Tag Archives: reading

Taking stock of muscles and rot

“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.”

Photo: Ana Forest in yoga pose called scorpion forearms
Ana Forest in Scorpion forearms

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. 

Reminder about the myo-fascial sytem in the human body

I chanced across this reference, Fascia and Structural Integration with Robert Schleip, who is one of the leader in the expanding understanding of the myo-fascial system in the body, and the video:

Finally, an Australian blog and store that has lots of references to other resources. It all just reminds me that I have some much more to investigate about the mind-body connection.

I also found two resources to deal with yoga injuries: Yoga Injuries and Prevent Yoga Injury, all via the it’s all about yoga, baby blog of Roseanne Harvey. There is a book called The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas (TCIYA), which would be helpful to anyone trying to make the most of a yoga practice, avoiding the pitfalls and sharing its gifts with others.

Good news on the political front

Mindfulness turns into a policy option in Washington, thanks to Rep. Tim Ryan (D) from Ohio (and others), and there’s now a book to spread the word.

The Washington Post In meditative mindfulness, Rep. Tim Ryan sees a cure for many American ills:

For Ryan, the raisin was the beginning of a transformation. The retreat, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, led Ryan on a search into how the practice of mindfulness — sitting in silence, losing oneself in the present moment — could be a tonic for what ails the body politic.

The book is A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. Catchy title. Also see the Hays House description.


Yoga injuries, bodywork and a media controversy

I have refrained from commenting on the most controversial topic of yoga in America this year, but it’s time to break my silence.

I am referring to the William Broad’s article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body in the January 8 issue of New York Times Magazine. it’s a chapter from his book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (Simon and Schuster) which came out a few weeks later. It resulted in a massive wave of discussion, reaction, even hysteria about the possibility that you could hurt yourself doing yoga. For a representative sampling of the web writing on the topic, see Yoga Dork’s Guide. Really, she’s just scratching the surface. The reaction has been visceral because it also touches on how Americans do yoga, which gets into the evolution of a transplanted and transfigured discipline that started in India and ended up in Manhattan, Hollywood and Dupont Circle.

A personal digression

The short answer is “Yes, of course, you can hurt yourself practicing yoga.” I learned it the hard way when I tore my meniscus in 2008 and underwent surgery to repair the knee. More than the physical damage and the disruption to my practice, the injury shattered my own misplaced faith that yoga was a superior form of mind-body practice that could not harm me. I injured myself and I didn’t even feel it at the time. It was only the next day that the pain hit me. But what injured me was actually not the particular yoga pose that I did in an advanced Anusara workshop, but the patterns of use and abuse that I had locked into my tissues over decades of self-inflicted stress.

Luckily, I did not give up on yoga. As my practice slacked off last year because of the disruptions of my parents’ deaths and my own illness, the experience ended up convincing me that I needed to deepen my practice through increased awareness and self-discovery. It also convinced me that I had to enlist additional help to make sure that I did not harm myself. That’s why I have been treated by a massage therapist since August.

Back to the article

This blog entry got started because I came across an interview with Glenn Black, the veteran yoga instructor that Broad used in his article to wage a finger at the excesses of American yogis. Eden G. Fromberg: Yogi Glenn Black Responds to New York Times Article on Yoga:

EF: What is the best way to overcome injuries from yoga?

GGB: Remedial exercises that overcome the source of the injuries. And people need to get bodywork. Not just any bodywork. They need to look for people who work on really moving the joints and connective tissues.

Well, that just confirmed what I’ve come to comprehend after practicing yoga for nine years. Because my peripherial neuropathy and its repercussions (sleep deprivation, mainly) threatened my livelihood, I was prepared to spare no expense. I’ve been lucky because I can afford the luxury of doing both yoga and bodywork.

And the lesson that we can learn from the “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” controversy is that yoga matters in America. It’s reached a kind of critical mass in the American mainstream, and this discussion is about how it can contribute to Americans’  need for wholeness and wellbeing.

From vulnerability to authenticity through wholehearted living

I’ve run into a person who has changed my outlook on life, but I’ve never met her personally. Her book has deeply influenced how I view life.

