Thursday, December 31, 2015

Peace Studies Interview

A few months ago a friend of mine who teaches at the University (UM-Duluth) asked if I would agree to be interviewed by a couple of her students from her Peace Studies class, as they were really curious about yoga. I agreed, and here is what came out of the interview.

In honor of the new year, and to complement this post, I drew this peace zentangle.

Peace studies interview questions:

1. How did you initially get involved in peacework?
I have no formal training in peacework. However, I believe there are many similar beliefs in yoga as in peacework.

2. Who/what influenced you to start teaching yoga?
I started to practice yoga in the late 1990's to see if I could get out of pain. I had had many car accidents as a teenager and had chronic neck and back pain. I found a yoga program on TV and did the lessons every day for about 3 years before I finally worked up the courage to take a real-live class here in Duluth.

I loved the meditative aspect of yoga, the way my mind was becoming calmer and more peaceful. I took more and more classes, signing up for in-depth studies and philosophy classes. Finally, there were no more in-depth studies offered except for teacher training. I decided to take the leap and apply for the training even though it seemed terrifying. I think it was so scary because it was something that I really wanted to learn and do. But I was afraid that I would change so much as a person that perhaps the rest of my life would be left behind.

Thankfully, that is not what happened. What happened is that I found a greater acceptance of myself. I found peace in my mind and in my body. I found a practice that supported me where I was at. And a topic that I was passionate about sharing and good at teaching.

3. What styles of yoga do you teach? Explain what each of them entails.
I teach mostly relaxation and guided meditation. I can teach Hatha and flowing yoga (Vinyasa style) but what calls to me and what I teach best is Therapeutic yoga in these styles: Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga, and iRest Yoga Nidra.

Restorative Yoga:
Restorative Yoga is a therapeutic style of yoga which utilizes multiple props to make it easier for the body to get into certain poses, and thus, surrender to the pose. Practicing poses using props provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation. The more your body is supported in the poses the deeper the sense of relaxation. Relaxation is a state in which there is no movement, no effort, and the brain is quiet. Typically, Restorative poses are sustained for ten minutes or for as long as you are comfortable.

Yin Yoga
Yin Yoga uses traditional Hatha posesmostly seated or reclining postureswhich allow a deep stretch, combined with Restorative style poses, which use multiple props to support the body. Together, these allow a deep opening in the body. All poses are held longer than in a regular Hatha class: around 5 minutes per pose. Yin yoga poses apply moderate stress to the connective tissues of the body—the tendons, fascia, and ligaments—with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility. The dynamic of the class is meditative, focusing on the breath and using the breath to find opening and ease in the body.

iRest Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra means “yogic sleep” and is one of the deepest states of awareness and relaxation we can experience while being awake. Class consists of a variety of relaxation techniques including guided meditation & imagery, breathwork, and sense withdrawal (bringing awareness deeper and deeper until only the sense of hearing is outwardly focused). In the state of deep relaxation, tension is released from the body on a physical level, and the mind completely switches off, allowing us to settle into pure awareness. The relaxation response brings your system into balance. When practiced regularly, you will reduce your everyday stress levels and boost your feelings of wellbeing. You will also build deeper awareness and bolster your health with deep relaxation.

4. What benefits do you think yoga has on the body and mind/ benefits in general?
Yoga benefits include maintaining or increasing range of motion, flexibility, and strength, building stronger inner core muscles, finding more peace of mind, finding your calm center, building awareness of self, increasing self-acceptance and self-love, letting go of negative thought patterns, recognizing your mistakes as “human” instead of “stupid,” recognizing your own “faults” and liking yourself anyway, letting go of trying to change people, decrease in stress and the “stress hormone” cortisol, increase in “bonding and love” hormones oxytocin and serotonin, better sleeping, heart health, and in general, regular yoga practice produces an overall feeling of better health and more contentment.

