tadasanaAsk those new to yoga why they’re doing it. Chances are, they’ll cite physical fitness: I’m so tight. I can’t touch my toes. I need to stretch. I’m rehabbing my back. Etc.

Certainly yoga improves flexibility, strength, balance, and coordination. But what about mood? Can asana–the “mere” act of doing a pose–affect your mental state?

Iyengar yogis would say, “Of course.” In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar describes poses not only in terms of technique, but also in their effects on body and mind. Further, the realm of yoga therapy addresses not only physical but mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Anecdotally we’d probably all agree that we simply feel better after doing asana (even a single pose).

But is there proof of effects on mood? A quick Google search found a few articles, such as “Effects of Yoga Versus Walking on Mood, Anxiety, and Brain GABA Levels” in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and “Mood Changes Associated with Iyengar Yoga Practices” in  The International Journal of Yoga Therapy. There are also books on topic, such as Mending the Body, Mending the Mind by Joan Borysenko and Yoga for Depression by Amy Weintraub. (Note: I’m not necessarily vouching for the credibility of these works, but they do show that scholars are investigating the yoga-mood connection.)

Actually, what inspired this post was an October 2012 TED Talk, “Your body language shapes who you are,” by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. She is a social psychologist who studies nonverbal behavior (also known as body language): its effects on social dynamics and on self image. (I stumbled upon this video, which turned out to be the 9th most-viewed TED Talk, with over 6.6 million views, to date. It’s worth your 20 minutes to watch to the end.)

Her faculty bio sums it up well:

[Cuddy’s] latest research illuminates how “faking” body postures that convey competence and power (“power posing”)–even for as little as two minutes–changes our testosterone and cortisol levels, increases our appetite for risk, causes us to perform better in job interviews, and generally configures our brains to cope well in stressful situations. In short, as David Brooks summarized the findings, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”

If two minutes of “strong” poses (such as arms raised overhead in “victory”) makes a difference, imagine what yoga can do. Arms up in the air? We do that all the time, from Urdhva Hastasana to Virabhadrasana I to, flipping the body upside-down, Adho Mukha Svanasana and Adho Mukha Vrksasana. And look at the “weak” body language: collapsed chest, rounded back, dropped head. In Iyengar yoga those are the no-no’s!

urdhva hastasanaThe interesting thing about both Cuddy’s study and Iyengar yoga: Neither adds what I’ll call a “pep talk” dimension to the process. In both, simply doing a physical action did the trick.

In other words, while explicit positive language might help, it’s not essential. In Cuddy’s example, an effective way to prep before a job interview is not self talk, but a confidence-building pose. Likewise, to boost mood or attitude,  you could opt for years of talk therapy, or you could do yoga and inhabit your body–and mind–in a better way.

Image: Urdhva Hastasana, Christine Park

Fauja SinghAre there “windows of time” for some things in life? One of my yoga students, a runner/marathoner, hypothesized  that most people’s bodies can tolerate long-distance running only for two or three decades. Those who run hard from teens to 40s often aren’t running past 50. Those who start later often continue later, but within similar extents.

I recalled our chat when I read “The Runner,” by Jordan Conn, ESPN. Fauja Singh began running upon moving to London at age 84. Born in northwestern India on April 1, 1911, he had lived simply, as a farmer in his home village, for eight decades. Among his three sons and three daughters, only one son, Kuldip, remained at home. After his wife died in 1992, he expected to spend his remaining days working the fields and laughing over tea with his son.

Two years later, Kuldip was killed before his eyes in an accident. Singh was devastated. Eventually, his other children convinced him to move to London, where most of them lived. He left his homeland, he says, “to forget.”

He began running with fellow Punjabi expats at Sikh community gatherings. According to the article, running saved him:

When running, Fauja realized he thought only of his next step. After enough steps, his mind went blank, and with his feet pounding the pavement, Fauja says, “I felt connected to God.” The anger evaporated. For at least a few moments, Fauja escaped his grief.

