Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Putting yourself first

Photo credit: spaceodissey/ Flickr Creative Commons
I think in our culture, we often believe that putting ourselves first is selfish, egotistical, wrong. This in spite of a lot of big talk about "looking out for number one." (Talk which is usually problematic in other ways, but I don't want to go there right now.) We give so little respect and value to our own needs, our own lives. We put the needs of our loved ones before our own, and we put the needs of our jobs: the needs of our superiors, our subordinates, our peers and our clients before our own. Maybe we realize that this is not working, and we try to put aside a portion of each day for self-care, or we try to assert our right to say no.

I've been thinking about this a lot because I've been on a journey, the last two years, of learning to say yes to myself. Like so many things, it's a little easier said than done. The how and when to put your own needs first is difficult. It's not that you want to ignore the needs of others. It's just that you need to be well and balanced yourself in order to truly give and support the others around you. Too few of us in this culture are well and balanced these days, in my opinion. I know this because when I meet someone who is, that person stands out.

I wanted to pass on a teaching from one of my teachers, Susan Marcus. (Susan has so much wisdom to share, and I'm excited to see her own studio, Studio Peace, coming into being. Check it out.) Last week in class, it seemed like everyone was hurting in one way or another. Susan took the opportunity to talk about how injury reminds us that we need to respect and care for our bodies. Then she said, "I often think that if everyone took care of themselves the way women do when they're pregnant, how much healthier we'd all be. Just think about what would happen if we all took as much responsibility for our own lives in our bodies as we do when we have another life within us."

I'm at the age where a large percentage of my friends are either pregnant or have just had a baby, so I've seen it happen. Women get pregnant, and they stop drinking so much coffee. They stop drinking alcohol and/or smoking. They start eating their fruits and vegetables, they take their supplements, and they start drinking enough water. They work less overtime and they're dedicated to making time for their yoga class.

Why are we willing to make profound life changes to protect the life of our child, but we are not willing to make the same changes to protect the body - the one and only body - we were given in this life? Why are we not willing to make those same changes for ourselves, when they improve our happiness and our sense of well-being? I'm saying "we" here because I'm just as guilty as the next person. Stop drinking coffee?

So I've been playing with this idea a little bit. There's this spark of divinity in this body. This body is all it has. How can I care for it? It makes it a little easier not to make excuses, a little easier to step onto my mat every day and eat my veggies and drink water and meditate. The life within me. The light within me. Ahimsa applies to me, too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Reflections of our true nature

Photo credit: Bryan Ray (black_listed/ Flickr Creative Commons)
"While we practice conscious breathing, our thinking will slow down, and we can give ourselves a real rest. Most of the time, we think too much, and mindful breathing helps us to be calm, relaxed and peaceful. It helps us stop thinking so much and stop being possessed by sorrows of the past and worries about the future. It enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment."
- "Peace is Every Step" by Thich Nhat Hanh

As I mentioned in a post last month, I've been following Tricycle Magazine's Commit to Sit challenge for the past 27 days. As it draws to a close, I've been reflecting on the experience. I did my full-day meditation challenge yesterday and am finishing the experience with two days of the regular Week 4 program. The full day of meditation was... well, challenging for me. I've never meditated for longer than an hour at a time before. The experience ranged from pain, frustration and self-hatred to bliss, gratitude and insight. Towards the end of the second two-hour block, I rose to do walking meditation and I felt like I was gliding through each step in pure awareness.

In that moment, I had a new understanding of the ethical components of yogic and Buddhist practice. During the Commit to Sit program, I committed to the Five Precepts as best I could. These practices were familiar to me as they share a lot in common with the five yamas of yoga. I've always struggled to follow the yamas, feeling some of them were almost unattainable. The yamas are often translated as "restraints" or "abstinences" or even commandments or "thou shalt nots" (ugh!). I recently encountered an alternate translation in Nischala Joy Devi's The Secret Power of Yoga book, which is subtitled A woman's guide to the heart and spirit of the Yoga Sutras. Whether or not you agree that a heart-centered perspective is a purely feminine construct, it is interesting to read this refreshing and positive take on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras text.

