Tag Archives: yoga

Pranayama Intensive: Sama Vritti

For the past five weeks (concluding last weekend) I was engaged in the Pranayama Intensive online class with Judith Hanson Lasater and Lizzie Lasater. Last summer I was a student in their Experiential Anatomy online class led by the highly talented teaching team of Judith, Lizzie, and Mary Richards. When the opportunity arose to participate in another class with them, I immediately jumped in. The class was intentionally offered at this time, when so many of us are sequestered in our homes as a result of the pandemic, making it for me an auspicious time to study the breath. When breathing is slowed and exhalations become longer, the slower, deeper breath calms the nervous system. 

Judith noted that Pranayama and Breathing are NOT the same thing. Pranayama is intentional control of one’s breath. Prana refers to energy, and yama is restraint. Taken together, pranayama is “working with the physics and energetics of breathing.” Within the yogic umbrella there are several types of controlled breathing patterns; the first one we explored was Sama Vritti.

But before we could practice, we had to set up the yoga mat with props to enhance the sensation of the practice. The photo just below is the suggested setup. I have tried this and did not find it sufficiently conducive to my practice so have made subtle changes. Pranayama ProppingIn place of the stair-stepped stacked blankets I used a soft bolster with a sweatshirt rolled at the front to fill in the space between my low back and the bolster. In place of a rounded bolster under the back of my knees I used a squishy bed pillow. And I prefer a small, soft pillow under my neck and head. Delightedly, the first time I practiced was on a lovely warm, sunny Saturday afternoon when our back deck beckoned. Propped next to my head was my iPad for playing the guided pranayama audio file. my setupSama means same, which appropriately is what the spell checker usually tries to change “sama” to each time the word is typed. Vritti refers to busyness and activity. Sama Vritti Pranayama is a balanced breath pattern, each inhale and each exhale being of equal duration, like a balanced seesaw. In this manner, the breath balances the busy mind. 

I have seen this breath referred to as Box or Square Breathing, though I prefer the Sanskrit flow of the words on my tongue, like the flow of my breath. I enjoyed 22 luscious minutes listening to Judith guide me in to the setup and practice, listening to the quiet as I breathed, listening to the silence in my mind, returning at the sound of the chimes and listening to Judith guide me out of the practice. 

I would like to write that my practice has been in earnest, taking the time every day to practice, be it five minutes or twenty. Alas, that has not been the case. Twice. That’s the total number of times I have practiced. Partially this is because I lead yoga practices online three times a week, and partially because I still have a day job. However, the day job concludes next week and it marks not only the end of a school year but my retirement from the world of school teaching and transitioning more fully to the world of yoga teaching, something for which I have been preparing for the past four years!

Gentle Edge

with PaulaReprinted from the original on my professional yoga site.


Starting Out – January 2016

That’s me on the first session of my 2016 Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). I registered for the six month training with the thought of improving my practice and had only a tiny thought that the training would become the groundwork for my teaching. At that time the very thought of teaching quite unnerved me – maybe you know that sensation – butterflies that do not settle, a digestive system that does not calm.

In the photo Paula, one of our three YTT teachers, is handing me a glass container with a candle inside and my name hand-written on the outside. The candle was a gift of welcome to light my way, a similar candle given to each student.

My entire training was an exercise in taking my practice and my journey to my gentle edge.

Take it to your gentle edge of expression – where any more would be too much, and any less would be too little.

This is a sentiment I have heard numerous times from various yoga teachers, and it always brings to mind Lev Vygotsky and his idea of ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development. In yoga the edge is “a place of neither too much nor too little stretch” and “unless you find your edge, there is no growth, no learning, and no change.” (Michael Lee, from Kripalu Yoga, A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat, chapter 4.)

Vygotsky believed that children could learn from watching and following adults, with the adult assisting the child to go beyond what the child was able to do on their own. This place, where the child has gone as far as possible on their own – their gentle edge – and was ready to go beyond, was the zone of proximal development. He felt that optimal learning experiences should take place in each child’s ZPD, with that zone being specific to each learner.

