sly-block-1For my first six months of yoga classes, I used no props–at least what I now know as props. At the Berkeley RSF in the late 1990s, all we had were towels and padded gym mats (which did come in handy for kneeling).  Eventually we got mats. But I didn’t try a block until I set foot in an actual yoga studio.

In a year or two I began acquiring my own props. My first foam blocks were the dense, textured ones sold by Yoga Props, a longtime Internet retailer based in San Francisco. (I’ve never seen them sold elsewhere.) In classic black and with an un-scratchable surface, they are more durable than the typical smooth variety. (One block does have a few teeth marks compliments of my late calico Ginger, plus a shiny patch from a too-close encounter with a space heater.) These foam blocks remind me of lava rock and I ended up transporting them to my parents’ home in Hawaii.

sly-block-2Those were my only blocks for many years. Finally I decided that I deserve a pair of classic solid wood blocks. Then I discovered that they’re rather hard to find. I ended up buying two alternate types from Halfmoon, a prop maker in Vancouver: cork, which have a secure, non-slip texture, and hollow cedar, which, while no substitute for solid wood, are lightweight and made in Chilliwack, BC.

Shortly thereafter, I stumbled upon a great pair of solid cedar blocks, made by my colleague Jason, a professional cabinetmaker. Wood is a natural material, so each block is unique.

On the topic of wood blocks, is it me, or are the ones at RIMYI extraordinarily heavy? I went to Pune last August, and I’m still wondering about those 10-pound blocks.

sly-block-3In Vancouver, I discovered flat chip-foam blocks. Did they originate in Canada?  I’d never seen them in the USA. Firm and tidy, they’re  excellent for sitting poses. While blankets can serve the same function, they become less effective if students fold them sloppily. Also, for Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), a set of four blocks, topped by folded blankets as needed, makes a nice base.

Chip-foam blocks are recycled from foam off-cuts, so they’re somewhat eco-friendly. Depending on when purchased, they might be green-multicolor or yellow-multicolor, and firmness can vary. So, if consistency is important, it’s best to buy all you need in one batch. One drawback is that they crumble with wear and tear. Halfmoon sells fabric covers for them, offering a discount for a block-cover combo.

A while back, Lululemon sold cork blocks shaped like chip-foam blocks. They are aesthetically pleasing, and they are solid and unmalleable. Neither is better or worse, just different. (Lululemon discontinued them a while back, as they do with all of their products.)

The next generation of blocks introduced curved surfaces, to fit the human body more organically. A few years ago, I noticed the Three-Minute Egg at a workshop taught by Aadil Palkhivala; at the time, there was a line of Eggs sponsored by famous teachers, including Aadil’s in teal blue. The Egg website looks corporate, but the company is small and run by a guy named Jason Scholder.

Bhoga blocksMore recently another indie company caught my attention: Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Randy Dean’s Bhoga has introduced wood blocks with an open core and elegantly curved planes. Unlike the Eggs, these have one flat end so they can be used “high” or “low.” I have not yet test these artistic-looking blocks, but click here to view sample uses. (The company also produces yoga benches likely to please even the architects and furniture designers among us.)

I sometimes hear people complain about the cost of props. High-quality props aren’t cheap, but they last forever! I still have my original mat circa 1998 (although I do have five others in my stable); I have yet to discard a mat! My everyday wool blankets also date back 15 years. My block collection is perhaps larger than necessary, but never will I need another, unless I decide to invest in a novel design. If props are essential to Iyengar yoga, and if home practice is likewise essential, why not invest in good props?

Schleich wolfBefore my January trip to California, I stopped at a toy store in Kitsilano. I wanted to buy a Schleich animal figurine or two for my little niece. Shopping for her is tricky. She has strong opinions. But, throughout her stages, from Disney princesses to American Girl to Playmobil and Lego, she’s always liked animals. Now, it’s wild animals.

So I scrutinized the white tigers, elephants, gorillas, foxes… I must have spent a good half hour browsing the collection. (I’m not a snap-decision shopper, I admit.) Finally, considering her penchant for the canine species, I decided on a couple of majestic wolves. Both were adult males: one with a noble, unblinking gaze; the other, silently, dramatically howling.

Howling wolfFor little kids, shopping decisions are quick and instinctive. Chocolate or vanilla, red or blue, cats or dogs? Kids tend not to waver. Their preferences are clear. This reminds me of the yogic concept of svadhyaya (self-study), one of the five niyamas, principles of personal discipline, which I introduced in Yamas, niyamas, and you.

