MatchaSupPre_B01Several months ago, I acquired 100 grams of matcha from someone who sources it directly from a Kyoto farmer. Japanese green teas, such as sencha and gyokuro, are my favorites, but I’d rarely had matcha.

I immediately did a Google search for “matcha preparation.” Among the many links appeared was a video by a young man named Kohei Yamamoto (no relation), “How to prepare MATCHA.” He came across as a likable guy next door, and his presentation was both old school and approachable:

  • he used a chasen (bamboo whisk) and other Japanese utensils not always used outside Japan;
  • he taught the back-and-forth whisking method (as opposed to circular);
  • he took measurements by feel (no measuring cups);
  • he showed the proper way to serve tea, by turning the bowl so that the front faces the guest (I love this detail); and
  • he drank the tea in the traditional manner: bowing, saying “Itadakimasu,” and downing the serving all at once, in a few gulps.

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I also found his blog, Tales of Japanese tea, which chronicles his study since 2009 of sado (also chado, chanoyu), the Way of Tea, Japanese tea ceremony. The more I read, the more I realized how “preparing matcha” is only one element of sado–like how asana is only one element of yoga.

I was amused by Kohei’s anecdotes, for example, when he critiques his wife’s ceremonial bowing posture compared to their teacher’s form. (The comparison will be clear to Iyengar teachers’ eyes!)

Nowadays it’s mostly young women who study tea ceremony (mostly to make themselves more marriageable, according to some) and the meticulous protocols might seem unnecessary, even absurd. But if a person is truly interested, those protocols can foster deep concentration and appreciation for the smallest detail.

On YouTube, I found many other how-to videos, such as “How to Make Matcha Tea – Dr. Jim Nicolai” by the Andrew Weil Integrative Wellness Program. Nicolai followed some of the traditional methods while adding a Western sensibility and informative tidbits.

Then I found Panatea and Breakaway Matcha, polished, urbane online retailers of matcha. Their focus: matcha’s health benefits, gourmet cachet, and trendiness. Panatea’s slogan is “Sip up and Zen out,” and the husband-and-wife founders describe their Ceremonial Grade Matcha Green Tea Set as “sleek and sexy.”

MatchaSupPre_B02Breakaway Matcha is served at The French Laundry, offers workshops at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and is very high quality (and pricey). Breakaway caught my attention when the founder demonstrated his way of preparing it: with a milk “matcha frother.” At first, I found something incongruous about using a battery-powered tool instead of a whisk. On the other hand, the raw ingredients are the same (he’s not drowning the matcha with milk and sugar and whipping up a Frappuccino, after all).

While Westerners (including myself) are openminded about unfamiliar cultural practices, we tend to adopt only the most obvious, graspable parts. We do yoga asana, but might study yoga philosophy only superficially. We drink matcha for its antioxidants, but might ignore the rituals of its preparation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. But the “other” aspects can elevate the experience to more than another health fad.

Images: Hibiki-An

In my first class for teens, I taught an active, but basic, sequence, with lots of jumpings and standing poses. Most were absolute beginners; even the basics were demanding.

After class, however, the teens’ teacher, an Iyengar yoga student herself, made a request. “Next week show them some of the fancy poses,” she said. “Fire them up. They don’t know anything about yoga and need to see where it can go.”

In my typical adult classes, I demonstrate a pose only if relevant to the day’s sequence. Rarely, almost never, would I demo a pose if I’m not teaching it. Here, she was asking me to do just that.

So, the next week, I gathered the group together. After a brief discussion on the eight limbs of yoga, I did a mini demo for them. I linked the poses that we’d tried the prior week with related, but more involved, poses.

“Remember Trikonasana, the triangle,” I said, “it can lead to this,” doing Utthita Parsva Hasta Padangusthasana.

I proceeded to show the links between the following:

  • Sukhasana and Padmasana
  • Dandasana and Paripurna Navasana
  • Chatushpadasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana
  • Gomukhasana and Salamba Sirsasana

That day I taught them sun salutations and backbends, culminating in Urdhva Dhanurasana. I helped a bunch of kids up and, indeed, they were fired up.

The yoga “demonstration”

To introduce yoga to Westerners, BKS Iyengar did numerous yoga “demonstrations,” asana performances before an audience. He knew that asana would catch people’s attention.

Are such demonstrations done by Iyengar yoga teachers today? No. Why? Well, I can answer only for myself, but I suspect that most Iyengar yoga practitioners consider public performances of asana rather showy.