5. How do you think yoga helps with peace in the community?
I used to wonder how yoga helped promote peace or women's rights or issues around poverty, education, discrimination, and so on. I wondered if practicing yoga was selfish because I was focusing my attention on myself and looking inward instead of being out there on the streets with a protest sign. But now I see a place for both of these things. And what I have really come to see is that through my yoga practice I have trained my mind to be less angry, less judgmental, less reactive. I still have compassion and strong beliefs, but I do not have the same amount of emotional attachment to an outcome. This gives me peace of mind and lessens the overall amount of anger and violence in the world. There is an idea in yoga that the more peace we have in ourselves, the more the ripples of peace will extend outward to our community.

6. What do you think it is about yoga that draws in and interests others?
I think people are attracted to yoga first for the idea that they could get in shape or start a healthy habit such as meditation. As people continue with yoga I think it is the richness of the history, the philosophical knowledge, the ethical guidelines, the community, and learning and accepting of the self that keeps them interested.

7. How has yoga changed your life since you first started?
On a physical level, I am stronger and more flexible. On an emotional level, I am much steadier – not nearly so many ups and downs. And on a life level, I am now a yoga teacher, involved in a yoga community, teaching students, and teaching others to be teachers too.

8. Other than yoga, what things can people do to create peace within the mind and body?
The most important thing to remember is to breathe. If we can breathe calm and steady we will be calm and steady. If we can train our minds to be kind and engaged in the present moment, we will find contentment. People find this kind of training through mindfulness based practices such as meditation, yoga, and prayer. We can also join peace communities such as Peace Choir or Peace Church.

9. What recommendations do you have, such as books, articles, film, or website, that would enhance our understanding of yoga?
To enhance understanding you must immerse yourself. Take classes in yoga postures, meditation, philosophy and ethics. Sign up for yoga newsletters such as the free mailing lists that Yoga Journal has: I recommend the “Wisdom” newsletter.

10. Would we benefit from attending a group, participating in an activity, taking a tour, or observing any particular setting (experiential learning).
1) There is a Meditation 101 class starting at Yoga North on Wednesday Nov 18. It's a 5 week series.
2) There is a book of yoga ethics I strongly recommend. And it's best if you have a book group to discuss it with. I would read and discuss one chapter a month: The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele.

11. List your favorite quote:
"Go so deep into yourself you speak for everyone."
~ quote is from Ed Ochester who is quoting Galway Kinnell

This came up for me when my yoga teacher training (YTT) group was assigned to do an individual art project for our final project. I had lots of fear surrounding this assignment because I do not consider myself artistic/creative. I know I am good with words so I decided to write a spoken word poem for my art project. As I was writing I recognized that the rant running in my head about how awful it was to be assigned to create an art project was all about my own fears, feeling inadequate, and imagining that I was no good. I know that these feelings are universal. Then I came across this poem with the final line "go so deep into yourself you speak for everyone" and I knew I was on the right path.

I was able to present my art project and I could see that my poem did mean something to my fellow YTT's, that they understood my fears, that my pain and uncertainty was also their pain and uncertainty. These feelings of recognition made me realize that yes, I was able to go so deep into myself that what came out was universal. And perhaps this is what art is about. It is rendering something that speaks to people on a deeper level. In that sense, I was able to let go of my preconceived notion that I cannot "do" art and I was able to come to peace with my own fears.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: Dancing in the Bamboo Forest

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest ~ a travel memoir by Djahariah Mitra

Dancing in the Bamboo Forest cover pic
I was excited to receive this book with a request to review it. I seek out memoirs and especially memoirs written by women about their travels and personal journeys. And certainly this book falls into exactly these categories, with the added bonus that the travel and journey are yoga specific.

We start out with the author in an emotionally dark place in her life. She decides to go to India to study, travel and find herself. I think many of us who study yoga have that same urge; the urge to go to the birthplace of yoga, to immerse ourselves in the culture and philosophy. Mitra does this with a teacher training followed by travel, yoga teaching, dance training, and building relationships with fellow travelers and native Indians alike.

She shares her inner thoughts, her attempts to find happiness, her everyday ups and downs with living in uncertainty. She doesn't know how long she will stay in India, she doesn't know if she will be able to get a job that will support her to stay in India, she doesn't know if her health will hold out.