Many traditional translations of this part of the sutras (II29-39) think about the yamas as restrictions to our behavior towards others (ahimsa = non-violence or non-harming; satya = truthfulness; asteya = non-stealing; brahmacharya = well, we can't agree on a translation for this one because we're afraid it might mean no sex! but commonly continence, sense-control, celibacy, or the like; aparigraha = non-hoarding, non-stealing, non-greed). Nischala Devi has a different take (p.p. 168-169):
"Often, to simplify the enormous breadth and depth of the Yamas and Niyamas, they are called the "Do's and Don'ts of Yoga" [sic] or sometimes the "Ten Commandments of Yoga." This is taking a highly refined and virtuous way of living expressed throughout the millennia and reducing it to a finger-shaking image... When observed on a subtler level, the Yamas and Niyamas seem to be more of a tribute to being, affirming our already Divine nature..."

"Knowing the importance of repeating a statement in the affirmative, I have chosen to translate (as much as I possibly could) using positive, life-affirming language... When words or phrases evoke fear, punishment, or denial of pleasure, they encroach on our spiritual practices and diminish rather than enhance the glory of our true nature."
 Her translation of the yamas (reflections of our true nature) is:
  1. Ahimsa: reverence, love, compassion for all
  2. Satya: truthfulness, integrity
  3. Astheya: generosity, honesty
  4. Brahmacharya: balance and moderation of the vital life force
  5. Aparigraha: awareness of abundance, fulfillment.
Doesn't that feel different?

Anyway, whatever translation you use, it seems clear enough that it's desirable to achieve compassion and reverence for all life, integrity, generosity, and a sense of fulfillment. But then you're going about your day and you yell at the driver in front of you, and then you gossip about someone at work, and then you decide not to share part of your lunch with a coworker who doesn't have any because you want it all for yourself.

So, how in the world do you achieve this stuff? What occurred to me yesterday in meditation is maybe you just slow down. We go through our lives so fast, we can barely see them happening to us, just like we walk so fast, we can't feel how our body is moving through the steps. Maybe you just slow down enough that you can see and feel what is happening. In that walking meditation yesterday, I felt that, at my core, I was calm and peaceful. Each step was smooth and steady and careful. From that place, I think the yamas would arise naturally and with ease. "Reflections of our true nature."

I know that this isn't a new concept, but experiencing it the way I did was new to me. Of course, slowing down that much is easier said than done. But it's a start. It's a piece of the puzzle, something concrete to move towards. It sounds easier than just love everyone and everything. I'll give it a try.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chain reaction: Continuing to focus back

Photo credit: Soham Basoham (soham_pablo/ Flickr Creative Commons)
I have a confession to make.  For the first time in my life, I've had terrible back pain since some time last month. As a yogi, I couldn't help thinking This shouldn't be happening to me. I kept hoping it would just stop, but it didn't. In fact, as you might have guessed, it got worse until it was really affecting my quality of life and severely impeding my ability to sit in meditation. I couldn't figure out what was triggering it. I'd been traveling a lot during December and the first part of January, and the pain started some time after I returned home. I feared it was my return to running after taking some time off, or maybe it was my bed? I did more yoga, hoping I could work out the kinks, but my back continued to get worse. I deepened my inquiry into the back body. And then, I wrote my last blog post.

After reading my post, Kit Spahr, who blogs at Sometimes It's Art, wrote to tell me she's been engaged in a similar exploration of the back body. She turned me on to this post by Katy Bowman. I tried the suggested exercise and discovered, of course, that I'm a rib thruster. Katy provides some useful tips for correcting this alignment problem, and I started to consider these.