But such performances have their place. Take Patricia Walden’s backbend videos from a 1990 yoga conference and from her 60th birthday performance. First, we can learn a lot from watching her demonstrate advanced backbends. Visual learning is invaluable. Second, it is fascinating to see a practitioner’s development over time; to me, her practice at 60 is superior to her star performance at 36.

On the blog Yoga Bound, I found a video of a demonstration by three Canadian Iyengar yogis at the University of Toronto. A great way to introduce university students to Iyengar yoga!

Nowadays the venue for yoga demonstrations is not the stage, but the Internet, where countless yoga videos can be viewed. Some are instructional “how to” videos, but many are simply performances, from snippets of home practice (“what I did today” or “look at me!”) to choreographed sequences set to music. Part of me wonders a bit about motives. What compels yoga practitioners to film themselves and upload it for the world to see? Show and tell? Attract students? Attract attention?

That said, I enjoy some bloggers’ home practice videos. First, as an Iyengar yoga practitioner, I never tire of observing different bodies. Second, if a blogger is funny or revealing, I might feel a sense of camaraderie. Third, as mentioned regarding the Patricia Walden videos, I might learn a new method of approaching a pose, just by watching a person perform it.

I steer clear of Facebook and other “social media” (I have a private life), so I can’t imagine posting random videos of myself doing yoga poses. But from my experience teaching teens, I see how “seeing is believing” when it comes to anything new and strange.

Light on LifeBKS Iyengar on spiritual maturity and demonstrations

The trouble with demonstrations is the inevitable ego element, as stated here by BKS Iyengar in Light on Life, “Living in Freedom” chapter:

“…Spiritual maturity exists when there is no difference between thought itself and the action that accompanies it. If there is a discrepancy between the two, then one is practicing self-deception and projecting a false image of oneself. If I am asked to give a demonstration before an audience, there is bound to be an element of artistic pride in my presentation. But alone, I practice with humbleness and devotion. If one can prevent the inevitable egotism from entering the core of one’s life and activities, it means one is a spiritual man…”

Related posts:

For four weeks last spring, I taught Iyengar yoga to 40 teenagers. All were academically gifted students enrolled in an early-admission university program. While a couple had done yoga in elementary school or with Wii Fit, most had never attended a single yoga class.

Thank goodness they were split into two groups of 20. Teens, no matter how advanced academically, behave nothing like adults in class! While I taught a particular subset of teenagers, here are my observation on teaching teens versus adults:

  • Teens can’t stop talking I mistakenly assumed that because these kids were stellar students, they would immediately shut their traps and listen silently (as do adult students). No way! They are chatterboxes before, during, and after class. They exclaim when doing a balance pose and they fall out. They giggle with their friends. They make fun of one another. I had to balance being strict and letting them have release tension in their teenage way.
  • Teens might know nothing about yoga When adults attend yoga classes, they have chosen, for one reason or another, to be there. For whatever reason (physical, mental, spiritual), they are interested in yoga. Here, my yoga series was a mandatory course (as were courses on soccer and hip-hop dancing), whether they were enthusiastic or apathetic about yoga. I had to start from scratch with them: What is yoga? Who is Iyengar? How can yoga affect their bodies and minds?
  • Asana ability is extremely wide ranging In my two groups, asana ability ran the gamut. Some couldn’t bend forward 45º with straight legs and concave upper back. Raising the arms into Urdhva Hastasana was a major event! At the other extreme was a wisp of a girl whom I could’ve led into full Natarajasana right then and there. Adults are also physically diverse, of course, but I found the level of ability more wide ranging in teens.
  • Teens can be very disconnected with their bodies If I tell an adult, “Press the inner edges of your shoulder blades into your back,” most understand what to do. Especially in outdoorsy, sporty Vancouver, adults generally have learned basic anatomy from their activities, injuries, or a few decades of life. Teens might not know anatomical terms and, if not physically active, might have little kinesthetic awareness.
  • Strength and flexibility might mean nothing to teens Most adults, regardless of fitness level, want to improve their strength, flexibility, and overall health. Teens? Those who play sports or who are active might care. But some might not care at all. So the teacher must find other ways to generate motivation.
  • Teens want to try everything Even if a teen has no interest in yoga (or limited range of motion), if I introduced tricky, fun-looking poses (like Padmasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana), they wanted to try it. Immediately. More than once I had to yell at them to simmer down and pay attention or they could injure themselves. (Fortunately their bodies, whether agile or not, are resilient.)
  • Savasana is conducive to stillness While some could barely contain themselves during the active asana practice, most were absolutely quiet in Savasana. A couple of students couldn’t keep their eyes closed or jostled each other during Savasana, which is clearly an indicator of maturity in teens and in adults. But most readily, willingly, settled down.