She struggles with finding contentment in the uncertainty. This is what I recognized the most in my own life journey: the practice of finding contentment in my discontentment. Quite the kōan. I learned more about this in my teacher training too. There it was defined as “limbic space” by one of my professors. It's the idea that we need to become comfortable in our discomfort, comfortable with not knowing, comfortable in the waiting. In the book, Mitra has a very hard time with this and I think, so do we all. It was hard for me to read, hard to stick with her discomfort, but I thank her for being so candid and for sharing her struggle.

Interspersed with her personal journey, she shared some of her yoga understanding. I enjoyed her discussion of yoga philosophy, especially the part about being called to a spiritual life while still being a “regular” person, or as I've sometimes heard it called, a householder. Again, this is a struggle I understand. The essential question is, how do we give up everything and remain in this life? There's no right answer but I wonder if part of the struggle is in the phrasing “give up everything”? Perhaps if we thought we were gaining, not giving up, there wouldn't be a question.

And finally, as in other books I've read where an American woman goes to India, there is the culture shock to contend with. Women are 2nd class citizens, do not have rights the way men do, are not allowed to go out by themselves, travel by themselves, or wear less than 3 layers of clothing on all parts of their body. The author did find places where India is more modern, places where she could go out to coffee and even meet with male friends but it was not encouraged by society. She got questioned and shamed by her landlords for doing things like having male guests for dinner. It just seems so archaic and unfair to me. It's so hard to reconcile this part of Indian culture with the mindful practices of yoga that also came out of this culture.

The dichotomy of Indian culture, the blow-by-blow account of daily ups and downs, and the topic driven writing style (vs. linear) sometimes made this book difficult for me to read. When I could let go of my desire to know exactly where and when the author was, and when I could let go of wanting India to be as holy as I imagine it, the book was much more enjoyable to me. This book is worth reading if you want to know more about yoga, Indian culture, and if you want your own beliefs challenged as you read about someone else's personal growth.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Remarkable Role of Fascia

The more I learn about fascia, the more complex and interesting it becomes. I have heard that the nadis are on the fascial plane as well as many acupuncture points. The point of Yin Yoga is to work with the connective tissue: tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Recently I have been studying, practicing, and teaching Somatics (brain-body re-education / neural re-education). So the second paragraph of the Yoga International quote below, stressing that the better we are with our proprioception the less pain we will have, makes perfect sense to me:

A Dynamic Organ of Communication

In addition to creating our literal interconnectedness, fascia also plays the remarkable role of helping the body to sense itself without using the eyes to see itself from the outside. Fascia is full of innumerable sensory nerve endings that are in constant communication with the brain about the body’s position in space. This ability for the body to use “inner vision” to sense itself is called proprioception, which is sometimes referred to as our "true sixth sense." In fact, you are actually using proprioception right now as you read this article. That's because if we didn’t have the ability to sense the body with our “inner vision," we wouldn’t be able to move through life in a controlled way. Without our proprioception we would all probably be lying in helpless, uncoordinated heaps on the floor—it’s really that important of a sense!

Because our fascial system is a major organ of proprioception, the health of our fascia is directly connected to how developed our “inner vision” is.

We all possess an acceptable level of proprioception that allows the body to move through life, but we’re now learning that high-quality proprioception can be an extremely important key to healthy aging. Researchers have recently uncovered a link between increased levels of proprioception and decreased levels of pain in the body. In other words, the more that your brain can sense your body accurately, the less pain you tend to experience. In addition, the more developed your proprioception is, the more skillful your daily movements will naturally become, reducing your chances of injury in the first place (and this becomes increasingly important as we grow older).

~ from Yoga Anatomy: What Every Teacher (and Practitioner) Should Know About Fascia by Jenni Rawlings, posted on Yoga International on February 2, 2015.

ps - if you do a Google search on fascia and look at the images you will get an idea of just how much fascia we have in our bodies. And thank goodness - it's what holds us together!