Then I started catching up on my Yoga Journals that had come around the holidays when I'd been too busy to read them. In the December 2010 magazine, the Anatomy column is by Roger Cole and is called "Easy Seat" (unfortunately not available online, but if you have the magazine, it starts on pg. 75). Cole talks about contracting the lower erector spinae muscles to correct misalignment and eliminate back pain in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). When I read it, I had a sudden realization. Far from keeping my back healthy, my yoga was causing my back pain - and it had been exacerbated to its current level by poor alignment in seated meditation during my Commit to Sit program.

The next time I sat, I was able to follow the whole chain reaction in my spine. My hamstrings are tight from running, so it's hard for me to achieve the correct pelvic position in a crosslegged seated position (the top of my pelvis is tilted back). I've been adjusting for this by sitting up on blankets or a meditation cushion, which allows me me to tilt my pelvic into a neutral position, but it takes effort to hold it there so as I focus on relaxation or on the breath, I tend to slip and round the lower back again.

Very often in yoga class, an instruction is given in a crosslegged seated pose to "roll the shoulders up, back, and down." When I was less flexible in the upper body, this had the intended result of opening my chest and relaxing the shoulders down, but as my chest, back and shoulders became more flexible and my shoulder blades became more mobile, I began performing this action by thrusting my thoracic spine far forward and pushing the shoulder blades deep into the back.

Another common instruction is to "lift the chest/ sternum" (I mentioned this in my last post), which I achieved by thrusting my ribs forward. Add this to my sometimes rounded lumbar spine, and I've been putting a huge amount of stress on my thoracic spine to curve in ways it was never meant to. (Cole's article is really excellent and has a helpful way to explore the curves of the spine and the use of the erector spinae muscles using cat/ cow which I highly recommend.)

One way I can tell when I'm doing this is that belly breathing is difficult, even painful. For years, I've been having occasional difficulty with the three-part yogic breath; I now realize it is often hard when sitting but always easy when lying on my back. I'm not sure of the anatomical explanation for this, but sitting the way I have been (slightly rounding my lumbar spine and pushing the thoracic spine forward to compensate while thrusting the lower ribs out), breathing into the belly is painful. When I contract the muscles along the lumbar spine and pull my lower ribs back while focusing on flattening my shoulder blades onto the back instead of thrusting them into the back, I can suddenly breathe into the belly with ease.

Another instruction I've misunderstood is one often given in seated forward bends: lead with your chest. The idea of this instruction is to have students bend at the hips instead of rounding the spine to get further down. However, because I don't have the mobility in my pelvis but I do have a lot of flexibility in my upper back, I realize that I've been backbending in my forward bends, thrusting the chest way out and the ribs way forward. Focusing on keeping the lower ribs in as Cole describes in his article allows me to work on bending forward from the pelvis instead of pushing the chest forward.

I guess part of the problem is that instructions that were appropriate for me as an asana beginner became harmful to me as I developed more flexibility in my upper body while remaining relatively tight in my lower body. I had a complete misunderstanding of how good spinal alignment should feel in my body and had no idea that I was having any of these problems until my back started hurting. Now that I've recognized the problem, I can begin working to correct it but my muscles need to get used to working in these new ways and I get tired easily. My back is improving - but slowly. In the meantime, seated meditation is painful - unless I sit in Virasana, elevated on a block or cushion to protect my knees, in which case I can easily achieve the appropriate alignment of my pelvis (and therefore my back) and alleviate pain.

If you're a yoga teacher, do you give these types of instructions to your students? It might be useful to find out if any of them are having midback pain or struggling with belly breathing, and to explore whether this is a cause. Perhaps meditators with midback pain could benefit from the suggestion to try (modified) Virasana for meditation, as well as working on flexibility in the hamstrings and working with the alignment of the pelvis and thoracic spine. If anyone out there is having similar problems, I hope this helps you with your own exploration.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Everything has another side

Me, as seen from the back
In truth, it matters less what we do in practice than how we do it and why we do it. The same posture, the same sequence, the same meditation with a different intention takes on an entirely new meaning and will have entirely different outcomes 
~ Donna Farhi

In October, I took a workshop at the Ojai Yoga Crib with Laura Tyree. First of all, if you can get to the Crib, go. It has changed my life and continues to do so every year that I attend. (I think it's been six years now.) For that matter, if you get a chance to practice with Laura, do. Her wisdom and compassion (not to mention her beautiful voice!) will take you somewhere deep inside yourself - and wherever that place is, it is where you need to be.

