Blog Posts on Yoga
- Yoga Happenings
- When “Healthy” Isn’t
- The Energetics of Ethics, Part II
- The Energetics of Ethics
- The Hidden Benefit of Exercise, Part II
- Yoga in Your Daily Life
- Yoga in Capitol Hill
- Yoga for Grief
- Facial Yoga for Internal and External Health
- Meditation Helping Veterans with PTSD
When “Healthy” Isn’t
A NY Times article (1) reviewed a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology (2) where veteran athletes (longtime runners) were found to have scarring in the heart muscle not present in younger athletes and older non-athletes. The implication – though, obviously, far from proven, or even completely spelled out – is that excessive exercise can be unhealthy.
Once again, I find myself happy to find some ancient Chinese wisdom working its way into the popular press.
Now, none of us are surprised that an excess can cause damage. There’s something simply instinctive about that notion.
There is an area of instinct, however, that I believe has been lost, overridden by popular opinion – the very idea of what constitutes healthy exercise.
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you that you need to get an elevated heart rate for a certain amount of time, a certain number of times a week. The idea is that you have to “work” your heart to make it stronger.
This basic idea, fighting, struggling, efforting to improve yourself, in this case, your health, is deeply embedded in our minds. (It appears, to me, to be linked to the basic idea of competition being healthy, which is rooted in the idea of each person being a separate individual, thus, required to compete against other individuals, for survival – the whole thing rooted in the appearance of separateness, but I digress…)
There is “you”, there is the “goal”, and there is that which stands in your way, and you have to fight to get what you want or deserve in life. Struggle is seen as fundamental; in its absence is loss and deep suffering.
I would suggest that all of that is simply one approach to viewing the world, one possible way of interpreting existence.
Another way could be as follows: You, though appearing separate, are – at the very least – profoundly intertwined with others. There is no such thing as an action that only benefits (or harms) one individual, as no individual is truly separate. Only on the surface do actions look to damage one while lifting another.
Further, the idea of a need for conscious, willful action on the part of the individual for any hope of success is not necessary. I’m betting you have plenty of experiences of something great happening that was, actually, a surprise. You neither efforted for it, or even fully conceived of it, yet it brought happiness, success, etc.
Similarly, I’m sure you have plenty of experiences of struggling tremendously, yet not attaining goals. These stories abound, yet they typically go ignored or rationalized under the argument the person didn’t work hard or long enough…
Maybe it wasn’t the execution of the underlying belief that failed, but that the core idea, itself, is limited…
Maybe life isn’t empty in the absence of one’s active, willing, thinking mind. Maybe the trees grow despite the absence of mental intent or planning.
Maybe, just maybe, when/if you calm your mind of thoughts, desires, planning and contriving, a beautiful “plan” or idea just comes to you…
Maybe the beauty of the epiphany is that it occurs spontaneously – without effort – and from an unknown place – not the intellect.
The idea of good health only being possible with effort and struggle may have some truth to it, but, clearly – to use more scientific language – it’s limited in its applicability. Maybe you can grow stronger without being beat down.
This alternate hypothesis happens to be the stance of classical Chinese medicine. Now, clearly I’m biased, but when that system which is defined by being the accumulated wisdom of countless generations of sages and physicians says it’s not necessary to deplete yourself so that you can grow stronger, I gotta listen.
In a way, the approach of stimulating a system, provoking a system to do its job, in order to achieve some larger objective, as with breaking down a muscle to force it to regrow stronger, or challenging the immune system to force it to become more active, truly reveals that fundamentally individualistic reasoning – there’s you, then there’s your immune system – but, also, a certain ignorance.
If you knew how the immune system worked, you would more likely work with it to grow stronger, as opposed to standing on the side of the street chucking rocks at it to get it all riled up… wouldn’t you?
Such is the case with Chinese medicine. It is the grand collection of experiences with the human being, in health and illness. It sees behind the veil of separation and, thus, can side with the body to make it stronger.
This is how acupuncture works. I love showing my patients how teeny-tiny the acupuncture needles are and telling them “There’s no way this little thing is going to make you better! It’s you making you better!”
Only in extreme situations does the physician need to step in to replace the abilities of the body. For the vast majority of health issues, the body has the ability, potential, and wisdom to find health, but, again, I digress.
Healthy exercise simply makes the body more healthy and stronger. Not by forcing it into a corner, but by building it up. It’s so simple it borders on silly.
The body is designed to be strong. It’s designed to resist disease and fully recover when the uncommon happens. Only through obstruction of this basic instinct does disease arrive.
Health, then, is not a matter of making the body be or do anything more than what it already is and forever, spontaneously strives to do.
Healthy exercise clears the way for health; it doesn’t force health upon you.
Tai chi and yoga are the great examples that I’m aware of. They are based on the idea of opening up the flow of energy through the body. This flow is both the fuel and wisdom to function properly.
These systems of exercise are designed to help the body simply be true to its own, inner design. (They are, necessarily, based on deep understanding of the body, allowing them to work alongside you in health, as opposed to meeting you head-on in a battle of who is stronger – you or your body… kinda crazy, isn’t it?)