Brené Brown is a psychologist/researcher who wrote the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden: 2010) and also has an sprawling website and her blog Ordinary Courage. She first came to my attention when I saw her TEDxHouston talk, which was recently picked by Huffington Post as one of the top 18 TED videos of 2011:

Her 20 minute talk hit some deep personal scars and led me to her site and then the book. While reading the book, I was undergoing all the problems with my peripheral neuropathy, and there was an amazing interplay between my myofascial release therapy and the central concepts of Brown’s book. On the masseuse’s table, I had to strip down to my boxers and bare myself to the therapist, communicate my pain and numbness, convey how one type of stroke was making me feel, and trust that he would be able address some of the constrictions of my tissues. I had to expose my physical vulnerability to be able to start healing.

Shame and numbness

On another level, I discovered from my reading of Brown’s book that I felt deep currents of shame and, indeed, shame may actually have been one of the strongest motivating forces in my life. Shame is a “fear of disconnection” that people might find out what I am really like. Shame is such a blunt instrument that I couldn’t use it all the time, but once it’s out, it’s hard to lock it away. One way of dealing with this sense of shame is to block it out by numbing it. Brown says you cannot numb just one emotion (in my case, shame), you end up blocking the whole emotional spectrum.

Although doctors might argue otherwise, my numbness was both emotional and physical, and the deaths of my parents and the disruption that those events brought to my life this year had worsened my peripheral neuropathy to the point that it was threatening my well-being. I was grasping so hard to to my personal facade that I was choking off parts of my body and soul. Taking pain medication was just another way of blocking out parts of my body, when I needed to get back in touch with them.

Brown’s book, which has the subtitle of “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” does a great job of breaking down her approach to dealing with life and accepting the vulnerability of being imperfect, and then lays out 10 guideposts that can help anyone follow her map.

Brown has a manifesto that I keep posted near my desk and stashed in my shoulder bag, and it’s available as a colorful postcard. I am going to cite it in full because it conveys her message better than I can:

Authenticity is a daily practice.

Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving — even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the job is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searchng struggles is how we invite grace, joy and gratitude into our lives.

2011 — the year of losing my grip

This past year has had some huge changes for me: the deaths of my father and mother in a four month lapse, my own attempt to play out my role as the “good son,” and the progressive deterioration of my well-being as I no longer could keep up with the “protocols” that maintained my persona (exercise, yoga, meditation, self-development, etc.). I was only partially aware of how these changes were affecting me, but they became concentrated in one symptom: my peripheral neuropathy and its manifestation of numbness, phantom pain (pin pricks in my feet that kept me at night) and sleep deprivation. This symptom distracted me from seeing the deeper “dis-ease” — I feared losing my hold on life’s moorings (as seen in my parents’  deaths), on my capacity to deal with life’s daily tasks and uncertainty, and on my condition as an adult who has to take full responsibility for his life.

This fear of losing my grip translated into a systemic physical trait — I held on ever more tightly through my myofascial tissues. I was the personification of being “uptight” —  stiff, constrained, and suffocating. My ligaments, fascia, tendons, muscles and other tissues were engaged to the maximum until I was strangling myself, to the point that large parts of my body was numb, unfeeling. There was a hidden lever in my head that was constantly winding me up, with minute twists to the gears, constantly engaged should some external force or internal flaw make the whole machine blow up under the pressure.

For years, I partially sensed this problem. That’s why I sought out yoga seven years ago. But this problem is so much bigger than starting an exercise regime, developing good work skills or changing eating habits because of a food allergy. That’s why I have put off writing about it here; just one entry is not going to cover it adequately.

A lighter touch

Since my diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy and the start of treatment with myofascial release therapy with Howard Rontal in August, I have begun a gradual process of releasing the tension, of letting go. My weekly therapy sessions were opportunities to explore the psycho-somatic nature of my condition and the mind-body connection. There was no promise of “curing the disease” but increasingly I saw the possibility of controlling my worst symptoms and even finding and developing a more relaxed state.