Shopping is a triviality, I know, but one cannot be an efficient shopper without self awareness. Do you know what you want? What you like? What you need?

When I took the two wolves to the salesclerk, he told me, “If you spend just a bit more, you can choose a complimentary Schleich animal from this selection.” He pointed to a flyer with about 10 options. “The ones crossed out are all gone now.”

Rhino babyThe remaining selection comprised rather strange, underappreciated species. There were lots of warthogs. Then I spotted a baby rhino. My niece had just traveled to South Africa and gone on safaris. She might recognize this rhino.

So I returned to the Schleich display and found a pup to add to my pack of wolves. I couldn’t resist the “freebie.” The lure of a good deal is not to be underestimated.

(I rarely shop nowadays but, on Boxing Day, I headed to a South Granville boutique, in my constant pursuit of the perfect jacket that I’ll wear for the rest of my life. The one I’d targeted was too loose and I was about to leave, when a staffer showed me a piece by a French designer. It fit perfectly. I debated (the original price was so exorbitant that, despite a deep discount, it was still a major purchase). Ultimately I couldn’t resist, and it’s hanging in my closet.)

Wolf pupWhen faced with a sale or “buy two, get one free,” what is really going on? Here I thought about aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed), one of the yamas, principles of social discipline. Do I really want/like/need what I buy? Am I too easily swayed by a seeming bargain?

In California, I first gave my niece only the wolf with impressive eye contact. (We named him “Luke.”) When I left, I gave her the pup. I hid the baby rhino in the guest room–for my sister to give her as a surprise, if she needed cheering up.

And I brought the howling wolf home with me. His silent howl spoke to me. I’ll enjoy his company until my next visit.

DAVEY supported shoulder standA friend pointed me to a blog post, “Please, NO Lifts in Shoulderstand,” by Sandra Sammartino, a yoga teacher based in White Rock, BC. My initial response? No way. In Salamba Sarvangasana the overwhelming majority of people need shoulder support, such as folded blankets.

Then I stopped and caught myself. In my prior post, “Learning on your own,” I wrote about the necessity to learn independently. This means being open-minded about teachings, techniques, rules, and majority opinions. Whether you ultimately agree or disagree with an established idea, your conclusion should be your own.

OcciputSo I read Sammartino’s piece more slowly. She studied with BKS Iyengar in 1977 when she traveled to India at age 36. And she initially practiced supported shoulderstands.

Scrutinizing the photo of Sammartino’s current, unsupported shoulderstand, I recognized that she does an upright pose, not the typical banana-shaped version, resting on the shoulder blades, as illustrated above by the cat (who is doing a remarkable job considering no strap and slippery fur). She did this rounded version, which she calls “half shoulderstand” only during her recovery from neck pain allegedly caused by supported shoulderstand.

If she is doing unsupported shoulderstand as pictured daily at age 73, I’m impressed! But I have questions about her rationale for not using support, which she calls a “lift”:

  • Does using support cause cervical compression? Sammartino assumes that using support tilts the head backward, thus compressing the spine. In my experience using support, the head is neutral, as in Savasana–unless range of motion is limited in the upper back, chest, shoulders, or neck. Therefore, the assumption of cervical compression seems to be an overgeneralization. (Perhaps there’s confusion about the head position when using support because the head is tilted backward in the prep stage (lying on the set-up before raising the pelvis into Halasana or Sarvangasana). But, once the pelvis is raised above the torso, the head releases into a neutral, horizontal position.)
  • Where should the occiput should be grounded? Sammartino likes the base of her occiput (posterior skull) to touch the mat. To me, that would flatten the cervical spine too much. The head should be neutral, resting on center of the occiput. (Stiffer individuals can end up resting too high on the skull, with the head thrown back. I agree with Sammartino that this is risky.)

I get the impression that Sammartino was a beginner (and less strong and flexible than she is today) when she tried supported shoulderstand decades ago. Over the years, she has probably trained her body by doing “half shoulderstand” and has progressed into upright shoulderstand. She is lucky that her neck can tolerate major cervical flexion. But would she develop neck pain if she used support today? I don’t think so.

Of course, I’m just hypothesizing. For a firsthand experiment, I’d need to try unsupported shoulderstand myself. Never say never, but for now I’m happy with my stack of blankets!