As was said at the outset, there is some truth to the idea of “struggle” in obtaining better health. Neither Tai chi, nor yoga is completely easy. It takes a certain type of effort.
The difference is that the struggle is always aimed at re-engaging parts of yourself that have become isolated. The struggle is in removing obstructions, reconnecting.
Physically, this is difficult (think of working out lots of knots during a good massage), but it is also very challenging mentally and emotionally. These things, these parts of ourselves that are stuck on the other side of the obstruction have been locked out for awhile; re-enlivening them can cause much discomfort.
Think of an arm that has fallen asleep and the “pins and needles” accompanying the fresh flow of blood. Then, add on the emotional component of re-experiencing events/thoughts/feelings that have been held, cut off from conscious awareness in the unconscious…
Attaining good health isn’t easy but you can see how it’s not really “forced”, in the way that forcing yourself to get up and run in the mornings is.
The reward for truly improved health is also far different than that fleeting feeling of having accomplished a goal of so many push-ups done or miles ran. Good health reconnects you to spirit, the divine, the ultimate, most deep, yet highest state of life. It is as inspiring as it is exhilarating.
So, rather than “work hard”, I’d say engage. Engage in life. If you must, struggle to return to health…
and do more yoga!
1. Reynolds, G. When Exercise Is Too Much of a Good Thing. NY Times, March 9, 2011.
2. Wilson, M. et. al. (2011). Diverse patterns of myocardial fibrosis in lifelong, veteran endurance athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21330616.
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The Energetics of Ethics, Part II
In the first part, we talked about how there is a basic, instinctive, negative reaction to violence and lying. I suggested that, maybe, the near-universal list of moral conduct, such as don’t lie, cheat, steal, etc., is actually based on fundamental human nature. That is, by instinct, by basic, innate nature, most would avoid doing those things.
I also linked the “violation” of this innate code with internal energetic blockages. When we break one of the rules, we feel it; we just feel bad, different and separate from rationally judging ourselves for having gone against some objective “right” action.
This bad feeling is a response to injury, just as cringing when we stub a toe. The injury caused by some immoral act is an internal obstruction of energy. I, personally, describe the feeling as a “kink”, or a wrinkle, one that I know, if I want to get rid of the feeling, I will have to iron out at some point (and, thus, I hate causing wrinkles).
In traditional yoga – a complete, fully comprehensive system of health and healing – the moral code is contained within the yamas and niyamas (technically, “abstentions” and “observances”). I believe they are part of a system of health and self-realization because of the importance of adherence to basic nature.
Health is a reflection of the body and being acting as they are designed to. Physiologically, health is the free flow of prana (something like energy, qi, in Chinese medicine). Where that flow is diminished or obstructed, disease ensues. As immoral acts obstruct that flow, they are unhealthy.
Hence, yoga incorporates the yamas and niyamas in the same way and for the same reason it includes postures and breathing practices. And classical yoga actually defines the “Eight Limbs” of yoga, which includes those practices, as well as the higher practices of meditation.
There’s an interesting twist we can put on things, here. As the yamas are the first of the eight limbs, and ahimsa, non-violence, is the first yama, it is suggested that that is the most important yogic practice (according to “Classical” yoga, as laid down by the sage Patanjali, in the highest written authority on yoga, the the Yoga Sutras
In following, practicing non-violence sets the foundation for the higher practices of postures and the highest of meditation. That is, the spiritual aspirant would avoid harming others (and self) just as they would practice the physical postures. It’s all considered yoga.
The twist, when understanding morals as basic to good health, is that any movement towards better health will result in more moral conduct. You can actually gauge progress, or state, based on the spontaneous actions of an individual. The person that just, naturally, is more kind and honest is, most likely, in better health.
This may seem a bit odd, but, again, when we realize that such conduct is a natural expression of the human being acting freely, according to their inner nature, i.e., when they are healthy, it becomes quite obvious.
Try another mental exercise. Imagine someone who lies a lot, maybe someone you’ve met, or maybe you have to visualize them. Think about watching them, or, if you can, walk in their shoes for a bit… How does it feel?
Pretty icky, if you ask me. They simple aren’t happy. The lies and deceit are a direct reflection of their unhappiness in life. There may be some very superficial and very temporary moments of feeling okay, tied to the the avoidance of pain implicit in deceit, but they are deeply unhappy people.
Now think of people that tend towards violence. Again, these people aren’t at peace. There’s fear, chronic anxiety or worry. The immoral conduct is an expression of their internal “off-ness”.
Now, think of the genuinely kind people. They just seem… healthier! There’s more flow, more glow. It’s, clearly, a better place.
And when you are forced to lie about something, you most likely feel bad about it. It may actually make you sick to your stomach, at least until you can apologize and “make it right”.
There is so clearly a connection between health and righteous actions. Yoga just made a point of putting it all together.
To take this one step further, and perhaps a bit more controversial… Think about the effects of past “bad” things you’ve done. Again, not things that you (or another) has judged as wrong, but the actually bad things you’ve done.