In January, Dove released a “Love Your Curls” video, an offshoot in its “Campaign For Real Beauty.” Like any mass-marketing campaign, the video is one that people either love or hate. It features a bunch of little girls criticizing their unruly curls and declaring that straight hair is more beautiful. Then, the girls are led to a surprise party, with a bunch of curly tops, dancing and singing an uptempo “we love our curls” anthem.

It’s a corny, somewhat cringe-worthy scene. But, I must admit, when I was their age, I felt exactly as did these little girls. I remember the same self-consciousness, the same discontent, the same fervent wish for straight hair.

Dove Curly Little GirlChildren want to fit in, so it’s hard to be different or to buck conventional ideas of what’s acceptable or beautiful. But what about adults? Shouldn’t people–at some point–accept who they are? Isn’t this part of maturity, self acceptance, and the basic niyama (personal discipline) of santosha (contentment)?

In my case–at some point–I stopped blow drying my hair. I discovered effective hair products and learned to work with, not against, my hair. To my surprise, when allowed to do its natural thing, my hair behaved better than when I tried to control it. Over time, my mindset flipped 360 degrees: While my hair goes crazy in humidity (I almost gave up in Pune last summer), it is part of me and I wouldn’t opt to change it.

I forgot about the video until late June, when I stumbled on “Hair That’s Long, Sleek, High School Approved,” by Katherine Rosman in the New York Times. Weekly blowouts?

I thought about these teens (and often their mothers, too) who pay for weekly trips to salons, trying to transform not only their hair, but their whole identities, based on factors they deem socially preferable. How many of their other decisions are similarly based on social pressure?

corinne-bailey-raeTo me, beauty (in all senses of the word) is enhanced when people accept, even emphasize, their uniqueness. It is really sad to see people pretending to be what they are not–and how long can that last?  Somehow, when people embrace their own look, they are more beautiful, don’t you think? Imagine Corinne Bailey Rae without her signature hair. If she has the confidence to flaunt her curls, she must also have the self-possession to be her own person as a musician.

When I was sick with a string of upper respiratory infections in spring, I kept wishing for plain, simple, normal health. If I’d had any complaints about my health before, I regretted my ungratefulness because, seriously, I’d had it good. Likewise, we’d be grateful for whatever we have, flaws and all, if we were to lose it.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, for the first time. I knew little about Canada’s “Gateway to the West.” I’ve met a few people who grew up here. I remember a movie, My Winnipeg, that screened at the Vancouver Film Festival several years ago. That’s about it. Well, my first impression was very positive. (Winnipeg in December might have been a different story.) My Winnipeg top 10:

GREEN, LEAFY NEIGHBORHOODS Coming from the summer gardens of Kitsilano in Vancouver, I was pleasantly surprised to find Winnipeg just as gloriously verdant, with soaring trees and plush meadows.

GREEN, LEAFY NEIGHBORHOODS Coming from the glorious summer gardens of Kitsilano, Vancouver, I was pleasantly surprised to find Winnipeg’s Armstrong’s Point just as verdant, with a canopy of soaring trees and lawns as plush as carpets.

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B&B BREAKFASTS At Beechmount Bed & Breakfast, I woke to fresh fruit, homemade muffins, yogurt, and a perfectly formed omelet (here, filled with tender asparagus spears).

WALKABILITY From my B&B a leisurely walk to The Forks took 40 minutes. Along the way, I could have turned to head downtown or to the commercial Osborne and Corydon Streets.

WALKABILITY From my B&B I could walk to Yoga North, the Iyengar yoga studio in town, in less than 20 minutes–and to the Forks, along the Assiniboine River, in 40 minutes. I noticed a decent number of joggers and cyclists. While I found Winnipeg quite walkable, however, it’s definitely car-oriented. Buses run infrequently.

LOCAL ART Here you can find unique pottery and other artwork, including that made by First Nations peoples.

LOCAL ART Here you can find unique pottery and other artwork, including pieces made by First Nations people, who constitute 10 percent of Winnipeg’s population.

PUBLIC ART I don't know if they're permanent or not, but near the Legislature building I saw a bunch of bear sculptures, which I liked.

