catchup

The holidays do not leave a lot of spare time. I have not gone to a yoga session since December 20. I have been doing my daily practice, but light on the hatha stuff. I have concentrated on my personal journaling over the past couple of weeks, and my blogging has taken a back seat. I’ve been digging deep and discovering a lot of things about myself that I had not realized before. Sorry, folks, but the writing is for my eyes only. This coming year I will be focused in on rekindling my creative writing, and I think yoga will play a key role in keeping me grounded and focused in this endeavor.

I have started the e-mail course from Kelly McGonigal. She advertised the course for 2005, all 52 weeks of it. To my surprise, the first contribution turned up in my inbox on December 26. I’ve checked out the material, registered in the online forum and posted my first note as well as my personal introduction. Kelly obviously wants to get a head-start on the new year.

My yoga intention for the new year

I was reading the Bulletin Board from eSutra (brought to you by the NYC’s Breathing Project) and saw an interesting idea: Kelly McGonigal is offering an e-mail based course called “Can Yoga Really Change My Life?” It will last all year and consist of weekly course content sent to you (by e-mail, naturally) and include:

“instructions for specific breathing exercises, meditations, or yoga poses, as well as more general themes for your personal practice. Practice suggestions integrate yoga philosophy and tradition with current  psychological and medical research. You will also receive ideas for applying your practice to daily life.”

I have cited Kelly’s website and her work often. She is associated with Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. I like her approach to yoga, and her involvement in Western scientific research in yoga.