Are they still there? Are those things still with you? Do you still feel bad?… and the rough question – Have you actually buried some of those thoughts and feelings because they were so gross feeling and so persistent, you had to cover them up, forget them, or “move on”?
The therapeutic action of yoga, as well as acupuncture, is the opening up of obstructions. That is how they achieve their affect. Internal organ function is regulated by adjusting the flow of qi or prana through the system.
Where lies and theft block energy, they block that activity and cause harm; the system is derailed from proper functioning. It is very much like a wrinkle that needs to be addressed to be removed or, as is stated in the Chinese medical classics, like a stain that needs scrubbing or a knot that needs untying. That work is exactly what yoga and acupuncture are doing.
This simple unveiling of mind-body interconnectedness also reveals how psychotherapy can be so powerful. Speaking out loud about, opening up those repressed guilty feelings is – literally - opening up the flow of healthy energy through the body. You can feel it!
In more pure “religion”, versus philosophy, spirituality, or healing systems (a difficult differentiation to make, some times), there is the idea of “confessing” “sins” and the relief, release, and forgiveness that follows. At its core, is this any different than what we’re talking about in yoga, acupuncture, or psychotherapy?
It’s an interesting line of thought. There truly seems to be a fundamental, forgive the term, truth underlying all these various approaches.
In my studies of Taoism, specifically Complete Reality Taoism, it is said that the single most important concept or practice, above all exercises, meditative techniques, herbs, chants, etc. is sincerity. Simple sincerity. In all your thoughts and actions be sincere… so simple, but so, so powerful… Honesty, forthrightness, first with yourself, and with others.
Being true to yourself, to your inner nature, is the clearest path to health, happiness, and, apparently, enlightenment! What a fun journey!
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The Energetics of Ethics
There are some basic “rules” to life that most agree on, such as not hurting others, not lying, not stealing, and so on. In yoga, these are referred to as the yamas and niyamas.
Here, I’d like to take a slightly different angle on the how and why these are important. Specifically, I want to talk about why they’re important for health, on a very deep, energetic level.
Let’s take one that is foremost in the yoga tradition, ahimsa, non-violence.
I’d kinda like to pretend, for a moment, that we have no pre-existing ideas or beliefs about what’s right or wrong. It’s important, here, to suspend any mental conceptions about right/wrong, good/bad. Let’s drop it all and go with direct experience, immediate feeling without interference of thought or judgment.
Now, imagine you’re walking down the street, just taking a stroll, enjoying the warm weather and looking around at the gently swaying trees. You hear the screeching sound of tires, look up, and see two cars collide in the intersection – Stop – How do you feel? What’s that immediate reaction, inside?
Now, different day, imagine, you’re sitting at the coffeehouse, enjoying some peppermint tea. You get up to go to the bathroom and you accidentally bump into another person. You turn just in time to see their hot coffee splash all over them and the look of pain contort their face – What’s that immediate gut reaction you have? How does it feel?
For a twist, let’s say you just got yourself a nice, hot cup of coffee when someone scoots their chair right into you and you spill your coffee all over yourself. Immediately following the explosion of pain, is a flaring of anger. You yell at them and they shrink back in guilt – How do you feel?
In all of these, you were witness to violence of some sort. Without any thought or rational analysis of how you “should” feel, what’s the right or wrong way to feel, there was most likely a visceral reaction. Can you identify it? What’s the most basic, primal reaction, to seeing, or being part of, violence?
To help tease out what’s happening inside of you, we can look to another basic rule of life – to not tell a lie.
This can be difficult to work with, since, let’s be honest , a lot of people lie a lot. We’ve become sort of accustomed to whatever visceral reaction we may have to it simply because we’re forced to do it a lot.
But stop and think. Imagine you’re talking to a good friend. You actually lost that CD you borrowed, but it’s been a long day, and you really don’t want to have to deal with their reaction, so you tell them you just forgot it at home.
In that moment, that instant, how do you feel inside? Without any thought, what’s the feel?
In my opinion, (and, as you probably know, my opinion is highly biased towards interpreting everything in relation to health) these rules that seem to crop up in so many religions aren’t so much about avoiding any kind of punishment, or even to help everybody just get along (though, those may be nice side benefits).
To me, it’s about health. And, from health, enjoyment of every, any, thing else. These rules help you find and enjoy better health.
How? Well, that takes us back to your visceral reaction to violence and lying. Even if you can’t fully identify how it feels, I bet it just feels bad. It feels off. You kind of get that instinctive cringing feel.
I, personally, describe the feeling as getting a “kink” in you somewhere. Something kind of shuts down, or locks off. Lying creates a little blockage in you, somewhere. Being exposed to violence kind of locks up some of your energy.
Take a second and explore for yourself. There seems to be a kind of shutting off, shutting down… a kinking of energy.
Both in Chinese medicine, as well as yoga, health is based on the free flow of energy (to greatly simplify things). Organ function is dependent on not only physical energy to run, but the guidance that comes from that energy (qi, in Chinese medicine, prana, in yoga). Any disturbance in the flow of energy results in diminished function of the system. Over time, actual symptoms arise.
This all makes the most sense in traditional yoga, as it explicitly discusses morals, physical exercise, and health all in the same breath and links them all together.