PUBLIC ART I don’t know if they’re permanent or not, but near the Legislature building I saw a bunch of bear sculptures that resonated with me and my Berkeley background. Go Bears!

BOON BURGERS In Wolseley, the vibe is west coast / left coast. Here, a Boon burger is vegan!

BOON BURGERS In Wolseley, the vibe is west coast / left coast. At Boon, the neighborhood’s burger spot, everything is vegan. This is a “grilled buddha patty” (chickpeas and brown rice) on a kale, arugula, and beet salad.

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STELLA’S This Winnipeg institution reminded me of Vancouver’s Aphrodite’s or Berkeley’s Rick & Ann’s. Here’s the arugula salad with vegetable barley soup.

WINNIPEG ART GALLERY Of course it's not London's National Gallery or New York's MoMA, but I sometimes enjoy a small-scale museum. For example, I could spend hours, maybe a whole year, studying this one photograph by  Henri Cartier-Bresson.

WINNIPEG ART GALLERY Sure, it’s not London’s National Gallery or New York’s MoMA, but a small-scale museum has its benefits. It’s less overwhelming and allows more focus. After all, I could spend hours, maybe a whole year, studying a single photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.

SECONDHAND BOOKSHOPS Winnipeg has almost 20 secondhand bookshops. I found this vintage copy (perfect condition) at Zed Books.

SECONDHAND BOOKSHOPS Winnipeg has almost 20 secondhand bookshops. I’m always hunting for Somerset Maugham’s more-obscure works that libraries don’t carry. I found this vintage hardcover first edition (Doubleday, 1946) for $7 at Zed Books.

YOGA NORTH The preceding Winnipeg moments were fringe benefits. My main objective in Winnipeg? To pass my Intermediate Junior I assessment. I, along with five fellow candidates, passed. Here's my souvenir tee shirt from Yoga North, which was an excellent venue. I held off buying it until I knew that Winnipeg and Yoga North would be a happy memory.

YOGA NORTH The preceding Winnipeg moments were fringe benefits. My main objective in Winnipeg? A successful result at my Intermediate Junior I assessment. On June 19-21, I passed, as did my five terrific fellow candidates from across Canada: Terri Damiani, Jane Kruse, Vic Mehta, Roberta Vommaro, and Martina Walsh. Here’s my souvenir tee shirt from Yoga North, which did an impeccable job hosting the assessment. I had my eye on it from day one, but postponed buying it until I knew for sure that Winnipeg would be a happy memory.

clingposter_v1On the third Sunday in April, I woke with a sore throat. By evening, I had laryngitis. Strange symptom chronology. And strange timing. Already spring! Sunny enough to go glove- and scarf-free. How incongruous to be sick.

After a week of coughing so hard that I self-diagnosed myself with pertussis, I recovered enough to resume teaching yoga, and I plunged back into my normal schedule. Soon my symptoms returned, with a secondary case of sinusitis. In addition to the respiratory troubles, I had a constant headache. My vocal cords were shot; simply talking was a strain.

Two and a half weeks in, I saw a doctor who prescribed a 10-day course of amoxicillin. She also prescribed a corticosteroid nasal spray to use after doing nasal irrigation. “Have you ever used a neti pot?” she asked.

A neti pot? Never had it crossed my mind to try it. Of course, I’d heard of it. Initially I regarded neti, nasal cleansing, as I did other shatkarma (yogic purification techniques): too far out for me. Running water (or a length of string) through my nasal passages? No thanks. From swimming, I know the sensation of “water up my nose.”

More recently, I learned that my friend Terry does neti regularly, and I saw a how-to video by another friend’s boyfriend. Knowing people who do neti in “real life” made it less esoteric. Still, I saw no reason to add an extra step to my daily bathroom routine.

NeilMed Sinus RinseNow, things were different. I was desperate. I immediately bought NeilMed Sinus Rinse, which the doc suggested as an alternate squeeze-bottle method, for positive pressure and ease of use. After the initial shock of the saline solution coursing through my nasal passages, I found nasal irrigation to be easy, effective, and strangely satisfying.

Like inserting contact lenses into my eyes (and dropping rubbing alcohol into my ears after a swim), pouring liquid into my nose turned out just fine! Why did I assume that I might aspirate liquid? It’s impossible with the head bent forward! (Note to the uninitiated: Proper hygiene and technique are critical for safe use. Using tap water can cause deadly parasitic infections.)

