Saturday, November 27, 2010

Just Breathe + Blanks

This song has been speaking to me lately... it seems to perfectly embody the concept of aparigraha, or non-grasping.  Not to mention re-igniting my teenage crush on this amazing voice.   There is a lot going on here at the moment and slowly but surely it will be coming out here...  In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this beautiful song.

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.  You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." ~Eleanor Roosevelt

And for a few blanks, from a few weeks ago!

1.   The most spontaneous thing I've ever done was...  well, there was that time when two friends and I rented a car on the spur of the moment and drove up to spend the weekend a music festival in the countryside in Quebec.  It was pretty darn random, and very fun!

2.  The best gift I've ever received was... today.  And the day before that.  And the one before that.  And if I get tomorrow, well, I must be super lucky!  

3.  A time that I was truly and genuinely surprised was...   Drawing a complete blank here! Either that makes me a cynic or just forgetful.  Or maybe a bit of both!

4.  I can't leave the house without... my car keys?  And, at the moment, my favourite blue shoes!

5.  My favorite day of the week is      Sunday    because   it generally involves sleeping in, having a huge breakfast, and spending at least the first half of the day being completely lazy.  I love it!

6.  Something that can always make me laugh is   my cat.  She is awesome and falls asleep in the cutest positions!

7.  My perfect day would include... see 5., above! ;)  Add some time spent on or under the water and wrap it up with some cheese, wine, and good company and I think that would just about do it.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Guest Post: A Healing Story

This week's guest post is by Nikki, who blogs over at Live, Love, Yoga.  Check out her blog after reading here about the origins of a strong, creative and super-inspirational yogini and yoga teacher.  Thanks for sharing Nikki.

And remember, if you have a story about yoga and healing, please email me to contribute it to this series! lagitane at mac dot com


"Hello World!" was the first thing I programmed when I enrolled in my first 

computer science class in college that would later steer me to yoga.  As with so 
many people, I became a professional desk jock hovering over a computer 8-10 
hours a day. The high paying title of Software Engineer also came with high 
medical bills as I began to develop symptoms of carpel tunnel syndrome and 
suffered with repetitive muscle/strain injury in my right wrist for what felt 
like a very long time for 8 months of 2000.  The shooting pain that radiated 
from my neck straight down to my right arm and down my right leg would keep me 
up all night and transformed me into someone with crankiness, unmotivated, and 
self-doubt syndrome.  You might as well throw in depressed too since everything 
I did from simple tasks like pouring a pitcher of water aggravated the 
situation.   The solution my company gave me was to give me an ergonomic mouse, 
chair, wrist guards and told me to sit up straight.  The situation got worse as 
the tingling became non-stop.  I decided to go see a doctor and get x-rays.  
Good news was they didn't see anything wrong physically in my wrists so carpel 
tunnel was not physically evident yet.  You're fine they say and couldn't 
explain why I was in pain.   After I refused to agree that I was imagining my 
pain, they prescribed some physical therapy for me that involved massaging my 
forearms, ultrasound therapy, parafin wax and some wrist twirling exercises.  
These therapies relieved the pain for several hours but the pain would come 
right back regardless of what I was doing.  After 4 months of therapy, they 
basically gave up on me and said I was doing better and that I didn't need 
anymore therapy and told me to keep up my exercises.   So I did.  And so the 
pain continued.  Found myself a new doctor and he told me the same thing.  I was 
so sick of hearing these doctors tell me I was fine, when I wasn't feeling 
fine.  I decided to seek out alternative healing methods and saw an 
acupuncturist who treated my entire right side instead of just my wrist and 
forearms.  The acupuncture was a slower method of healing, but after many 
sessions, I began to feel the effects.  

One day, my coworker invited me to a yoga class they had just started at 
noontime at work.   I went.  It was the utmost unpleasant and pleasant 
experience all together.  My first down dog was hell!  Who would want to stick 
their behinds up in the air and put so much strain on the wrist?  I stayed and 
suffered for the hour.  At the end, I left hating and loving yoga all at the 
same time.  At that time, I couldn't remember when the last time I truly relaxed 
and slept like I did in savasana.  I decided to come back and thought the 
suffering in down dog was well worth the "high" I felt after class. 