In the workshop I took last October, Laura talked about how issues with her heart led her to explore her downward facing dog and consider how achieving a backbend in that pose was putting pressure on the heart. In many of the popular hatha yoga styles here, we do a lot of downward dogs, so this is a much repeated problem for many practitioners. As we get more flexible, this causes us to sway our backs in the pose, creating this backbend. She showed us how she was exploring a lift through the back between the shoulder blades. We practiced with a partner, having the partner place her hand on our backs so we could feel where the lift was happening.

When my partner put her hand on my back, I knew that I would always be able to find the right place to lift because it was in the exact location where I've had chronic back pain for years - upper mid-back, right between the shoulder blades. In that moment, I realized I had better pay more attention to my down dogs. Over the past few months, that realization has broadened into another: I had forgotten about my back entirely!

I love bhakti yoga and huge back bends and opening my heart to the sky with absolute abandon. However, I have very tight hamstrings from years of running and I do not love forward bends quite so much. I'm not tortured by them as much as I used to be, but when I do them, I'm usually focused on what my front body is doing. (And probably trying to make the pain in my back body go away by ignoring it. In case you didn't know, this doesn't work.) Now, I am reminded that there are at least two sides to every issue - even me!

I've started focusing on my back body all the time, not just in downward facing dog. I've been doing chakra meditation on the back body instead of the front. (So often teachers neglect to describe the chakra locations in terms of the back body, so I suspect I'm not the only one who has this problem.) I've discovered that pain relief often comes from directing my breath there. I've discovered that I can breathe into my kidneys as well as my belly, and into the space between my shoulder blades as well as my chest. I've discovered that this adds support, both in seated meditation and asana, and sometimes results in shifts in postures that feel really good and even relieve pain. I'm starting to feel how my lumbar spine (lower back) is overextending to compensate for the way I'm drawing my thoracic spine inward to get that exalted open-hearted feeling. Opening my heart center forward is killing my back - who knew?

Yesterday, I was looking for something entirely different in Judith Lasater's Yoga Body book, and I came across the following passage:
"One of the unfortunate actions that sometimes happens in asana practice is an over-flattening of the natural kyphosis [normal curvature of the spine]. Students are sometimes taught to lift the sternum with the intention of opening the chest, and they do so by bringing their thoracic spine into the body, thus flattening the curve. After years of practice, the spine loses some of its natural curve."
Bingo - that's me. The book suggests standing on a yoga mat near a doorway and holding onto the doorway with your arms at chest level and hands crossed at the wrist. Then you walk backward slowly and round the thoracic spine upward while moving the shoulder blades apart and dropping your head between your arms, allowing some of the muscle tension in this area to be stretched and loosened. I will certainly be trying this in the future, and paying a lot more attention to how I support backbends with the breath from the back side of the body - not to mention focusing on how I may be collapsing here in forward bends and all sorts of other issues I've never considered before.

If I wanted to get philosophical here, I could explore the idea that the back represents my past, or talk about the side of anything that lies in shadow... but for once, I want to stay on the mat with this one. When I'm on the mat, I'm on the mat - both the front and the back sides of me. The more I practice asana, the more I realize there's always something I've forgotten to be present with in the pose; there's always a part of the body I've given preference to and another that's been lost from my conscious awareness. But the body has its own intelligence and if we know how to listen, it will let us know what has been forgotten. One thing is for sure: in the future, I'll be thinking a lot more about what those chronic achy bits are trying to tell me.