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

BKS DhanurasanaSkimming through an issue of Common Ground, a Bay Area “consciousness” magazine, I spotted a photo of a slim young woman in Dhanurasana. Her pose was all wrong, painfully so, with a collapsed chest, convex thoracic spine, and widely splayed knees. The image accompanied a woman’s essay on surviving depression and addiction with the help of yoga. Incredibly, the image must have been considered presentable, perhaps illustrating a strong and inspiring pose. I was fixated on her egregious form.

If this woman were in one of my classes, I’d immediately tell her to exit the pose–and to do a modified or propped version. First, she is inviting injury. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually she could wreck her knees and crunch her lumbar spine. Second, she is not “getting” the pose, a backbend and chest opener. She is only attempting the superficial form of the pose, by catching her ankles with her hands. She is missing the essence of the pose.

Yoga Anatomy DhanurasanaI’ve attended non-Iyengar yoga classes in which students are minimally, rarely, or never corrected. The woman’s misguided Dhanurasana would be perfectly acceptable. Maybe the teacher would even throw in a few “Beautiful!” cheers.

Sometimes students are taken aback when they are corrected and told to “do less” in an Iyengar yoga class. But most students, once they viscerally experience a truly aligned pose, are grateful.

What’s acceptable in Iyengar yoga has nothing to do with ability or level or beauty, but on understanding the essence of a pose.

Check out the assortment of Dhanurasana images from a Google search. While some bodies are obviously more limber and able to perform deeper backbends, students of any level can understand the appropriate actions–open chest, concave thoracic spine, elongated hip flexors and quadriceps, relaxed face and neck.

BKS Parsva DhanurasanaDuring a class earlier this fall, I taught Dhanurasana and Parsva Dhanurasana. These poses are included in lower-level syllabi (Intro II and Intermediate Junior I), but they’re challenging for many because they require lifting one’s body weight against gravity. When we came to Parsva Dhanurasana, one student asked, “What’s the purpose of doing this?”

Off the top of my head, I explained that rolling to the side requires a good understanding of the basic pose, Dhanurasana, since the backbend must be maintained throughout. Also, the dynamic movement teaches coordination, to shift one’s center of balance. Later, I grabbed my Light On Yoga for BKS Iyengar’s statement on the poses effects: Parsva Dhanurasana massages the abdominal organs.

Now, while the pose might develop kinesthetic awareness and coordination and maybe even benefit the organs, maybe we do some poses partly just because they’re possible. If we climb mountains just because they’re there, maybe we do some poses simply for the challenge, to feel alive.

Images: BKS Iyengar in Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; in Parsva Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; anatomical drawing of woman in Dhanurasana, YogaAnatomy.net

mo-deckThe next star in my Aging Well series would be a centenarian if she were human. In dog years, she’s 15. Meet, Momo, a Labrador Retriever with high energy, strong will, sleek physique, and unbridled enthusiasm. When we adopted her almost five years ago, she acted like a dog half her age. She’d roam Kits beach, chasing herons, swimming, ignoring commands, and sniffing everywhere. Food was, and always will be, her great passion.

Today, despite some creakiness in her joints and limbs, she still has daunting “get up and go.” She is never tardy for her morning walk, much less any meal (hers, mine, yours). Five years ago, she was going grey on her face and belly; now her front paws are also salt-and-pepper and her two-toned face is unmistakable (and just as beautiful!).

Vets comment on that alert face: her bright eyes and eager expression. When I see other senior dogs, plodding along, sometimes needing persuasion to continue, I consider Momo’s innate drive. What keeps her going?

 

Recently I viewed the TED talk How to live to be 100+ by Dan Buettner, in which he highlights  findings from a National Geographic study on the world’s longest-lived peoples, residing in Sardinia, Italy; in Okinawa, Japan; and among Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.

Among the factors correlated to longevity in these groups are the following:

  • diet (eat healthfully and moderately)
  • activity (establish an active lifestyle, not an exercise regime)
  • social connections (prioritize family, friends, and faith-based community)
  • attitude (cultivate sense of purpose or ikigai)

mo-beachI was especially intrigued by the last factor and the Japanese concept of ikigai, which means “a reason for being” or “a reason to get up in the morning.” It is believed that we all have our own ikigai, which might require deep, lengthy search of self. Once discovered, one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.

Among the Okinawan elders, ikigai ranged from lifetime careers (a karate master still teaching, a fisherman still fishing) to family roles (a grandmother devoting her attention to her baby granddaughter). I thought of Momo and the way she still has ikigai to do her particular doggy stuff in our household.

mo-down-dog

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose).

A knock on the door? That’s her cue to bark up a storm and charge the postal carrier–for a moment, before wagging her tail and making friends. Squirrels? Another reason to do her duty, chasing them out of sight. (Cats? She’s learned to respect them since she has her own kitty companion at home.) If another dog gives her the wrong look or vibe, watch out. Nevermind that she’s senior (and female); she’s an alpha and will win based on sheer will and force of personality. And regarding food, it’s her birthright, talent, and job to dine with every human eating anything delicious (or at least edible).

What she does, she does with pure, palpable joy. She’s not merely happy to receive her post-walk peanut-butter bone; she’s ecstatic, as if tasting it for the first time. Watching her, I’m convinced that longevity requires such enthusiasm. Forget about being cool, sophisticated, and blasé. Get excited!

Momo doesn’t complain about aches and pains, about greying fur, about slowing down. She has a reason to get up in the morning, and we in her midst have no choice but to follow suit!

mo-paw-black

Left paw, June 2010.

mo-paw-grey

Left paw, October 2014.