After doing yoga for several months, I was rewarded with days of no repetitive 
muscle strain.  I became aware of when the symptoms were going to flare and 
would do yoga to counteract it and eventually I was able to heal myself 

This is when my yoga practice would become a distant memory until I became 
pregnant with my first child.  The aches and pains of pregnancy sent me back to 
yoga.  The breathing techniques I learned in yoga helped me during child birth 
when I decided that "hee haw hee haw hee haw" was a breath that should be used 
when I play farm animals with my new baby.  Yoga was there for me during 
postpartum and I gained my strength and body back within a month.  Yoga was 
there for me during my 2nd pregnancy and I barely remembered the 2 hour labor 
that flashed by.

I eventually left my career as a high techy and am now teaching yoga.  I still 
get the pains every now and then for no apparent reason that would drive me 
insane.   It was not until I completed my level 2 teacher training that 
challenged me to look at myself on a more deeper and wholesome level.  I went 
through my life with a fine tooth comb and questioned everything I did.  I 
thought I was prescribing to what I thought was "healthy."  I exercised, 
meditated, and ate what I thought was healthy.   It was not until I met a 
nutritionist who intriqued me with his unconventional way of thinking.  He 
introduced me to metabolic typing nutrition where I should only eat what my body 
needs chemically (i.e. how my body metabolizes).  So after ten years of enduring 
and trying to combat my muscle pains, I healed myself completely and found the 
exact cause of my pains within two weeks of being on a metabolic nutrition 
plan.  I discovered that certain foods were causing muscle inflammation at the 
site of an old injury.  

Yoga has taken me on a journey of self discovery on all possible levels of 
humaness in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms.   At each stage of my 
experience, I learned how to tap into the power of my intuition and sharpen my 
eye of awareness.  Yoga has taught me how to look at my myself as a whole and 
not just the nagging  pain I often associated myself with. I've learned how to 
converse with the sensations in my body and listen to what they are telling 
me...granted all this is a work in progress and will continue to be as the 
present moment is always recreated.   I love yoga and now when I wake up each 
morning, the first thing I think is "Hello World!" with much gratitude and 
enthusiasm. I could go on and on about what yoga has done to transform me but it 
wouldn't mean a thing if you didn't experience it for yourself.  


Readers, have you experienced yoga or physiotherapy on an injury?  What were the results?  Have you ever been in a situation where you tried alternative and modern medicine?  How did they compare? 

As always I would love to hear your voices in the comments! :)  Namaste.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The cracks in everything

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." - Leonard Cohen

This quote has been making the rounds lately, and it hasn't gone unnoticed by me.  The ever-inspiring Marianne Elliott blogged about it here, and it has been sticking in my brain since then.

Here's the thing.  The only thing that never changes is that everything changes.  (My 10th grade English teacher would be so proud!)  But as with all transformation, life doesn't happen in clean, straight lines.  Things change rapidly for a while, and then plateau.  (Nothing on top but a bucket and a mop...)

On the plateau, the ground is firm beneath you.  The world solidifies, and everything goes along as normal.  Days, weeks, months, years.  And then suddenly, something changes, and the cracks start to appear.  Everything we thought we could hold on to subtly shifts, and we have to adapt, or fall through the cracks.

The practice of yoga can help us to learn, by observation, how we personally react to change or challenge.  As you strain to keep your breath steady in a Warrior sequence, or as you struggle to stay sane in Reclining Pigeon pose, you are learning about how your body and your mind react to tough situations.  Whether you lash out, or curl inwards.  Whether you view transformation as doors closing or doors opening.  Whether you steam forth without looking or creep cautiously into unknown waters.

Experience gives us hope, for in the end, when the Earth has settled down and you find yourself on a new plateau, the Universe re-balances itself.  You find equilibrium in new circumstances.  Where only cracks stood before, light shines through.