PJT-ScotiaBankMarathon-17.jpgOne day, he saw a marathon on TV. If those people can do it, surely he could! In 2000, he ran his first marathon at age 89. The next year, he ran the London Marathon and became the fastest man over 90 to run a marathon. By his 100th birthday, he’d broken other distance-running records for men over 100, but he wanted the Guinness World Record for oldest male to complete a marathon.

In October 2011, he finished the Toronto Marathon at age 100, two years older than the official record holder. Unfortunately, he has no birth certificate, which weren’t given to Indians under British rule in 1911. And Guinness requires birth certificates as evidence. Today he is 102, and he ran his final race (a 10K in Hong Kong) in February.

Is there a yoga “window of time”?

Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga is multi-dimensional, and one can focus on different limbs at different stages of life. A typical assumption is that we shift our focus from asana to “higher” limbs over time. That said, asana can be done at any age, if modified accordingly. The yoga window is long, as long as a lifespan for some.

Maybe anything is possible at any age. (Almost.) Take Singh and running: His marathon times can’t compete with a young man’s, and his running career cannot span decades. Nevertheless he underwent the same “arc,” from incline to peak to decline. His marathon times improved between 89 and 92!

2013 Hong Kong MarathonWho’s to define the “best” time for any arc to occur? Certainly, we’d all run our fastest marathons from youth to middle age, not in our 90s. Likewise, in asana, one’s arc has a different flavor if it runs from 25 to 45 versus from 30 to 80. But is one experience necessarily superior?

I once read a senior yoga teacher describing how handstands came naturally to her, but in her 60s they became incongruously challenging. Around the same time, one of my yoga students, sturdy and athletic at 60, was thrilled about her progress as a beginner. While she might never do a handstand, her asana trajectory was ascending. In her context, she was going uphill, not downhill.

Any arc must have a downslope, of course. In Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he muses about writing novels and running, both which he took up at 33. He ran many marathons, peaking in his late 40s. Approaching 60, he couldn’t sustain his former race times and mused on the futility of human effort: It’s like pouring water into a pot with a tiny hole at the bottom. Eventually the pot will run dry. Yet we strive to keep the water flowing, the pot full.

Singh went from unforeseen grief to running marathons, from his native India to “fantastic and different” London, in his 80s and 90s. Maybe there are “windows of time” for everything, but no rules about when they should occur.

Images: England, ESPN; Toronto Marathon, October 2011, National Post; Hong Kong 10K, February 2013, National Post

clutter-4cClean out closets. Purge paper files. Erase hard drives and recycle old Macs. Dozens of housekeeping tasks have been nagging me for months.

Finally, with 2013 breathing down my neck, I’m getting rid of this baggage. It’s been weighing me down. But, while I’m inclined toward neatness and order, discarding stuff is painstaking. Why do I keep things that I don’t need, barely like, or rarely use? Why is it hard to let go?

Seriously, why keep two pairs of running tights that never quite fit? CDs downloaded into iTunes? Jewelry once treasured but now not my style? Travel guides (unused but obsolete) to places I want to go?

Part of my problem is sentimentality. I like having visceral reminders of the past: photographs, calendars, writings, and letters, obviously, but anything (my late calico‘s favorite toy, my sister’s scrubs from residency) can make the cut. They keep memories sharp (sharper, at least) and give context to my life. Where was I five, 10, 15 years ago? Who was I? If I discard this thing, am I forsaking that part of myself?

Another part is practicality. I might need that stuff someday. There’s space, so why not keep three portable fans, a lifetime supply of Lonely Planet business cards, and those running tights? (Case in point: when my old external hard drive recently died, I lost my entire iTunes library (gasp), but at least have the original CDs.)

A regrettable part is acquisitiveness, i.e., greed. In spring 2011, I purchased two sets of blocks—one in cork, one in hollow cedar—to diversify my longtime foam blocks (at a glance, they resemble lava rock!) from San Francisco’s Yoga Props. Soon after, I scored an awesome set of solid cedar blocks from a yoga colleague who’s a cabinetmaker. Later, I bought a pair of standard foam blocks to leave with my parents in Hawaii. Each type of block differs in size, heft, and touch-feel, but I might’ve gone a bit overboard.