In the traditional “Eight Limbs” of yoga, the moral code comes before the postures. That is, they are, arguably, more important, fundamental to the system and goals of yoga. You could argue that it’s pointless to clear the energy channels, through postures and breathing, if you’re just going to kink ‘em up by lying, cheating, and stealing.
Seriously, just imagine a great yoga class (or any physical exercise, if you don’t do yoga). Imagine how you feel after – free, open, relaxed, peaceful. Now, imagine seeing that car accident, or lying to your best friend…
It really jacks-up that good feeling, doesn’t it? At the very least, you have to do some rationalization to fend off or minimize that icky feeling.
So these things, to me, aren’t about following the rules, or doing what you’re “supposed” to do (I like that saying, “Don’t should on me”).
It’s about good health, which is, of course, the only way to really, fully enjoy life. Good health is the vehicle by which all other “good” things are experienced. It’s the one thing that acts as the funnel through which all worthwhile things are experienced – or blocked, diminished, or prohibited, depending on how well things are going…
So forget doing what’s “right”. Do what your body, your very being, just knows what’s best.
We’re designed to be healthy. As long as we don’t get in the way, health is what will happen. Perhaps all these philosophies and religions espousing these lists of do’s and don’ts are simply trying to guide us to act according to our own, true nature?… Hmm…
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The Hidden Benefit of Exercise, Part II
After writing the post on the rarely spoken of benefit of exercise that is the occurrence of spontaneous epiphanies into life, I feel it needs to be added the prime, central role of this benefit in health, overall.
So often, in the modern world, and especially in modern medicine, the idea of health revolves around the idea of absence of major health complaints. At best, health seems to be having nothing, really, to complain about.
You go to your doctor for a cough, get medications, or not. Either way, once the cough is gone, you are said to have “returned to health”. You could go back to your doctor, but you no longer have anything to report to her; the cough is gone.
Even if you still have that vague feeling of being sick, it’s unlikely your MD could actually diagnose anything, thus leaving them unable to do anything more than make those gross physical symptoms go away.
Though many would likely be hard pressed to put to words what, exactly, it is that makes health bigger than mere absence of disease, there truly seems to be something.
I like to think of that difficult-to-define piece being awareness, and active pursuit, of your life’s meaning and, importantly, that subtle joy and sublime peace that comes with that feeling.
Health is not just feeling good enough to return to work, but the active manifesting of who you are.
I don’t believe “medicine” ends with making you feel better after an injury or illness. Once you’re “better”, then what? Truly, medicine, as it seems to be defined in modern times, is all emergency medicine. We seek “treatment” only when we’re so sick we are forced to.
Then, once we’re better, that is, back to the state we were at prior to the onset of new and bigger symptoms, we go back to our day-to-day life.
That is the point I would like to bring into focus, here. What is happening in that moment? What is that day-to-day life all about? Do you have awareness of your deepest skills and abilities – your gift to this world? And is your life the developing and putting into use those skills, that gift?
If not, that is the cause of disease, all disease. Every illness you will ever experience is born in your innate potential failing to be tapped into, failing to be brought up and out.
This may seem like an odd idea, but think about it. You are you. Everything about you is designed for you, so you can be you. That is the whole, and only, point of you – to be you.
If you are not you, if you are not active in learning about you and fully manifesting that you-ness, then you aren’t functioning according to design. You’re, by definition, not working properly. How could you possibly be healthy in such a condition???
It seems we can “get away with” not fully and truly being ourselves, for certain amounts of time, anyway, until we get sick. At that point, we have an opportunity to address the things that are off, the things that aren’t right in life and allowed us to be stopped from continuing our daily activities.
If we simply get rid of the symptoms – the warning signs that things are off – and, then, just get back to life as it was, without opening up awareness of the larger context, the larger meaning of life, if we continue with the fundamental dysfunction that is ignorance of self and ultimately directionless activity in life, then we may just break down again.
I argue that health is the presence of peace and joy found only with true connection with yourself and the resulting genuinely purposeful activity in life.
Exercise, then, being fundamental to good, real health, aids directly in attaining the above. It not only keeps physical disease away, and eases stress, but good exercise actually facilitates that inner awareness and righteous direction in life.
In a way, it just makes sense. Of course, truly feeling good means having a sense of who we are in our hearts, and doing what we love, what speaks to us, on a daily basis.
And when we don’t have those things, life just isn’t quite right, something’s off. When we don’t have those things, we could be doing better, feeling better… of course…
I’m just, here, stating the obvious.
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The connection between the body and the mind has received a lot of attention lately. Some are even going as far as claiming something much greater than a mere connection, that they are merely reflections of the same underlying reality, two sides of the same coin. But what does this mean, exactly? What’s actually being said, here?
This being a blog, I will only come at this from one angle and only touch on it briefly, but I think there’s a simple change in perception one could make to shed light on this mind-body concept.
First, let’s root out the source, the common thread to mind and body. Let me ask you this – What does everything you will ever see, ever do, ever experience have in common? If you traveled to every country, read every book, saw every movie, what one thing would remain the same?