Below is a video by senior-level Iyengar yoga teacher John Schumacher demonstrating Salamba Sarvangasana using support:

 

Images: Cat in shoulderstand, Yoga Cats; Occiput, The Free Dictionary

bluegrass_backs.pngI bumped into an old friend during my holiday trip to California. “Dylan” has always been an athlete, so I wasn’t surprised that he’s still avidly into hockey, skiing, and other sports. But I didn’t expect him to say, “And here’s one for you. I’m learning to play bluegrass banjo.”

What? Is Dylan even musical? Anyway, he wanted a quality instrument, so he commissioned a Wildwood banjo. Now he’s learning a few bluegrass favorites, mostly on his own. “What about lessons?” I asked. “Right now, I need to get a feel for the instrument,” he said. “No one can really teach that. So every night, for a couple hours, I tool around on it.”

It made me think about how we learn.

Formal instruction

Most people take lessons or classes to learn something–to swim, to play the piano, to speak French, to do yoga. A teacher can guide students to learn the fundamentals. But if there’s no self-motivated practice and freestyle “tooling around,” there’s no real learning. Learning from a teacher counts for maybe 20 percent of ability, and the other 80 percent must come from independent practice (and, of course, natural talent).

exoticwood-back-closeup_web.pngDylan played competitive tennis into his 20s. As a kid, he took lessons but eventually, at age twelve or thirteen, perceived that the conventionally taught “mechanics” were wrong for him. So he experimented on his own.

“When I changed my grip, for example,” he says, “I could immediately tell that it was mechanically correct and efficient. The technique was different from the standard way kids were being taught to play, but I could feel the correctness in my body.”

Instead of automatically deferring to well-regarded “professional” coaches, he relied on his his own instincts. For him, learning is about “feel, execution, and repetition.”

“Detailed instruction sometimes complicates things,” he says. “A person tries to learn by analyzing and becomes stiff, like trying to match a template.”

My conversation with Dylan made me realize that I tend to rely too much on formal learning. Even now, I sometimes blame my lack of progress in something on the lack of available instruction.

28__320x240_nat-reso-close-up-1For example, I studied Japanese casually as a child (afterschool nihongo gakko), took two years of Japanese in college, and then revisited the language as a working adult through evening courses. Today in Vancouver there are few options for Japanese classes in town, and so I never crack open my Japanese books or arrange conversation practice with my native-Japanese friends. If I were more self-motivated about learning Japanese, I might be quite proficient by now, honto ni.

Same with pranayama, which also has few class options. While I practice pranayama more than I do Japanese, I could be more regular, more diligent–with or without a teacher. Actually, in my opinion, infrequent pranayama classes suit me. Between classes, there’s enough time to practice the techniques taught. I know, firsthand, that if I learn one technique in a class, I need to practice it 100 times on my own even to touch it.

65__420x_img-1008Independent learning

The trouble with lessons, classes, and formal instruction: they give the impression that you’re learning, when you’re actually only being introduced. In school, which I took seriously, I experienced real learning only when I actually cared about the subject. Good grades are misleading. (A person can attend a top-10 law school, get a JD, and pass the bar exam without deep knowledge, believe me.)

Thinking about Dylan and his gleaming bluegrass banjo makes me smile–and reminds me of the importance of teaching myself. Some of us might like the structure of formal instruction, especially with the right teacher. But there’s much that we can, should, and must do on our own.

Dagwood sandwich ingredientsTwice a week, I teach yoga in the evening. On Sundays, I can make it home by 8pm. On Tuesdays, I’m not back until 9pm. If I then eat dinner, it’s very late by the time I clean up, take a shower, and turn on my computer.

So I began eating a late afternoon snack and skipping dinner. This routine works well for me. Forgoing a late meal simplifies my life and frees my remaining evening time to do some work or correspondence. I also avoid a mad dash home, compelled to eat. And I prefer sleeping on an empty stomach.

Two recent articles in the New York Times corroborated my early dinner habit with health benefits. First, in “A 12-Hour Window for a Healthy Weight,” Gretchen Reynolds discusses a Salk Institute study that found that mice who ate within a 12-hour window averted obesity, while mice who ate at all hours got fat and metabolically ill.

Dagwood comicsSeveral years ago, I read about the possible benefits of such “intermittent fasting.” Proponents hypothesize that frequent meals (grazing, snacking) constantly flood your bloodstream with insulin, leading to weight gain and metabolic syndrome. Limited fasting, they say, can increase lifespan, reduce cancer risk, and increase muscle gain and fat loss.