I have learned yoga through a combination of observing my teachers, following their cues, giving my teachers permission to make subtle changes in my postures, and practicing regularly. My teachers, especially in my 200-hour training, have taken me beyond what I could do on my own. They have helped me get to my gentle edge of expression and over time, with their assistance and my practice, the placement of that gentle edge has shifted. They have met me in my ZPD and guided me beyond.

Yoga and psychology, a gentle meshing of both.

graduation

 

My Mom’s Email Sign-Off: Metta

Periodically I will be reposting here, often with a few minor changes (or in this case, several additions), posts that I crafted for my professional yoga site, as some of those posts may have relevance for readers of this blog. This is one of those posts.


All blessings bright and beautiful

That is how my Mom would sign her emails to me, followed by Love.

When I began leading yoga practices my Mom’s sign off became my closing words along with an added sentiment – 

May all blessings bright and beautiful be yours, may you shine them inward to nourish and reflect them outward to share with those you meet.

My additional words change with each practice, as the moment takes hold, but always they reflect inner self-nourishment, and outward kindness and consideration for others.

Over the years the Buddhist tradition of a Metta practice has found its way to my awareness, either from reading books or having my yoga teachers explain and then guide such a practice. A little over a year ago, while reading Frank Ostaseski’s thought provoking “The Five Invitations,” I was struck by his mention of the first Sanskrit chant I ever learned: Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. (My review of this book is here and my reflection about the book is here.)

In English it translates to “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Ostaseski describes Metta as “a practice in which we consciously evoke a boundless warm-hearted feeling” and that by reciting this chant, or similar chants, “we gradually establish benevolence, friendliness, and love in our own hearts, and then we extend the wish for well-being and happiness to all beings in every direction.”

There are two interesting aspects of chanting that resonate with me. The first is that it is much easier to remember something if it is set to a melody, particularly if there is a repeatable rhythm. The second is that chanting can help to clear the mind and prepare it for relaxation or meditation. I wrote a bit about chanting in early 2011, and find it interesting that almost ten years later very few of my yoga teachers incorporate chanting into their classes. After typing that sentence a smile spread across my face with the realization that I, too, do not include chanting in the classes I teach!

EileenAndLaurieMy Mom was practicing Metta long before I ever understood that it was something, a practice, a way of being and thinking. Her closing words always resonated with me as a powerful and beautiful expression of love – love for self and love for others. I wonder if she was consciously practicing Metta or if the words just simply resonated with her, as well. Thanks Mom. 🙂

It’s Alwayz Now!

Circling back to a post from 2010, in December of 2018 I crafted my first blog post on my newly created professional yoga site. Since then, having written several more posts, I’ve opted to include them here as they are relevant to our always firing neurons.


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NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… NOW it’s now… It’s ALWAYZ now!

These accurate words were categorically stated in the December 14, 1986 Boston Sunday Globe comic strip, Rose is Rose. A young ice pop munching child asks for “Nudder ize bop pleez!” and his mother replies “No, you may not have another ice pop!” You might think the discussion is over, but being a typically concrete (and ice pop loving) child, her son asks, “Not EFFER?” and his mom comes back with “I don’t mean not EVER… I mean not NOW!” Of course, as you can see in the comic, the child has a reply.

Mom’s conclusion, as she and her son sit down to more ice pops: Your philosophy better not be rusty when you’re in charge of the ice pops!

This comic has graced our refrigerator, and more recently a wall, since 1986, when my father-in-law cut it out of the paper and sent it to us to commemorate our then two year old’s absolute love of ice pops.

It is always now. That is what yoga celebrates, to focus on the moment at hand. It is the only moment there is. Take a respite from what happened the moment before, and take a break from imagining the future. Breathe in a soothing inhale, breathe out a calm, slow exhale. Now be present in this moment and breathe again.