It’s you, of course. No matter what you do or see, you are doing and seeing it.
Now, what or who do we mean when we say “you”? Think about yourself ten or twenty years ago. Are you any different? Do you look different? Do you think about things differently? Have you learned and changed over the years?
Some people would say they’ve changed drastically, perhaps they have grown up a lot. Maybe they’ve had life altering experiences that forever changed who they are.
So, then, if there’s the you, right now, looking back, and there’s the you of back then – two yous – there is, obviously, a third, the one seeing the two. Who’s seeing you, now, and comparing it to the you of yesteryear?
My point is there is a you, the one that is observing all these things, places, events, even changes of yourself over time, that is separate from all those things. We’ll call it the “witness” you, the observer you.
Importantly, this witness is not defined by character and personality traits. That was made evident by the fact that those things can change, quite drastically even, and, yet, there is still some you that didn’t change, that persisted through all the transformations (because had the witness changed along with those things, there would be no thread, no ability to recollect those changes. Only because they happened to you, can you remember them – that you is the witness).
We could even go a step farther, and maybe weirder, and talk about the you in your dreams. Talk about a completely different reality! You can fly, know, see, and do things that the waking you could only dream of! And, yet, there is still that witness to all of that. All that change, all that variation, yet through all of it this witness is present.
So we have this you, this witness. This is the common theme to mind and body. This witness experiences, but is not limited to either of these other things. Obviously, if you were to lose a limb, you’re still you. You are not your hand.
You’re not your mind, either. If you were your mind, you wouldn’t be able to sit and observe how crazy it can get. Whenever you notice yourself getting really upset, you are noticing yourself getting upset – There’s the you, witness, observing another aspect of self getting upset – the witness and the mind.
You are not the thinking mind, either. If you were, you wouldn’t notice when you start thinking crazy things, but you can. You can catch yourself coming to weird conclusions through poor thinking. You notice when you’re not making any sense – Witness you notices.
Now, you may confuse yourself for your body or mind. You may think you are this witty, handsome young gentleman, but you’re not. Sorry. You’re simply witnessing “witty, handsome young gentleman” (or, perhaps, dreaming). Such confusion is a topic for another post, however…
So we have this witness that is neither body, nor mind, but is, instead, this other observer. Once you realize this, the whole connection between mind and body may start to make more sense (now, who’s noticing it make sense? Sorry, getting carried away.)
Where the mind and body change over time, grow longer hair, get smarter, etc., the witness doesn’t. It’s like the center of a wheel; it’s stationary, while the wheel cycles around and around.
Now, I’m gonna switch terms, here, so stick with me. This witness you is consciousness, itself. It is the act of being aware of things.
Any time you experience anything, there is that aspect that is doing the experiencing and is not that which is experienced. You are reading this; there is that aspect that allows for you to read.
Maybe it helps to think of consciousness as a portal, an opening, through which you are able to perceive things. I know, we usually get really caught up in what’s seen. I’m trying to pull your attention to the act of seeing, itself.
As with the witness you, it is that which does not change, ever.
The body and the mind are two expressions of consciousness. One is more dense and concrete, the other much less so. One is more tangible, you can grab your leg, the other is a bit more elusive.
They are both vehicles for experience, and they both can affect you. A bruised elbow hurts just as a sad movie makes you cry. You are moved by both.
This is how, in one small way, they are the same. They are both carriers of sensation, of experience, for this other you.
Clearly, they are different, but, really, they are just two different approaches to doing the same thing. There’s a huge difference between my little Honda Civic and a high-end Mercedes-Benz, yet they are the same in that they are both cars, very different, but the same nonetheless.
Once we detach a little from the mind and body, realize they are not us, simply closely connected to us, we can see how easy it is for the two to affect each other. If I’m swinging a rope in one hand and a stick in the other, they may be different, but both react and respond to me (and, perhaps, affect me, should I get sloppy and whack myself in the head).
What you eat and drink will affect your mind, even though food is physical and is digested by the physical body, because the physical body is connected to consciousness. Mind and body are expressions of consciousness, so anything that affects it, will be reflected in both.
You could say the mind and the body are repositories for your experiences. They are both vehicles, avenues through which you experience sensation, as well as the physical and mental/emotional storehouses.
Have a physical trauma, and the body “holds onto it” for awhile, until it “heals”, all physical evidence vanishing. Have an emotional upset and the mind can be changed by it, just as trauma changes the physical body, until the mind heals from it.
As repositories, the mind and body can hold on to experiences. And here’s where health and yoga come into play. The holding onto, effected by mind and body, limit and obstruct having further experiences and the degree to which you can experience them.
Ideally, the mind and body are like a movie screen. They can effectively convey all the experience of life, a movie, yet, when it’s over, they hold on to none of it, they remain clean.
Another analogy would be like a computer screen which relays information from the computer to you. However, at least with the older computers, the images the screen shows can get burnt into the screen, leaving a shadow or ghost of it. This ghost, this latent image, obstructs your view of new information coming from the computer.
This is exactly what causes disease. Some experience did not pass through completely and cleanly. Mentally, old thoughts and feelings inhibit our ability to experience new emotions completely. The old distorts the experience of the new.