Even if you’re not greedy, things simply pile up. If you think you’re immune, check your sock supply, tee shirt collection, and any “miscellaneous” drawer in your house.

I’m reminded of a quote by a lawyer I met before I even started law school. When he moved his family to his wife’s home state, Florida, forgoing his California career (and facing another bar exam), I expressed surprise. In response, he quoted the late Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowl championships as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and, after the third, immediately stepped down:

The most difficult thing a person has to do with his life is [to] decide when it’s time to move on.

That quote struck me years ago—and it still gets to me today.

It’s one thing to be fired or dumped, to be wiped out by natural disaster, to be forced to change. It’s another challenge altogether to control your course—to quit a job, to initiate a breakup, to get rid of once-valued objects no longer enriching your life. Whether big or little, these decisions are all part of moving on and letting go.

In an odd coincidence (maybe even ironically), I’m publishing this post on Boxing Day, the biggest shopping day of the year in Canada. Shoppers, myself included, buy only what you really need or really love!

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Image: A clutter of cats, Le Pen Now and Again, Collective Noun series

Ever seen cooking shows like Iron Chef America or Chopped? When I occasionally watch these cook-offs, I quite enjoy them. In well under an hour, chefs must whip up culinary masterpieces using “secret ingredients” revealed at the last moment. Their dishes must be creative without overshadowing the ingredients or sacrificing taste—classic yet extraordinary.

Maybe I somewhat relate to the dramatic tension. In Iyengar yoga assessments (yes, there is a connection), candidates also face a list of “secret” poses 40 minutes before teaching them. Candidates also perform under time pressure, observed by a panel of judges. While candidates’ personalities differ, teaching points must not stray too far from accepted standards: Garudasana must look like Garudasana, just as plantains must taste like plantains. Talk about grace under pressure.

When I watch those cook-offs, I enjoy seeing not only what the chefs create but also how they behave. Are they calm or nervous? Are they versatile or one-trick ponies? Can they recover from minor disaster? Sure, it’s an artificial environment, but perhaps speed cooking does reveal their knowledge, adaptability, and imagination. Similarly, while I originally considered assessment to be artificial and possibly unproductive, I now consider it an effective process to distill teaching to its fundamentals.

ICA1011_battle-plantains_s4x3_lgSometimes, when an ingredient is revealed, I pity the chef. Buffalo. Crawfish. Beets. Offal. (I had to Google that one.) How lucky to get lemons or almonds! Luck of the draw.

But, really, the whole point is to be ready for anything. Nothing should faze an Iron Chef.

Likewise, those who choose to be assessed must be ready for any pose at their level of training. Some poses are almost unanimously considered harder to teach (Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana and Supta Virasana come to mind). But, by assessment time, there should be little (or less) distinction. Besides, we’re given poses specifically chosen for us, based on our own asana performance. (So our required poses aren’t really random like those surprise ingredients.)

This ability to turn anything into a masterpiece also reminds me of  a conversation I had with a Hawaii surfer. We were talking about surfing competitions. “At the elite level, isn’t it random who wins ’cause every wave is different?” I asked. “It’s not like skateboarding or snowboarding. What if someone gets a junk wave?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The top guys can make every wave look good.”

That stuck with me. It seems to apply to everything that we do in life. No complaints or excuses. We should learn to turn any circumstance to our advantage.

Image: Iron Chef America, plantains

Since I write for Lonely Planet, people assume that I’m constantly traveling. I’m often asked about where I’m going, where I’ve been.

Actually, I take only family and work trips nowadays. This year my destinations were familiar ones: Hawaii, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz. For required work meetings, I also flew to Atlanta, my first view of the Deep South. I haven’t had an open-ended journey in eons. I’m currently more focused on Iyengar yoga training and teaching in Vancouver. And, truth be told, I’m somewhat of a homebody.