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Yoga Class as a Refuge

I recently watched Cyndi Lee in an archived  2017 online Yoga Alliance talk: Making Your Class a Refuge During Stressful Times. The title appealed to me partially because of how politics are unfolding in the U.S. and even more because I recently had a bit of stress around a reaction to a bee sting. (Little insect, big reaction, but the biggest reaction was to an antibiotic that was administered to make sure there was no blood infection. There wasn’t – yea – but my GI was terrifically unhappy with the medication.) I figured listening to the calming voice of Cyndi might prove a useful balm. (It did 🙂 and am relieved to say my GI has normalized after 11 malcontent days!)

While I didn’t glean new insights from Cyndi’s talk, there were plenty of reminders that I can never hear too often.  

  1. Think of yoga as a refuge for self-care, not an escape to avoid unpleasantness.
  2. Stay open and hold the space for everyone. Unless someone says something, there is no way to know what they are feeling or dealing with. So true, and not just during yoga!
  3. Trust the practice and lead with clarity, confidence and compassion.

Cyndi continued with four specific points.

  1. Create a safe and friendly haven. For the first two and a half years I shared poetry during practice and then let it slide. People enjoyed the poetry and often asked me to email them the poems. I have now recommitted to bring the poetry back! 
  2. Provide a quiet and spacious environment. I liked Cyndi’s distinction between “right speech” and “noble quiet” as she suggests finding the rhythm between the two. (I teach in a magical, calm space that looks out on a harbor.)
  3. Avoid stressors in the space. This relates to temperature, lighting, air quality and smells. I was reminded to add a line in my weekly email to wear layers for comfort.
  4. Keep up a personal practice. Yes! After a summer of almost daily swimming I have returned to morning yoga on my mat, WQXR playing in the background, my husband reading nearby. Ahhhhh…

I enjoyed Cyndi’s talk and was motivated to borrow Yoga Body, Buddha Mind from the library. Am enjoying her writing, finding it both calming and informative. A beauty of my yoga, both practicing and teaching, is I’m always learning.

 

Living Your Yoga

Last night I finished reading Judith Lasater’s Living Your Yoga – Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life. I found this book while doing research to satisfy my curiosity about her, as Lasater is teaching an online class (Experiential Anatomy) that interests me. I was hooked by the book and last night wrote this brief review on Goodreads:

While I rarely understood the translations of any given chapter’s opening Yoga Sutra or verse from the Bhagavad Gita, I completely understood Judith Hanson Lasater’s explanations. By illustrating each with a personal story she makes the teachings accessible and relatable.

I found myself wrapped up in the short chapters and Lasater’s writing, the combination which caused me to pause for introspection in a way that other, similar type books have rarely managed to do. I paused several times in the reading to jot down a quote or a thought that sprang to mind. Those notes, and my response to the book, are going to wind up in a blog post in the near future!

And THIS is the blog post. 🙂

THE FIRST POP
The first piece that struck a chord was from Spiritual Seeking, the first chapter. Lasater writes that “Suffering is caused by the emotional reaction we lay on top of our pain. By becoming aware of our emotions and thoughts about pain, their hold on us can be released and our suffering can be lessened.” This approach resonated partially because I have a high tolerance for physical pain, and also because I can recall numerous times either I or my children counted backwards while getting a shot.

Taking my mind off the thought of the pain that might come from the shot, and switching my concentration to counting backwards, proved to be a perfect antidote to the “getting” of the shot. It is now not unusual to be completely unaware of when the shot is actually given.

THE SECOND POP
In the third chapter, Letting Go, I immediately thought of when my Dad was living in a nursing home and dealing with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lasater talks about shifting perspective and opening yourself to seeing things the way they really are. With the help of yoga (I began my practice while caring for my Dad) I learned to truly appreciate the moments spent together without letting the sadness interfere with our visits. While yoga did not resolve or negate my sadness, yoga did help me make space for my sadness and at the same time hold space for spending positive time with my Dad in smiles and joy.