Physically, it’s much easier to see. Any old injury clearly limits your physical ability to do new things.
Health is opening up, cleaning out these old, latent impressions, these old experiences, and this is exactly what good yoga does (and why it’s so much better than typical exercise). It is designed, specifically, to clean out the mind and body. That good feeling you have after is simply a more perfect experience of reality, one less obscured by those blockages.
Over time, after enough clean up work, you can experience life like a child, everything new and exciting, finding tremendous joy in even the most simple things.
And because mind and body are one, you also experience improved physical health along the way.
Pretty sweet, huh?
Speaking of yoga, I must get to this class to go work with these students in “cleaning” ourselves so we may experience life more genuinely, perfectly, and beautifully…
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Yoga in Your Daily Life
In teaching yoga classes these last couple of weeks, I’ve been reminded that a yoga class is, really, just an opportunity to focus on yoga. It’s a time you set aside to dedicate to just practice.
Ultimately, yoga is something you can incorporate into everything you do. Every moment could be yoga. And it would only improve the quality and efficiency of whatever (else) you’re doing.
This may sound weird, but it makes sense – perfect sense. Yoga is a system, a comprehensive collection of diverse practices, designed to facilitate self-realization (or, as I like to think of it, perfect health). At the core of all yogic practices is presence of mind – powerful, unwavering, well-honed presence of mind.
Yoga is, ultimately, about training the mind. All the many, many practices are designed to clear and calm the mind, and to increase your ability to attain and maintain perfect concentration. It’s all about developing perfect presence of mind, and this is something that we can do every single moment.
Another way of looking at it is that yoga is about mindfulness. Most of the practices we mentally associate with yoga, such as the postures, the breathing practices, and the chanting, etc. are designed to clear the mind. Postures and breathing practices work directly to open and clean the energy channels of the body, which allows for a calm mind, and practices such as chanting work directly to clam the mind and bring it to a point of focus and peace.
But those are only tools to get you to the goal – a pristine state of mind. Really, we could use anything to help us get there; we can turn any activity into a yogic tool to still the ceaseless fluctuations of the mind. And the odd thing is that the trick to do this is to simply focus more on whatever you’re doing. It’s that simple (as simple as that is…)
Whatever you find yourself doing through out the day, try to empty your mind of any extraneous thoughts or wanderings. Use the activity, the task at hand, as an anchor, grounding you in the moment. When the mind drifts off to something else, bring it back. Train yourself to laser-like concentration on whatever is before you.
You can also use your work to cleanse your mind of useless, meaningless worries and thoughts. Burn through those incessant, but purposeless mental flutterings with the fire of unwavering focus and attention.
Likely, whatever you’re doing has parameters within which it must be accomplished. Use those as you would alignment cues in a yoga posture. Adhere to them, not because your boss said to, but because it makes great practice for disciplining the mind.
Practice staying on task – especially when you don’t want to. If a required activity bores you, great! Consider it a challenge, the surmounting of which will make you all that much more powerful and better able to control that monkey mind of yours! (No more being bossed around, controlled by, at the mercy of every whimsy of the ever-meandering mind – Freedom is yours!!!)
None of this will be easy, but, seriously, consider it training. Think of it as a workout, not for bigger or more toned muscles, but to cleanse the mind, allowing it to find that peace you usually only feel after a really good yoga class.
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Yoga in Capitol Hill
I consider it one of the great beauties of the modern world, that we have truly ancient practices, like yoga and acupuncture, prevalent in our common, everyday lives. These systems exist to propagate the cumulative experience and wisdom, gained over thousands of years, of billions of people seeking greater health and well-being. They reflect a path of commitment to fully developing human potential. I call it "health", because I'm biased towards that worldview, but the fact is these ancient systems are defined by a sole desire to fully maximize what it is to be human. Call it what you want - It feels really good!
My personal exposure to yoga began with my formal Shaolin kung fu training, where we learned yogic postures and breathing techniques as basic conditioning for all of our training. Between that and my Tai chi practice, my life was transformed. A whole list of physical ailments disappeared and negative aspects of my daily mood - ones I considered simply part of my personality - were fundamentally altered. I was truly, deeply a happier, healthier person.
As I am fully committed to improving health (again, I use the word "health", but it is equivalent to happiness, peace, enlightenment, "transcendent universal love", or whatever term you prefer), I wanted to pursue more intense study of the yogic path. I chose yoga teacher training, and not just any training, but a full-on ten month, 265 hour program (only 200 hours are required, and the training in Sanskrit, underlying philosophies, and classical texts are definitely not typically part of your basic teacher training).
And, once again, my life has been transformed. I won't lie; these transformations kick your butt, but you feel deeply appreciative, lucky, even, and honored to have undergone the experience.
Which is why I feel I want to share yoga with everyone I can. Do yoga - It will change your life!
Again, in this modern world, we are lucky to have so much access to this ancient artful practice of better living. Right here, in Capitol Hill, we have several options. One of these is the Amala Yoga Community, located at 13th and Sherman, directly above City 'O City.