Even homebound, however, I could relate to a Japanese proverb quoted in a novel I recently read, Haruki Murakami‘s Kafka on the Shore:

In traveling, a companion; in life, compassion.

The teenage protagonist, Kafka Tamura, running away from home, is asked by a girl he’s just met, “So what does that really mean? In simple terms.”

“I think it means,” he says, “that chance encounters are what keep us going. In simple terms.”

That makes perfect sense in the story: Strangers meet and strike up unexpected alliances; in the end, they go their separate ways, but changed forever by those they met.

I Googled this proverb and found it quoted mainly by travel bloggers—referring to strangers they befriend on the road. No surprise, as we tend to approach strangers more readily while traveling. We’re more open to novelty. Long term, we remember those chance encounters because they’re highlights in the defined mental “album” of a trip.

It resonated with me, the idea that travel companionship, viewed from a lifetime perspective, is ultimately compassion. But I found myself expanding the definition of “travel.”

Aren’t our lives are essentially one LONG trip?

Most people enjoy traveling. Granted, a good trip means different things to different people (Waikiki vacation? Gap-year backpacking across Europe? Solo retreat in wilderness?). But the common thread is finding a different sense of self away from home.

I recently read a WSJ piece, “The Let’s-Sell-Our-House-And-See-the-World-Retirement,” about a California couple, Lynne, 70, and Tim, 66, Martin, who sold their house and now live “home free” around the world (for comparably less than before). Self-described “senior gypsies,” they decided that they’re happier on the road, setting up house every few months. Their switch from a conventional upper-middle-class lifestyle to a nomadic one isn’t common (and might strike you as either very unsettling or very liberating!).

It’s common to experience heightened joie de vivre in foreign settings. We grasp the rarity and transience of being there. At home, we somehow stop seeing it: the specialness of a place and a time that won’t last forever.

Reading that proverb made me think: I should consider my life in Vancouver as a long-term trip. Here, the people I see regularly are, in a way, travel companions: For example, my fellow Iyengar yoga teacher trainees are companions, met by chance, on the long haul to certification. Training together for three to five years is akin to a shared journey. Even in my private life, I should appreciate my household companions—including boyfriend, dog, and cat—as temporary, also met by chance, in a distinct chapter of my life. (I have a bad habit of taking things for granted.)

Will the above individuals be in my life in five, 10, or 15 years? I hope so but nothing is guaranteed (and Momo the Labrador Retriever is already a senior). Regardless, they are coloring this chapter. Why should we exalt our travels when normal home life holds the same elements: Chance encounters. Companions. Compassion.

Image: Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami on Facebook; World Map for Kids, Maps of World

There’s nothing like a public resolution to shame spur me to action. In July I vowed to do Supta Virasana daily, and nothing short of catastrophe could’ve kept me from a perfect record.

One evening, the temperature inside was still in the 70s (a veritable heat wave in Vancouver) and a bunch of windows were open for ventilation. Suddenly I detected the distinct odor of… skunk. “Hurry, close the windows!” Of course, that only locked in heat and smell, yet I dragged out my props and braced myself for five nauseated minutes in the pose.

Some days, the pose felt fine, if never quite soft and still. Other days, my knees rebelled and I noted the leap from Virasana to Supta Virasana. I experimented with different prop set-ups and with pre-stretching my psoas and quadricep muscles.

On August 1, did I do Supta Virasana? Uh…

The whole point of doing Supta Virasana daily was really to set a habit. I do other poses daily, without question. Some I prescribed for myself whether I liked them or not; others I loved from the start. Supta Virasana? They say a habit takes three or four weeks to stick. For me, Supta Virasana might take three or four months.

Losing my sweet tooth

I considered other resolutions that I’ve made. Two years ago, I wrote a post, Sugar, sleep, and Steve Nash, on a New Year’s resolution to stop eating refined sugar. While my diet seemed healthy, I had a sweet tooth and craved dessert after dinner or a treat with my tea. When I read that NBA basketball star Steve Nash attributes his athletic longevity to consuming a no-sugar diet and getting enough sleep, I was intrigued. If such simple things keep him playing pro ball, they’d surely keep me healthy and fit!