Readers, what have you learned about how you react to change or challenge?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pranayama and Pain Relief: A guest post

This is the first installment in a series of guest posts about Yoga and Healing.  Stay tuned for more - and if you have a story to contribute, please get in touch with me: lagitane at mac dot com. ;)

Today's post is special because it looks at how modern science is validating knowledge that both ancient and modern yogis have discovered through their experiences.  And even better, it's presented by a *real* scientist! :)

John Fossella PhD is a former neuroscience & genetics scientist who, in May of 2010, decided to stay at home and raise his 2 children.  He also started a yoga practice @ Alluem Yoga in Cranford, NJ and so now is just slowly starting to realize the physical and mental benefits of yoga.  In the midst of practice, practice and more practice, he wonders just how – in terms of physiological and brain systems – the gradual transformation of the body and mind occurs (or in his case, will hopefully occur) and how the modern scientific view relates to ancient yogic medicine and philosophy.  He is blessed to be able to share his practice with his 2 boys who are enrolled in the kids yoga program @ Alluem. 

He blogs about his experiences with the practice of yoga over at Sutra Science, and about genetics and self-discovery at Genes to Brains to Mind to Me.

Pranayama destroys all pain and sorrow

In Chapter 8 of B. K. S. Iyengar's Light on Pranayama, he quotes the Bhagavad Gita (VI 17) saying, "Yoga destroys all pain and sorrow". Nice! and this is just one of dozens of poetic and inspiring sentiments that are woven into the otherwise detailed and rigorous methods described by Iyengar for the training of the lungs, diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Although I know the training is extensive and will surely take many years to master, I can't help wonder how much pain and sorrow, realistically, might be alleviated by the mastery of something as basic as - you know - breathing?
How might this work? I mean, pain is something that happens in your body and in your mind. How might mastery of deep and controlled breathing alleviate pain?
It turns out that there is a scientific research journal - Pain - that is dedicated to these types of questions. A recent article, "The effects of slow breathing on affective responses to pain stimuli: An experimental study" [doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.10.001] by Alex Zautra and colleagues investigates the role of breathing in relief from chronic pain. The authors base their research on a specific neuroanatomical model of emotion and pain regulation:
The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion proposes that the left forebrain is associated predominantly with parasympathetic activity, and thus with nourishment, safety, positive affect, approach (appetitive) behavior, and group-oriented (affiliative) emotions, while the right forebrain is associated predominantly with sympathetic activity, and thus with arousal, danger, negative affect, withdrawal (aversive) behavior, and individual-oriented (survival) emotions. ... The homeostatic neuroanatomical model of emotion suggests that central sensitization of pain in FM patients results in part from a relative deficit of activity in the parasympathetic branch of the ANS required for down-regulation of negative emotion and pain experience.
In basic terms, the researchers suggest that if one can increase activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, then one will experience relief from pain. So they want to evaluate whether deep breathing increases activity of the parasympathetic nervous system? In Chapter 4 of Light on Pranayama (Pranayama and the Respiratory System), Iyengar provides many detailed anatomical drawings of the musculature, skeletal and neural machinery related to breathing, but unfortunately no details on the role of parasympathetic vs. sympathetic nervous systems per se. The authors however, point to a previous study that showed slow breathing increases activation of bronchiopulmonary vagal afferents and produces enhanced heart rate variability, which reflects increased parasympathetic tone - so the scientific evidence points in the right direction.
To test the notion themselves, the investigators asked a group of healthy adult females to wear a small thermal device on the thumb that could be heated and cooled to produce varying levels of moderate discomfort (pain). By asking the volunteers to experience the thermal discomfort when breathing normally vs. breathing in a slower, deeper manner, the investigators could begin to assess whether the experience of pain (a self-reported value between 1 and 11) was different between the two breathing conditions.
The results showed that the volunteers self-reported less pain (given the same amount of thermal stimulation) when performing deep, slow breathing.
Very neat. Perhaps not a surprise to yogis 3,000 years ago nor experienced yogis today, but very exciting to see how the practice of Pranayama can engage a neuroanatomical system for the relief of suffering. In a previous post on the neural stimulation of this system - and its relation to Kundalini - it has become even more clear how potent this system can be!
Readers, have you ever experienced the effect John talks about, where slow, deep breathing can actually help relieve your pain? What is your experience with Yoga and pain relief?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Reversing the Triangle

Parvritta Trikonasana - reverse triangle pose.  Are you one of many who shudder at the thought of this asana?  Reverse triangle is the second standing pose (after the sun salutations) in the Ashtanga primary series, so many ashtangis would consider it one of the basic postures.  Yet students and teachers alike shy away from it - and no wonder.  Parvritta trikonasana stretches the hamstrings, opens the hips and twists out the middle of your back.  The result is an intense - but intensely satisfying - stretch.