Due to my illness, I missed the entire 2015 Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada conference, held in Vancouver this year. Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh, from Mumbai, was the featured teacher. Colleagues reported that his teaching was excellent. I was sorry to miss it, but being sick did have a few silver linings:

  • neti potFirst, I’m no longer wary of nasal irrigation. I always find it rewarding to try something new and slightly scary. Like going to Pune by myself last summer (or traveling to any unfamiliar place and somehow fending for myself). Once done, never will that situation be quite so daunting.
  • Second, I have fresh appreciation for normal health. We are always trying to get stronger, faster, stretchier, better in one way or another. What about simply breathing with ease? I take for granted being well, sleeping through the night without a coughing fit, talking without losing my voice, going from morning to night without crashing from exhaustion. Normal health, normal life, is a gift that I overlook unless it’s gone.
  • Third, as I recovered, life’s challenges seemed less and less formidable. If sickness makes life harder, health makes everything eminently doable. Extra work? Fine. Teach additional yoga classes? Sure. Face a big challenge? Let’s go. Bring it on. That’s how I felt when my health returned.

Images: sinusitis graphic; NeilMed Sinus Rinse; neti pot, FDA

In early 2014, I strained a left hamstring muscle near the origin. Or an external rotator in the left hip. Or something.  It snuck up on me. There was no acute injury.

bandhayoga-hamstringsI simply noticed less range of motion (ROM) in straight-legged, forward-bending poses, marked by a pulling sensation on the lateral side of the sitting bone. Initially I was sure that whatever I’d tweaked would resolve in a few weeks, as my injuries typically do.

By April, however, it was still bothering me. While not prohibitive (I continued to attend weekly classes, to teach m own classes, to “do everything”), my more-flexible left leg suddenly had less ROM than my right–and that grippy spot persisted.

A habitual self-diagoser, I looked up other possible conditions. Could it be piriformis syndrome? Could it be sciatica? (Since I had no nerve-related symptoms, I ruled out these conditions, which apparently are common among runners.)

Here’s a short list of remedies I tried:

  • Ice I’m a fan of ice/cold therapy. So, if the area was tender, I’d sit on an ice pack (not everyone’s cup of tea). Ideally I would have alternated cold and hot packs.
  • Rest I never took complete rest, I initially held back in my forward bends. Over time I found that rest was either unhelpful or neutral. I was reminded of senior-level Iyengar yoga teacher Chris Saudek‘s answer to a question about healing an injury. She said that she first tries rest but, if she sees no change, she does the opposite and intensifies her practice.
  • Massage I splurged on three massage therapists with high hopes of finding a miracle worker. The first, known for deep myofascial release, was knowledgeable but spent more time on diagnosis than on massage. The second therapist was a bit too New Agey for me, and the third was good but not great.
  • IMS My final experiment was Intramuscular Stimulation (dry needling) done by a physiotherapist. I have pretty high pain tolerance, thank goodness, because IMS is excruciating! But I found it curiously cathartic. Did my four treatments help? Possibly. I resumed kicking up to handstand with my left leg (after a couple of months’ kicking up only with my right).

In July I left for Indiastretch_highlight, hoping for the best. In Pune, I practiced more than I do back home. There were times when I had to modify: In Trikonasana, I used a block while the majority were prop-free, fingertips on floor. In Paschimottanasana, I did a 45-degree concave forward bend while others rested forehead to shins.

One day, while practicing Supta Padangusthasana I, II, and crossover (two-minute holds per variation per side), I repeated the first upright variation (my usual “test”) found that it felt different after the series. The target spot at my left outer hip felt more diffuse, and I had more ROM. The parsva (side) and crossover variations seem to release the grip on my hamstrings–perhaps by engaging my psoas or by resetting my femur head in its hip socket. (See Ray Long’s articles, linked below, on optimal stretching techniques.)

From that day, I did this Supta Padangusthasana series daily and, by the time I returned to Vancouver in early September, I had turned a corner. My left leg was almost back to normal, and I didn’t feel that pulling restriction anymore. Then–a big sign–I could “pop” my left hip joint again. During my injury, it had stopped popping; I missed that visceral release and was thrilled when it returned!

Today, my left leg is as flexible, or more so, than my right. It took seven or eight months to heal. Diagnosis? With nagging “minor” injuries, there’s rarely a clear-cut answer. By changing our mechanics, our routines, or our attitudes, we must find our own solution.

Further reading by Ray Long, Bandha Yoga:

Images: Paschimottanasana, Bandha Yoga on Facebook; Uttanasana, Bandha Yoga