As of mid-December, my treatment with Howard has been suspended because of the Holidays and travel, so I’ve experimented with techniques that can help me self-soothe and self-heal (more on that in another blog entry). I’ve also made it back to yoga classes, put some time in at the gym and even done some jogging.

Mark Epstein has an insightful book, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, and that title captures my predicament. I read it four years ago, and only now realize its meaning. There comes a point when you have to let go and reside in the present moment, no matter what happens, no matter the consequences.

My personal motto goes up in flames

New York Times Falser Words Were Never Spoken: Brian Morton discovers that Gandhi did not say or write one of the most frequently cited phrases in yoga blogs, manifestos and marketing brochures for retreats and workshops, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

A useful reminder that you can’t trust everything you see on the Web, even though it sounds right. These catch phrases take on a life of their own. I’ve used that phrase right here in this blog, too, so I am just a guilty of this social shorthand.

Yoga in America – a personal story

One of the interesting aspects of Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010) is that each yoga practitioner has a chapter or episode in the book because we are characters in this story. We share the cultural experience and turn to yoga to resolve a personal issue, whether it be physical fitness, mental gymnastics or spiritual discovery.

Photo: yoga class
A wide-legged forward fold or Prasarita Padottanasana

Reading the first chapters, I was reminded of my own encounter with Thoreau, Emerson and their escape from the confines of conventional religious faith in America. In high school, I read Walden and selections of Emerson’s writing, but it was a hard read because as a teenager I was not able to understand all the true historical, social and cultural significance of the Transcendentalists. I was much more attune to local vibs of incense, prayer beads and peasant blouses and my own disconformity with US society than I was to Hindu philosophy.

I also had a real interest in Aldous Huxley and read a lot of his novels and philosophic works. I did not go into his interest in LSD and other hallucinogenics, but his sensitivity to alternative ways of  seeing appealed to me.  My reading of Huxley’s Ends and Means was central to my intellectual growth. Huxley and other British intellectual refugees, like Christopher Isherwoord and Gerald Heard, played a key role in giving yoga a foothold on the West Coast (Chapter 8: Uncovering Reality in Hollywood). Their presence also led into the next chapter, “Psychedelic Sages” — Timothy Leary, Ram Das and the other crazy men of the 196os.

I eventually had a glancing encounter with yoga after I graduated from college, in 1973. I told that story here: How yoga did NOT change my life. I think I actually went to my first yoga class in blue jeans. In any case, I did not get to explore yoga much more because I moved off to Peru a few months after that summer.

The next time that my life intersects with yoga is 30 years later  — in 2004 when I start looking for a way to deal with a series of physical and mental conditions. By then, the Syman story has practically ended, and I was just one of the 11 million (or whatever the figure was) Americans practicing yoga. I think what drew me to yoga was the increasing flow of scientific information about yoga’s health benefits.

Yoga in America

Graphic: Cover art of the book
Stefanie Syman wrote an ambitious book about 200 years of yoga in America

Writer Stefanie Syman has really bitten off a big chunk of history when she outlined her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010). Moreover, it deals with the cross-cultural meldings and misapprehensions of India and America along the fault lines that distinguish each country’s soulscape and other terrains.

That storyline arches from the Transcendentalists getting their cues about meditation third hand from English overlords of India (circa 1845), to the recent decades after the Woodstock generation lost faith in the its post-modern gurus like Muktananda (Siddha Yoga) and Prabhupada (Hare Krishnas).  Syman has succeeded in making it a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

There is too much material to limit my commentary to a single blog entry so I am going to stretch this out over several days. I bought the electronic version of the book from Amazon and am reading it on my netbook while riding the Metro to and from work. It saves me bulk in my shoulder bag. As an added bonus, I am linking to several sites that can expand perspective on Syman’s book.

Extra Credit

Publisher’s write-up
Interview in Elephant Journal
Interview in YogaDork with Stefanie’s list of recommended references on yoga
Feminist Review
Well and Good NYC review
Slate’s review: Why Americans Love Yoga

More to come soon. Enjoy.

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.