THE THIRD POP
During my 200 hour yoga teacher training Paula, one of our three teachers, shared this pithy approach to life: A good “no” is better than a bad “yes.” Imagine my head nodding in agreement upon reading Lasater’s words in Service, chapter sixteen: You can say no if that is more truthful than a resentful yes.

The idea here is that being of service, giving service, is all well and good and important, but not at the expense of the person giving. The caregiver needs to take care of themself in order to be truly able to care for another. So, too, with being of service as a volunteer. It is okay, indeed necessary, to sometimes say “no” or to take a break so as to recharge and not forget the joy in and reason for volunteering in the first place. Sometimes you need to relax and renew in order to sustain.

THE FOURTH POP
Early on, in chapter two on Discipline, Lasater provided thoughts related to practice. All those years of piano practicing as a child in order to “get better” and here are words of wisdom stating that while practicing can improve skills, the heart of practicing isn’t to “get better” but rather what you put into the practice in heart and soul.

Do what you can and do it fully.

Practice is not about what you get, it is about what you give.

thoughts

I do not utter any mantra with regularity or even occasionally. However, I do have these two sentiments on slips of paper, provided during two special yoga classes. I just happened to randomly chose each slip, and both sentiments were spot on for what I needed then and continue to need. These slips sit on the shelf above my bed; they are my welcome reminder to practice what they state.

They are reminders to be here now. While some of my musings on Lasater’s book may seem disjointed, the items that popped out serve as continued reminders to make space for what is and be in the moment.

Remembered Wellness

I have just completed reading Timeless Healing – The Power and Biology of Belief by Herbert Benson, the founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. This is the third book by Benson that I have read in the past month, and definitely the most compelling. About two-thirds through the book I took a break to read the Relaxation Response (also by him) and found that book and this one to be excellent complements to one another with each illuminating the other. If you opt to read one, I heartily recommend reading the other and within a short time period of one another.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – What it is

What drew me to this book was wanting to understand “remembered wellness”, which many of us might know as the “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is the belief a person has to heal based upon projecting “our intense desire for wellness onto the medicine we take” even if the medicine is just a sugar pill with no medicinal chemical ingredients. In addition, as Benson states “…all of us have the ability to “remember” the calm and confidence associated with health and happiness, but not just in an emotional or psychologically soothing way. This memory is also physical.” Hence, Dr Benson’s conclusion that the placebo effect should be renamed and thought of as “remembered wellness.” To me, the simple act of conjuring remembered wellness is more powerful than the thought of taking a pill called a placebo. As marketers know, there’s much to be said for how something is labeled!

In the late 1990s I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 breast cancer. I vividly recall the conversation with Dr Josephson, the breast surgeon who would operate on my left breast.

Me: Will I die.
Dr J: No.
Me: Will I lose my hair?
Dr J: No.
Me: Okay then, let’s do it!

It is important to know that up till that time I was generally a hard core optimist about most things in life, that I had a head of long, curly, thick red hair, and – most important -– I was the mother of 7 and 14 year old sons.

I didn’t give the conversation much thought again till recently, upon reading this book. Early in the book Dr Benson states what is necessary for remembered wellness:

THREE COMPONENTS OF REMEMBERED WELLNESS

  1. Belief and expectancy on the part of the patient
  2. Belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver
  3. Belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and the caregiver

As per my conversation with Dr Josephson each of those items would have a big checkmark next to them. And number 3 was surely impacted by my knowing Dr Josephson as the warm, funny, kind mother of one of my older son’s soccer teammates. (Heck, I knew she went to circus camp as an adult!)

None of this was a placebo – I did have surgery, I did have treatment in the form of radiation, and I did take medicine for five years. However, the surgery and my recovery went smoothly and, after reading Benson’s book, I am convinced that my desire for “remembered wellness” played a major positive part in the process. As the book title suggests, Dr Benson spends a large portion of the book discussing the importance of and science behind the impact of belief.