A popular method of intermittent fasting is to skip breakfast and to eat between noon and 8pm. But, for me, skipping breakfast is not an option (I love breakfast!). So an early dinner is my way of experimenting with a narrow eating window. (I can’t afford to lose any weight, and I like three square meals a day. So I’m not reducing intake but, rather, eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner closer together.)

Of course, I break this routine when I’m traveling or visiting family and friends. But I’ve lost interest in nighttime snacks, the subject of the other Times article.

Dagwood midnight snackIn “The Dangers of Eating Late at Night,” Jamie Koufman, MD, a New York specialist in laryngology and acid reflux, attributes the prevalence of reflux among Americans today to poor diet and late dinnertime. She adds that it’s not only the timing of dinner, but the American propensity to eat enormous quantities. (Europeans eat dinner late, but are less likely to have reflux.) Her basic advice: eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime.

I’m not advocating the early bird special for everyone, but if an evening yoga class seems out of the question, try rethinking dinnertime. One fringe benefit: breakfast the next morning is extra satisfying!

Images: Dagwood sandwich ingredients, The Art of Manliness; Dagwood comics, Wikipedia on Dagwood sandwich; Dagwood midnight snack, Encyclopaedia Brittanica Kids

I can’t believe that 2014 is over. I still have tons of unfinished business and loose ends to tie up. Plus I didn’t read enough books, clean out my closets, practice enough yoga, spend enough time with family or friends…

On the bright side, 2014 was a decent year. I wrote another Lonely Planet Big Island book. I got an iPhone, my first smartphone (why on earth was I such an extreme holdout?). I injured and recovered from a hamstring injury. I replaced a back-wrecking memory foam with a solid Marshall mattress.

Most memorable, I studied at RIMYI and traveled to India, both for the first time, from late July to early September. It was a rite of passage, so to speak, but was it transformative?

Major events, including a big trip, can carry a myriad of expectations. Not only should the event itself be fascinating or exciting but, once done, one might expect to emerge a different person. I’m reminded of a friend’s description of summer camp at Algonquin Park when he was eleven: “By the end of summer, so much had happened, kids were convinced that no one at home would recognize them.”

While my expectations weren’t quite that high, I perhaps did expect something. I’m talking not simply about asana skill, but about perspective, attitude, and real maturity.

In my experience, however, a major event typically has short-lived consequences. It’s a blip in my normal range. A few months after my trip, I feel (and act) more or less as the person I was before. For an improved 2015, I need to focus not on major events, but on minor, everyday habits and routines. So, here are a few thoughts and a to-do list for 2015:

BooksReading

I average a book a month–in the best of times. I skip dozens of books filed away to read “when I have time.” Do I really lack time? Incrementally, I probably waste hours reading random stuff on the Internet or otherwise zoning out. A book a week is daunting, but two books monthly is within the realm of possibility.

I finished a bunch of India-related books in record time before my trip; once back, however, I read nothing from September to December, when I devoured two Somerset Maugham novels back to back: Mrs Craddock and The Merry-go-round.

Spending more time reading might seem like a luxury, but I’m much happier when part of my mind is living in a book. Since being happy enhances everything else, I’ve decided to read Mr Maugham’s fiction oeuvre, more or less in order of publication, this year. Follow along on my What I’m Reading page.

DSC_0304Yoga

I recently met a newish Iyengar yoga student (about 18 months in) who raved about it. Middle-aged, slightly overweight, and male, I was pleasantly surprised by his enthusiasm. He talked not only of the physical benefits but, pointing to his head, said that he does yoga “for the mind.”

Manifested in him was the steep learning curve of a novice. I miss that initial stage, when everything is a mini revelation. It got me thinking: Where did my practice go this year? Forward, backward? What am I avoiding in my practice? For 2015, I’m planning a monthly home practice “focus” to include asana (and pranayama) that fall to the wayside.

Email Inbox

If anyone has emailed me and not [yet] received a reply, here’s why: I’m drowning in messages. Among my five Gmail addresses (plus one virgin Mac address kept as backup), I harbor 50, 75, sometimes close to 100 “pending” messages in my Inbox before filing or trashing them. The more complex, lengthy, or personal the message, the longer they could sit. (If you send a vague inquiry about Hawaii, forget it. It’s a topic too big and close to my heart. If you want a prompt reply, ask very specific, answerable questions!)

I am sick of my prodigious Inbox. It weighs me down and clutters my mind each time I turn on my computer. Between now and the end of January, I resolve to clean out my email Inbox.