I came to know about Amala through my teacher training and the pleasure of working with two of Amala's instructors. Working with these women, observing their practice of yoga, and benefiting from their instruction, inspires me to tell the world about them and the beautiful community they have created at Amala.
Yoga is a deep and diverse system. Nearly everyone is familiar with the postures of yoga (technically, referred to as asana), and maybe some are aware of the many breathing practices (pranayama). Amala offers those, including Ashtanga, Bhakti, Vinyasa, and classical yoga flows (different approaches to posture and breath work), and, in addition, it goes far beyond, to give people the opportunity to experience the full range of yogic practices. The extensive schedule of classes (seven days a week, morning, afternoon and evening classes), incorporates varying combinations of posture and breath work alongside meditation, chanting, mudras, and the study of the underlying philosophy.
As a yoga community, Amala also offers yoga therapy (one-on-one yoga instruction for addressing individual health needs), Ayurveda, Reiki, and massage. They also have workshops, such as the "Beginner's Yoga Series", starting Oct 10th, with Shannon Fiedler (click here for details).
Yoga is about health. It's about balance and peace. It's about simply being who you are, fully experiencing that "you" beneath the toil and turmoil under which we tend to lose ourselves.
It is about focused, intentional movement, with the postures, and it is about returning to complete, full, revitalizing breathing, but it is also about stillness in self-reflective meditation, and the subtly powerful effects of chanting and mudras. It is all of this, yet it is none of it. It is much larger, simply using all these as various tools to assisting you in living a fuller, more complete life.
Maybe you're not into all that bending and stretching. Have you tried meditation and chanting? Or maybe even a "restorative" class that engages the body, but is gentle and supportive. Maybe you are fully into the postures and truly enjoy the physicality of yoga. Amala does yoga right, and offers it all.
Check it out. They also happen to be one of the cheapest yoga studios I've ever seen. Classes are only $12 ($10, with a 10 session package), and meditation classes are only $5. They even offer a Friday "freebie" class, where you can benefit from yoga for no charge, and new yoga teachers have the opportunity to hone their skills with a group of deeply appreciate members of the local community - win-win!
Give it a try, and let me know what you think!
Amala Yoga Community
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Yoga for Grief
These holiday seasons are full of emotion of all kinds. There is excitement and happiness of time with family and friends. Stress and frustration with packed schedules and time lines of a different sort. And, unfortunately, for all too many, thoughts and weighty memories of friends and family members lost and no longer with us. Especially during this time of year, grief can be dark and heavy, clouding and obstructing any joy that we may seek.
As any reader of this blog knows, I am a huge fan of yoga. It can be a great vehicle for miracles of the body and soul. There is no better time, and no better situation, for the beauty and power of yoga than to help someone experiencing loss and grief move through the holiday season with grace.
I know a gentle and sweet young woman, Tara Emrick, who knows grief well, through both personal loss and professional training. She is, quite literally, a radiant example of how yoga can help someone experience tremendous loss and find beauty, strength, and peace anew.
She is trained in the Kripalu tradition of yoga, which is a style of compassion and consciousness that honors the moment - your moment - through recognition of the deep wisdom that lays at its core.
Tara is offering a four session yoga series to help people experiencing grief this holiday season. It starts December 12th, and runs for four Sundays. It's being held at Amala Yoga, in Capitol Hill, and costs $40.
If you're interested, or maybe know somebody that may benefit from this workshop, I invite you to visit her website:
I wish everyone a peaceful and fulfilling holiday season!
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Facial Yoga for Internal and External Health
A couple days ago, I spoke about the use of acupuncture as a healthy way of addressing common physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles (A Different Approach to Physical Beauty). It was discussed how the body often accumulates wear and tear over the years, and this can be reflected in physical appearance, especially of the face. In our society, there is tremendous importance placed on physical appearance, so many seek ways of reducing the overt signs of aging.
Once it is realized that physical appearance is a direct reflection of the internal state, you can pursue ways of improving health of the body, overall, as a way of improving your external appearance. Chinese medicine is an ideal system of medicine, in this regard, as not only does it treat the internal system directly, but it actually employs the appearance of the external to diagnose the internal. This means it can determine exactly what out of balance systems are leading to specific, undesired physical appearances.
Acupuncture, specifically, is a great modality of Chinese medicine, as it can directly treat the face itself in a safe, healthy way. The very fine needles treat both the external and internal, simultaneously. You, thus, get benefits in both worlds, with very little risk and virtually no side effects.
It is for those very reasons that facial yoga (referred to as “Face-A-Firming Yoga”, www.faceafirmingyoga.com) is another ideal approach for dealing with physical signs of aging. By now, everyone knows the great benefits of yoga. Through the focused breathing and stretching movements, health is improved, the body is brought back to a state it enjoyed at a younger age – greater flexibility, more energy, greater mental peace and calm, a certain excitement and enthusiasm for life… ahhhhh. Yoga truly is marvelous.