REMEMBERED WELLNESS – It’s opposite

Turns out there is the opposite side of remembered wellness, the “nocebo” effect. If the placebo effect results in a person believing the best about their treatment, the nocebo effect results in a person believing the worst about their treatment. And what the mind believes, the body does; the body responds to the beliefs we have.

Benson refers to Dr Arthur Barsky, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who “reminds us that paying attention to a symptom or problem amplifies it while distractions lessen our experience of it.” Barsky is quoted as stating “the mandate for self-discipline and self-control becomes so burdensome and so arduous that it begins to erode our sense of well-being and makes us feel increasingly insecure about [our] health.”

THE BIOLOGY

Regardless of whether a person believes in the placebo or the nocebo effect, in times of perceived stress the brain will cause specific hormones to be released. The hormones, in turn, cause physical responses within the body. The severity of those responses and how they are dealt with, using one or any combination of what Dr Benson refers to as the three-legged stool of medicine (Health and Well-Being is the seat supported by the three legs of Self-Care, Surgery and Procedures, and Pharmaceuticals) is influenced by the belief held by the individual. I found an interesting and information-packed TED Talk by Lissa Rankin from 2012, Is there scientific proof we can heal ourselves? that pulled together much of what I’ve been mulling over in Benson’s books.

Your thoughts and feelings about the daily experiences of your life both originate from and transmit signals to your body, neurologically and biochemically instructing and changing your health. [p 245]

RELAXATION RESPONSE and REMEMBERED WELLNESS

They seem to go hand-in-hand, these two, with the relaxation response preparing the mind – and hence, the body – for positive receptivity for remembered wellness.

We know that mental focusing techniques that elicit the relaxation response quiet the mind and the body to a more substantial degree and with greater speed than any other means. We know that the experience seems to clean the slate of the mind, making it more receptive and creative. And we know that the experience feels very spiritual to some people, and that spirituality agrees with them, producing better health. [p 213]

Spirituality is a highly personal feeling. People experience and seek out spirituality in their own way, in their own time, and to varying degrees. Spirituality is separate from  religious belief, though it can definitely be a major component of religious belief. It is not so much religious belief that impacts the magnitude of the impact of remembered wellness as it is simply a belief in something, in other words, some sort of spiritual belief.  For more about spirituality and health, visit the University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing website, which I found when doing a search for What Is Spirituality.

The Relaxation Response – part 2

My previous post introduced Dr. Herbert Benson and his work on the Relaxation Response. In particular, I wrote about the opposite of the Relaxation Response, the “fight or flight” response and its relationship to stress and how stress impacts the human body. Benson’s research illuminated what he termed the Relaxation Response, the body’s natural capacity to counter the stress response.

While both responses are inherent in our nervous system, the “fight or flight” response is involuntary, meaning it is automatically set into action by the brain, and the Relaxation Response needs to be consciously called upon.  RelaxationResponse.org lists the Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response. and you can also hear Dr Benson explain the steps in the video below.

What interests me about the Relaxation Response is how it relates to the practice of yoga. I have been practicing yoga since 2005 and teaching it since 2016, and have experienced as a yogi and a teacher how yoga can help calm the body, calm the mind, and set the circumstances for invoking the Relaxation Response. The reading I have been doing over the past two weeks (yippee for vacation!) has been to help me understand the underpinnings of why yoga can be a powerful entry to eliciting the Relaxation Response, and to guide my thinking as I plan and cue yoga practice for others.

Dr Benson begins by describing the ancient yogis and their meditation practices. As a scientist, Benson was not content to merely accept what history told him. He studied, measured and monitored monks practicing yoga in Asia (Hemis and Rumtek monasteries) as well as practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who came to Harvard asking to be studied because “they felt they could lower their blood pressure through” TM.

Benson’s research found that Yoga caused physiologic changes that elicited the Relaxation Response: decreased oxygen consumption, deceased respiratory rate, decreased heart rate, increased alpha waves, and decreased blood pressure in those with elevated blood pressure. [the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, pgs 74-75.] In his book the Relaxation Response, Benson explains

Yoga meditation is concentration on a single point – for example, a physical object or a thought. By dwelling upon an object one may cancel out all distractions that are associated with one’s everyday life and thus achieve a passive attitude.