PT really came together for me when I worked it with an Iyengar-style instructor.  Getting the alignment spot on and breaking down the pose into parts made this previously precarious posture suddenly much more accessible to me - and maybe it could do the same for you! So if you're game, grab a yoga mat, a block (a thick book will do), warm up with a few rounds of sun salutations, and get your om on!

Parvritta Trikonasana 

Start with the foundation: your feet!  From standing, take a step back with one leg (start with the left leg, usually, but we'll have the right leg back in this case so it matches the photos!).  Place your back heel on the mat and turn the toes in so they angle forwards as much as possible.

Now, check your alignment.  While some people say that the heel of the front foot should line up with the arch of your back foot, I prefer to have the heels in line at a minimum.  Now try to square your hips towards the front.  If you can't comfortably do this, walk the forward foot outwards a bit to give yourself a bit more room.

Done? Bring your left hand to your waist and stretch the right arm up.  Take 3 breaths here, extending the spine from the waistline up.

Now take a forward bend, grounding through the back heel and lengthening the spine to slowly bring the right hand to the floor inside or outside the right foot.  If you can't reach, use a block as shown a few pictures below.  Stay here for 3 breaths.  Make sure to keep a slight bend in the left knee so as not to overextend the hamstring.

After 3 breaths, bring your left palm to your lower back.  Begin to rotate the torso, lifting the left elbow up to the sky and eventually looking up over your left shoulder.  Now breathe, and maintain the length in your spine by drawing your chin away from your chest while strongly extending through the back heel.

Et voila! For all purposes of alignment, you're already in the pose!  Breathe here, lengthening and twisting.  Push the floor or the block away with your right hand and if you want to add a bit of flourish, extend the left arm straight up towards the cieling, finding the full expression of parvritta trikonasana.

What are your experiences with this pose?  Teachers, how do you include parvritta trikonasana in your sequencing?

Monday, November 1, 2010

In pictures: where has culture gone?

Last week I went to a cultural festival at the base of East Timor's highest mountain, Ramelau.  The purpose of this amazing gathering was to provide an opportunity for young people from Timor-Leste's 13 diverse districts to come together and showcase their culture.  It was a great celebration of Timorese tradition and an opportunity for young people to meet and interact in a way that wouldn't ordinarily be possible.

While day-to-day these young people live in the modern world of jeans, t-shirts, cell phones and mp3 players, their cultural identity is obviously alive and well.  It was great to see youth celebrating their tradition so proudly, through the creative means of music and dance.

It was a real festival atmosphere!
Young people from all over the country gathered to show off their talent & traditions
A professional dance troupe combines traditional and modern elements in a celebration of Timorese identity
A woman wears her traditional hand woven (!!) cloth and a bell bracelet.

It made me wistful in many ways for my own lost cultural heritage.  What were the dances my ancestors performed to mark the passage of time or special occasions?  What were the words they sang, what did they wear?  My heritage is mostly British, Scottish and Welsh, yet none of those traditions were passed on down to me.  I guess in the New World people made new traditions - but where have those gone?  Apart from my tendency to don a cowboy hat when embarking on an adventure, I can't really say that I have carried any of those traditions, either.

I feel that in the Western world, many of us feel the emptiness of this cultural vaccum.  We grasp at spiritual traditions from the past, including goddess-worship, paganism, and yes, yoga, we try to create new traditions that we feel reflect our values more than our modern commercialized holidays.  These traditions are no longer celebrated on a communal level, but built in isolation around our nuclear-family model.

So much we have lost along the way...  I wish this country luck and strength in preserving their amazing cultural identity.  What are your cultural or family traditions?