Well, all of that can be focused on improving the health and appearance of the face. As with acupuncture, facial yoga recognizes there is a reason why skin may begin to sag, wrinkles may develop. Instead of just making them go away, you can address the underlying issue. Facial yoga is designed to stimulate and strengthen the muscles that actually tone and lift the skin through specific facial expressions and movements. The muscles weaken over time, due to gravity, but with the right type of exercise they can be restrengthened, just like any muscle can be strengthened with training.
As an acupuncturist, I can also tell you that facial yoga not only strengthens local muscles, but, through stimulation of the acupuncture points and channels located on the face, improves the health of the corresponding systems. For example, the acupuncture channel that runs through and controls the stomach (and is, therefore, called the “Stomach channel”), also passes up along the neck, around the corners of the mouth, up past the nose to just under the eye on both sides of the face. Stimulating the stomach channel through facial yoga also tones and strengthens the stomach system, overall.
In fact, there are several systems of qigong (aka ‘chi kung’ – exercises based on the acupuncture channels), that incorporate massage and acupressure of the channels in order to affect the internal organs (that’s the whole premise of acupuncture – diagnose and treat the external as a way of treating the internal).
Interestingly, the Spleen system (incorporating the spleen organ but far from limited to it) is paired with the Stomach system. When you stimulate one, you have a direct effect on the other, and one of the main physiological jobs of the Spleen system is to hold things up in place. A severe sign of weakness of this system would be organ prolapse (where an organ actually falls out of place, like the uterus through the vaginal canal, or some types of hernias).
The Spleen system is also in charge of the physical health and appearance of muscular tone. Facial yoga clearly strengthens the Spleen and Stomach systems, both through direct stimulation of the Stomach channel, as well as through support and stimulation of the Spleen system’s roles related to muscular tone and holding body parts up and in place.
That’s the exciting thing about facial yoga and acupuncture – they are doing you good. They’re actually healthy! There’s no compromise in getting the effects from them. They are actually making you healthier, while addressing whatever it is you’re focusing on. (I’m betting they’re way cheaper, to!) This is why I like talking about ‘em. (It also helps that the people behind these practices are really good people, as well).
Life is rough. We are under tremendous pressure from all kinds of sources to look and act a certain way. You don’t have to compromise health when “acting as the Romans do”. You can actually do yourself good, improve your health, while playing the crazy game of life in the modern world!
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Meditation Helping Veterans with PTSD
You could say I 'lucked out' in my years in military service. Though I carried a rifle every day, with the understanding (and training) that I may have to use it, I never did. Nor did anyone use one against me. It was all only ever training for me. Unfortunately, not everyone who served is so lucky.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder that occurs after an event that caused someone to fear for their life, see horrible things, and feel helpless (1), affects as many as 19% of Vietnam veterans (2) and upwards of 17% of those who saw combat in Iraq (3).
There are different ways of treating PTSD , including Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, linked below, is a video demonstrating the use of iRest, a type of guided meditation (4) being employed to help a group of veterans.
iRest has been brought to my attention by Karin Bustamante, E-RYT 500 (www.karinyoga.com), a yoga teacher and practitioner of iRest yoga nidra and it is described as:
"an evidence based transformative practice of deep relaxation and meditative inquiry that releases negative emotions and thought patterns, calms the nervous system, and develops an inner sanctuary of well-being and equanimity that underlies all circumstance you may encounter in your life." (from the home page of the Integrative Restoration Institute (IRI, www.irest.us)
Having experienced a taste of yoga nidra, I can say it is a uniquely profound vehicle for helping one access all levels of the psyche, where both pain from past traumas, as well as genuine peace can be found. What I, personally, appreciate in the practice is the idea of welcoming all experiences and emphasis on self-inquiry.
Welcoming thoughts and feelings, whether they be 'good' or 'bad' may sound unusual (don't we want to 'get rid of' bad thoughts?), but perhaps that is the genius of it. It is a fundamental contention of my understanding and practice of medicine that, ultimately, truth eases all suffering; the search for reality - the direct experience of what is real - is the most grand path to health, happiness and peace.
Yoga nidra, to my experience, is a guided tour through all aspects of 'you', down to the deepest depths where 'you' meld with... well, everything else. This directed self-inquiry, in my opinion, offers the highest path to healing by leading you to, and through, all internal pains, struggles, and past traumas (the 'leading to' is where the welcoming of experiences really comes in handy; if you don't, you can't move through it to experience the original, most sublime, peace at your core).
The application of yoga nidra, through iRest, makes absolutely perfect sense for our combat vets, who saw and experienced events no human should have to suffer. I am very happy to see this medicine meet those who will benefit so greatly from it, and I am excited to share the experience with you!
Here's a link to the five minute video:
1. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Retrieved from www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/what-is-ptsd.asp
2. National Center for PTSD, PTSD Research Quarterly, Fall, 1990. 1(3), p. 2. www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/newsletters/research-quarterly/V1N3.pdf
3. Hoge, C. et al. (2004). Combat Duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mental Health Problems, and Barriers to Care, New England Journal of Medicine, 351(1), p. 13. Retrieved from http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMoa040603
4. iRest, short for 'Integrative Restoration', employed by the Integrative Restoration Institute (IRI, www.irest.us), is a 10-step protocol based on the 4,500 year old practice of Yoga Nidra.
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