To my surprise I quickly lost my taste for sugar, or perhaps I became extra sensitive to it. It’s as if my taste buds changed. I can still appreciate homemade pie and dark, dark chocolate, but a little goes a long way now. And I have no need for a resolution as “enforcement.”

Sticking to a resolution is not enough

I’m not trying to advocate this or that behavior, but to show that a resolution can (and should) become a new habit, a non-issue, a natural way of life. The commonly made resolution to spend more time with family is successful only if priorities actually shift. It doesn’t count if one is grudgingly staying home or texting while pushing the stroller or walking the dog. If keeping a resolution is forced and a burden, it’s unsuccessful in my book. If, without the resolution’s enforcement pressure, one would go back to old habits, what’s the point?

If I immediately stopped doing Supta Virasana once July was over, I didn’t quite turn the corner as I’d expected I would. Retry in September.

Image: TheCartoonPictures, Pepe Le Pew

In June, I attended a three-day workshop with Chris Saudek, a senior Iyengar teacher based in Wisconsin. She made her first trip to RIMYI in 1980, and today her midwestern decorum belies her brilliantly intense sequences and drill-sergeant rigor. I gain much physically from her workshops: my hip flexors were toast after the first full day, while my anterior deltoids felt it for weeks! But her finer teaching points will stick with me much longer. I can still hear her words.

One day, a student asked about dealing with injuries or trouble spots. Her answer started with a question: “If your teacher gives you a pose to do [as therapy], are you actually doing it? Many times, students try it for a week, see no change, and conclude that it doesn’t work!” You must do the prescribed pose(s) daily, for weeks or months (or longer).

Daily dose of Supta Virasana

Chris’s point really hit home. That very day, we began the afternoon session with Supta Virasana. After about 15 years of yoga, this pose remains more casual acquaintance than trusty ally. It would be ideal yoga therapy for me: to release tight psoas and quadricep muscles, to calm the inner body. It could do wonders for my Sirsasana!

Why do I neglect this pose? Well, in my morning practice, I’m drawn more to active, strong asana, from standing poses to backbends to sun salutations. It might cross my mind to do Supta Virasana, but then I decide that Pincha Mayurasana or a bunch of handstands are more “important.” If I’m seeking a still, supine pose, I prefer open-hipped options (such as Supta Baddhakonasana and even Supta Padmasana) since external hip rotation comes more naturally to my body. To hold Supta Virasana for a decent five minutes, I must be vigilant to keep my lumbar spine long and thighs parallel. And the prospect of engineering the perfect prop setup can drain me before I even begin! Talk about major avoidance.

In class, I can stack a few blankets and mimic a decent Supta Virasana, but inside I know it’s lacking. I am experiencing effort, not ease. I am not expressing the true nature of the pose.

So, when Chris made that point, I immediately thought of this pose. Toward the end of June, I made a new resolution: Every day in July, I will do Supta Virasana.

Voluntary change, involuntary change

By making this commitment, I’m obviously aiming for change, for improvement. But in life we must face involuntary change, such as injury. After Chris answered the student’s question as above, she proceeded to share her own method of dealing with injury.

In a three-step approach, she first does appropriate yoga therapy for a while and assesses its effects. If the injury continues or worsens, she stops and rests. But, if there’s no improvement with rest, she returns full force to yoga practice. Rest was ineffective so a renewed effort might be warranted.

That said, she continued, injuries and limits are inevitable over time. Maybe the issue will take years to resolve; maybe there will always be some discomfort. Then you must learn to work with it.

Supta Virasana might never be my easiest pose, but here’s hoping we become friends!

Recommended reading: Eve Johnson, Five-Minute Yoga, Success! 94 days of shoulder stand, and counting

Image: Supta Virasana, Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff

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