In my years of practicing yoga it has not been the meditation, per se, that appealed to me. Rather, it has been the physical practice of yoga – the flowing through the asanas, or poses, while moving with my breath. This breath-guided movement has calmed my body and, with it, calmed my mind, and has likely and unknowingly caused me to invoke the Relaxation Response. For the majority of my early years of practicing yoga I was not tuned in to doing any form of conscious meditation, focusing instead on absorbing the asanas into muscle memory and refining them thru subsequent yoga explorations. Still, I did practice forms of silent sitting as my various teachers each guided breath explorations during silent sitting or lying down.

Now that I am a bit more seasoned as a practitioner and as I learn to be a teacher, I believe an initial benefit of yoga is to calm the body. This is akin to Step 3 of how to elicit the Relaxation Response:

Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. 

A good yoga practice is grounded in stretching, strengthening, and relieving tension in the body, the end result of which is often relaxed muscles. With that physical relaxation present, sitting to invoke the Relaxation Response becomes a natural next step, one that is often guided by yoga teachers as they cue breath explorations, and quiet or guided meditations toward the end of a practice. It is where I find the therapeutic benefits of yoga to truly kick in, and why yoga provided such solace for me when I initially began practicing and continues to nourish my psyche and, I hope, that of my students.

Arthritis

I woke up this past Monday morning with pain and swelling in my left wrist and by Tuesday, when it had not dissipated, it was time to have it checked out by a doctor. X-rays revealed mild radoiocarpal joint arthritis (also see this Cleveland Clinic article for a clear explanation of arthritis), which prompted me to see an orthopedist on Thursday. The end result is a left wrist splint cock-up and a 10-day prescription for 800mg of Motrin taken 2 times a day to mitigate the swelling and pain.

I am intrigued by this diagnosis as it is yet one more look into my body, and am not fully surprised because having turned 63 recently and knowing that my Aunt (my Mom’s sister) has arthritis, it is something that is not foreign to me. Age sometimes brings with it interesting challenges, plus I have been practicing yoga for over 12 years and a favorite pose has me balancing on my arms in an egg shape.

Thankfully, this appears to have been a mild occurrence, with my arm not currently in the splint as I type. By the end of this coming weekend, if not sooner, wearing the splint will have been  phased out. I am now only wearing it while at school due to teaching in a makerspace; the splint ensures that my left hand is not pressed into inappropriate use for the types of activities that cause the pain, mostly lifting or pushing if my hand is in a certain position.

So what does arthritis look like?

A trained eye can distinguish the arthritis as well as the mild tendonitis identified by the orthopedist. Arthritis occurs when there is an inflammation between the joints, a joint being the place where two bones come together. In a healthy joint cartilage allows for smooth movement between the bones at the joint. Tendonitis refers to inflammation of a tendon, tendons being fiber that attaches muscle to bone. Essentially, the arthritis and tendonitis together have sent a signal that something is amiss and should be tended to!

Being an avid yogi, practicing and also teaching, it is no surprise that yoga is also recommended for people with arthritis. (See these articles from Johns Hopkins and the Arthritis Foundation.) With that said, I suspect an errant move on my part while doing yoga may have exacerbated this instance! Nonetheless, there are two useful books for assisting people with arthritis thru the practice of yoga:

Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition!

A number of my posts have dealt with my foray into teaching yoga and facilitating movement for folks who are dealing with movement limitations, the normal process of aging, or changes in cognitive functioning due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. I have also mentioned Daniel Levitin, the author of This Is Your Brain On Music, related posts being available here.

I am delighted to share that yesterday part 1 of two posts furthering the above conversations has been posted on the SharpBrains blog. My post is Music as Therapy: Music, Movement, Cognition! I hope you’ll pop over to read it, and if you have any feedback, please feel free to share, especially if you have related experiences that we can all learn from. Thanks!