Blog

Blog posts might seem easy to write, but for me they take an inordinate amount of time and energy. While they are more time-consuming that they seem, I also yield to the “work expands” theory, also known as Parkinson’s law: work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

I’m more productive under pressure, so I need deadlines. Ages ago, I skimmed a book by a professional organizer/clutter clearer who claimed that any project can be done in two weeks. I can’t recall either author or title, but the two-week time frame stuck in my head. Hmm, a post every two weeks?

Small WorldFamily and friends

The main thing that concerns me at the end of the year: How much time did I spend with the most important people in my life? The answer is usually the same: not enough. (On Thanksgiving, I did make a family trip to Disneyland for my little niece. So glad I did. There’s no substitute for such shared memories.)

In TKV Desikachar’s book The Heart of Yoga, he addresses how to determine one’s progress in yoga: Look at your relationship with people. He writes, “The success of [y]oga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”

When faced with the age-old dilemma between what’s urgent and what’s important, I must not let the urgent win all the time.

Assessments beyond assessments

To Iyengar yogis, assessment means one thing: being assessed for a particular level as a teacher. Nothing wrong with that. But I can’t help thinking about one of Prashant’s statements: “There is certification for yoga teachers. Why is there no certification for yoga students? You go to a two-hour ‘yoga’ class. Do you think you’ve done two hours of ‘yog’?”

It made me think: What if I were being assessed for all the “roles” in my life? Would I pass them all?

Michael Romero ParsvakonasanaOne of my favorite yoga blogs is Michael Romero’s Home Yoga Practice, which features his writings on being an Iyengar yoga student and teacher in Honolulu. I first “met” Michael when he posted comments on my blog as “yogiromero” in November 2013. He has strong opinions tempered by thoughtfulness and humor. I could tell that he was a serious practitioner. I could relate to his point of view.

In December 2013, he launched his blog, which interested me primarily by his tell-it-like-it-is writer’s voice, but also by his connection to my Hawaiian homeland. Michael lives on O‘ahu and teaches at Iyengar Yoga Honolulu, which I’d once visited in the mid 2000s during a Lonely Planet gig reviewing Waikiki hotels. Small world. According to Michael, my Yoga Spy blog inspired him to start his own—so I claim some credit here! See below for a handful of compelling posts by Michael, who now comments as “yogibattle.”

Michael posts frequently to his blog, the way I did when I started Yoga Spy in August 2009. During my first three months of blogging, I published 16 or 17 posts per month! Back then, I didn’t know if anyone would read my blog or if the well would run dry.

Sunset Gravatar(Back then, I also was on the fence about revealing my identity. So I used (and still use) this Kona sunset pic as my Gravatar. Now I’m happily “out” as Yoga Spy, having concluded that, as in my formally published work, I stand by what I write.)

To be a blogger, one must be a writer at heart—and likewise a rather obsessive observer. That doesn’t change over time, so I eventually saw that the stream of ideas would keep flowing, but not necessarily the time to write them. At any given moment, I have a long list of embryonic ideas, like unfinished business or the mess in your miscellaneous drawer. But nowadays I manage only a couple of posts monthly.

This year I had a fantastic burst around my seven-week India trip. In total, I wrote 23 posts about my time in Mumbai and Pune, plus London. I wrote a heroic 14 posts in the month of August alone, while studying at RIMYI. Insanity!

But, in normal life, my output is drastically more modest. It’s not that I care less about my blog today than I did five years ago. But I’m busier now, and my blog has become more accompaniment than center stage.

How can one carve space and time to maintain a project? How can one hold onto freshness and enthusiasm?

In the early 2000s, when I dabbled in meditation at the Berkeley Zen Center, a couple of the regulars commented that I was lucky to be a beginner. “What do you mean?” I asked, surprised. I was only scratching the surface, after all. “That’s the best time,” one of them said. “When everything is new. Enjoy it.” Zen mind, beginner’s mind.

Maybe I have a “relationship” with my blog akin to those with other people, prone to ebbs and flows, ups and downs. Maybe it’s likewise with yoga and other priorities in our lives. Changes and phases might be inevitable.

In two weeks, a new year will swoop upon us, so, in the holiday spirit, I’ll resolve to blog more regularly in 2015. But, even if not, I can’t imagine not blogging. It is part of what I do and who I am. Same with yoga.

Recommended posts from Home Yoga Practice (it was hard to choose):

Who is better, your regular teacher or the visiting teacher?

Chasing rainbows… the never ending quest to attain perfection in asana

Battle within: the request to sub a recently deceased yoga teacher’s class

Subbing in the shadow of the popular teacher

Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga