types of yoga

In the first decade of my yoga practice, I rarely chanted. Occasionally a teacher might’ve led students in chanting “om,” but that was about it. Since moving to Vancouver in the late 2000s, I found that Iyengar yoga classes often start with chanting the Invocation to Patanjali.

At first I needed to follow along with a printout of the Sanskrit words. While I somewhat enjoyed pronouncing the unfamiliar sounds, chanting felt a bit awkward. Perhaps it felt like playacting—not just the vocalizing, but the idea of doing something so earnestly, conspicuously spiritual.

(I grew up in a secular Jodo Shinshu Buddhist household, where the extent of praying was saying the nembutsu (“Namu Amida Butsu”). Outward displays of spirituality? Those were under the aegis of priests and other seriously-int0-it Buddhists.)

Over time, chanting the invocation grew familiar. It became a ritual, to center oneself, to commence class. If a visiting teacher came to town, she, too, would start with the invocation, giving the practice a calming constancy.

I still don’t consider myself a chanter, but maybe that will change over time. Maybe the act of “just doing it”—in any spiritual practice—is enough at first. I’m reminded of the new york city apartments  in Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. Franny tries to explain her fascination with “praying without ceasing” in The Way of the Pilgrim to her college boyfriend:

“…the starets tells the pilgrim that if you keep saying the prayer over and over again—you only have to just do it with your lips at first—then eventually what happens, the prayer becomes self-active. Something happens after a while. I don’t know what, but something happens, and the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats, and then you’re actually praying without ceasing…”

Sick of the superficial striving she sees in her privileged peers (and in herself), Franny is intensely curious about this something that happens. She is hesitant, even embarrassed, to admit her interest, much less to try to “see God.” So she is heartened by the proposition that you can jump in, even without faith or belief at first. You just do it. Then something happens.

The power of repetition

Franny finds it remarkable that this idea—repeating a spiritual word, name, prayer—appears across religions. She cites the Buddhist nembutsu, the Hindu  om, and the Christian mystical recitation of the word “God” in The Cloud of Unknowing. What a “terribly peculiar coincidence,” she says, “that… all these really advanced and absolutely unbogus religious persons… keep telling you if you repeat the name of God incessantly, something happens…”

While privately repeating a word might differ from publicly chanting, both seem to require repetition for that something to happen. A 2010 article, “Pray It Again… and Again,” by Andrew Holecek (excerpted from his 2009 book The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy) in Utne Reader described it well:

“… The skill of a concert pianist is magical, but this skill is the result of causes that are painfully mechanical. Similarly, the skill of effortless mindfulness is magical, but its causes are equally mechanical. There is nothing glamorous about the hard work of repetition…”

Whether it’s asana or chanting or praying, maybe it is enough just to do it. Yes, some leap must occur for rote repetition to synchronize with our heartbeats. And no one can predict when and if that will happen. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

Did you watch Felix Baumgartner’s 24 mile, four minute, 834 mph jump from a helium balloon 128,100 feet above Earth? Wow. My first reaction was vicarious terror. This guy is insane!

This video shows him preparing to jump, guided by Joe Kittinger, age 84, a retired Air Force colonel who set the longest/highest/fastest skydive record in 1960. My second reaction was vicarious reassurance—thanks to Kittinger’s steady voice.

Kittinger guided Baumgartner through a 40-item checklist, which the video catches from “item 26.” Surely he already knew the sequence, which includes simple steps such as “slide the seat forward” and “release seat belt.” But he relied on Kittinger to ensure that nothing was overlooked.

Calm and confident, Kittinger also provided moral support, occasionally saying “attaboy!” Before Baumgartner’s jump, he said, “All right, step up on the exterior step. Start the cameras. And our guardian angel will take care of you now.”

What’s this got to do with yoga?

For some reason, Kittinger’s step by step approach reminded me of Iyengar yoga teaching. I know, I know: Doing yoga isn’t remotely like free falling from unimaginable heights.

But I could relate to relying on someone—a teacher—to guide me toward my limits. I could relate to trusting a teacher to push me further—and to responding positively (or negatively) to tone of voice or choice of words. Listening to Kittinger, I thought, “Okay, I’d trust this man to lead me through hell and high water.” (Those of us who are also teachers can relate to both roles, to being guided and to guiding.)

As they proceeded through the checklist, Kittinger would notice if Baumgartner paused and he’d re-prompt him. Or he’d correct him, once directing him “a little bit further forward.” Likewise, a good yoga teacher observes whether students are following instructions and verbally or manually adjusts them toward ideal alignment or perhaps to safety.

Here and there, Kittinger tells Baumgartner to “say ‘roger’ if it’s so” or to “give me a thumbs up.” He wanted Baumgartner to confirm that things were on track, that he was okay. Similarly a teacher might check in, with questions about relevant body parts or with a simple “Are you good to go?”

Ultimately we must do the final act—whether jumping from the stratosphere or dropping into a backbend—by ourselves. No one can do it for us. If we are ready, we would probably succeed regardless. But it can help to have an ally as we approach the threshold.

For better or worse, writing this blog has only increased my tendency to see yoga parallels everywhere!

Video: YouTube

One of my yoga students, “Sara,” does endurance sports. Before her annual summer triathlon, she stops attending yoga classes as she ramps up her training. Time is limited and she believes that “loose” muscles are diminished in strength.

Another student, “Chris,” will celebrate her birthday next year by running a marathon. Swimming was her original sport, and she’s a lean mesomorph body type, with tight shoulders and hips. Now that she goes on long runs on Sundays, she’s forgoing her Monday evening yoga class because she needs a post-run “total rest day.”

These cases got me thinking about yoga, sports, and mixing the two. Personally, I see yoga and sports as complementary. Why stop doing yoga while training for a race or competition?

Strength versus flexibility

Are strong muscles are inherently hard, even tight? Sara finds that increased running and cycling both strengthen and tighten her hip flexors. She wonders if it makes sense to work on stretching during training season.

I’m no expert on athletic training, but watching the London Olympic Games, I noticed how remarkably flexible elite athletes are. In virtually every sport. It’s a given that gymnasts and divers are acrobats, but look at track (running hurdles is like doing splits in motion) and tennis (deep lunges, backbends, spinal twists!). It seems that having supple muscles prevents imbalances and injuries.

Seasonal change versus seasonal consistency

Changing one’s routine by season is only natural. In a past post, Hina Matsuri, cherry blossoms, and seasons, I applauded Sara’s seasonal lifestyle changes, perhaps because I tend to keep the same yoga practice year round. That said, isn’t some consistency essential to any practice? Why stop asana during training season? Why neglect aerobic activity during off season? Instead, one might change the ratios seasonally. Otherwise one is always starting from scratch in either endeavor.

Beyond stretching

While yoga is typically associated with stretching and flexibility, it’s also about strength, stability, and balance. That’s obvious simply by holding any standing pose for two minutes or doing a dozen sun salutations. Actually, even stretching isn’t only about stretching: it often requires stabilizing one muscle group while lengthening another.

So the idea that yoga is “stretching” and sports are “strengthening” is a myth. Further, in Iyengar yoga, each class is unique. Literally. Even with the same teacher, each class is different. This kinesthetic novelty surely helps develop body awareness and control, which can only help athletic performance.

Total rest day

Is yoga class ideal for “rest days”? Chris considers it too much additional muscular stress. Indeed, for her body type, my classes do take effort, focus, and some sweat! Likewise, Sara commented, “… I’m more sore in my hip flexors and upper back from your yoga class than from the triathlon I did two weeks ago. If I were still training to race, my soreness from yoga would cut into my training.”

Hmm, maybe my experience of asana differs from theirs. Unless I attend a very challenging class, I don’t need much recovery time. To me, doing asana daily is doable and welcome. I’d certainly need rest days from endurance training—and yoga would be my antidote of choice.

But if even basic poses are overly exerting, perhaps what’s needed during heavy training is restorative yoga, which would not tax the body. (In class, I could tell them to ease off while training, but neither is the type to go easy.) Regular home practice, too, would keep yoga class from being too strenuous.

What’s the point of Sarvangasana?

Sara appreciates asana’s effects, but wonders about more “extreme” poses. Regarding Urdhva Dhanurasana, she wonders if ” hyperextension of the spinal cord serves any useful functions unless one is into acrobatics, diving, or gymnastics.” She’s also concerned about Sarvangasana (especially after she read William Broad’s The Science of Yoga.)

Here’s my take regarding poses beyond the basics: When one is ready, physically and mentally, to do them, they will not seem extreme. They will come as a smooth, organic progression from prior poses. In Urdhva Dhanurasana, if the shoulders, upper back, and hip flexors are open enough, there is no crunching in the lumbar spine. Same in Sarvangasana. With a stack of blankets for support and with enough preparation, there is no risky pressure on the neck. (Broad does highlight the positive physiological effects of the pose, quoting Mel Robin, author of A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, on my wish list.)

Let’s turn the question around: What’s the point of endurance sports? Why run 26 miles? Doesn’t heavy running hammer your knees, ankles, and foot joints? What are the long-term effects? Why not run five miles for a decent aerobic workout?

But I do see the point of going further, in asana or in running: By pushing to our limits, we heighten our experience. Ultimately we must choose our innate ideal direction in which to push—and to work toward “extremity” gradually, safely, and enjoyably.

Image: Colt Pini; Wikipedia, Triathlon; Urdhva Dhanurasana, Yoga Journal asana column

When I first started practicing yoga in Berkeley, I wore contact lenses all the time. Then a friend commented that wearing contacts permanently enlarges blood vessels in the eye. “Look at people who’ve never worn contacts,” he said. “The whites of their eyes are much whiter.” He was right. So my original vanity to avoid being a “girl in glasses” bowed to my wiser vanity to maintain clear, bright eyes for the rest of my life.

I experimented with wearing glasses during physical activity: Working out at the gym (fine). Running (troublesome). Swimming using Rx goggles (surprisingly fine). Yoga (fine).

I tried all poses, including inverted ones from Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) to Sirsasana (Headstand), without complaint—and, believe me, I’m not one not to complain. Never did they move excessively, much less fly off my face. I removed them only for Savasana.

When I moved to Vancouver, I was surprised when a senior teacher directed me to remove my glasses in Sirsasana. I complied, but was unconvinced of a rationale. Most teachers didn’t insist on glasses removal for Sirsasana, so I continued to wear them for all active poses.

Recently the issue arose in a teachers’ discussion on students who refuse to remove their glasses. I can somewhat understand the preference for no glasses during Savasana and Pranayama, both which are practiced with closed eyes. But I’ve yet to buy into the removal of glasses for other asana.


Is it a safety issue? Could students fall and smash their specs doing Sirsasana? Impossible, as one would topple over onto one’s back, not one’s face. What about Sarvangasana? I see no way that glasses are even remotely in harm’s way. The only potentially risky poses are arm balances such as Bakasana. But if a student has no qualms about wearing glasses, why force removal?


Some suggest that the mere act of wearing something on one’s face (ie, glasses) creates an uncomfortable, distracting impediment. Well, as a glasses wearer, I can vouch for the lack of impediment if wearing well-crafted, well-fitted glasses. I love my Danish Lindberg frames (my collection pictured here). Made of titanium and acetate, light as a feather, they fit perfectly. Maybe I’d wear contacts if I did a sweatier form of yoga. But, for the precision required in Iyengar yoga, I must accurately see the teacher’s form and alignment.

Besides, if glasses are considered impediments, what about bangle bracelets (that jinglejangle), dangling earrings (lying in wait to rip an earlobe), rings (ouch!), necklaces (in your face when you’re upside down), and watches (hampering your wrist and wandering your mind)?

Internal focus

Others propose that by removing glasses, thus blurring one’s vision, one can focus within. Isn’t yoga meant to develop internal focus, after all? Sure. But why is vision impairment foisted on those who use glasses? Why not require contact-lens users to remove their lenses? Why not have everyone close their eyes? (Indeed, everyone is requested to close their eyes in Savasana and Pranayama.)

But what about more-active poses, whether Sirsasana or Sarvangasana or the gamut of non-inverted poses? A point often overlooked is the difference between blurry vision and closed eyes. In a Yoga for Healthy Aging post by Shari Ser, a longtime physical therapist and teacher at Berkeley’s venerable The Yoga Room, she writes: “…As someone who is extremely myopic, if I can’t see clearly, I can’t hear as well and I can’t mentally focus. But if I close my eyes, my nervous system can focus on strengthening the balance sensors that remain.” (Read her full answer here.)

We are all visual balancers, which I blogged about in Blind balance, so I’m all for improving our vestibular system and other balance mechanisms. But for class consistency, all students must be either fully sighted (wearing corrective lenses if needed) or fully blind (with eyes closed).

Anyone care to convince me otherwise?

Savasana versus nap

Have you ever fallen asleep in Savasana?

I rarely do, but one of my colleagues seems to doze off regularly. Although we don’t attend the same weekly class, we attend workshops together. If I’m in his vicinity during Savasana, I’ve heard him softly snoring each time.

Me, I’m just the opposite. I lie down and let go as instructed. But, while my body rests, my mind continues to whir for a few minutes. So, unless we do a luxuriously long Savasana, I never quite reach mental stillness. When I occasionally do drift off, I know it’s not ideal, but I nevertheless enjoy the moment of deep relaxation. I feel very refreshed after—who knows?—a minute or two of unconsciousness.

Was I really sleeping? I always spontaneously wake before the teacher breaks the silence. The gap between deep relaxation and light sleep can be narrow. It’s no easy trick to drop away just short of sleep, where the body is utterly at ease and the mind, awake and observant.

The curious case of Paschimottanasana

In his much-publicized book The Science of YogaWilliam Broad cites the case of a woman who fell asleep doing Paschimottanasana*. Upon waking, her legs were weak, numb, and non-ambulatory. The diagnosis: damaged sciatic nerves. Half a year later, she still couldn’t walk without assistance, and doctors predicted that she’d never regain full function.

Falling asleep in Paschimottanasana?! Who the heck falls asleep doing asana, a deliberate, physical practice? Likewise, it’s antithetical to sleep while bicycling, eating, or driving a car. Injury is likely if one falls asleep during almost any non-couch-potato activity.

I’m curious to know how long she slept—and her experience level. If tight in the hamstrings, it’s possible that sciatica might result, but are such beginners comfortable enough to sleep in the pose? If experienced and limber, with torso draped over thighs, sleep might come easily—but only if extremely sleep-deprived/attention-deficient. Asana is not about zoning out!

I initially disregarded the case as an oddity, irrelevant to genuine yoga practice. The horror of the outcome, however, made me wonder, “What pose might I inadvertently fall asleep doing?” One immediately sprang to mind: Supta Baddhakonasana. It’s a pose comfy enough for me to do unsupported. But, without support, holding the pose for a nap’s length would likely strain my groins. (Reminder to self: Tell guy at home to check on me in yoga room from time to time. See buddy system.)

A hard day’s night

During my teacher Louie Ettling‘s summer retreat (all day for six days), some students experienced insomnia. Perhaps the change in their normal routines upset their biorhythms, or perhaps the asana was overstimulating.

How much does asana (whether the sequencing or the poses themselves) affect sleep? Perhaps such correlations are best studied in overnight retreats, where there are fewer intervening variables. Here, one might leave the studio calm and composed, only to get riled up by traffic, a sick child, work stress, or an argument before bed. So, if someone says, “Wow, I couldn’t sleep because of the backbends we did,” it’s not necessarily true.

Assuming no intervening variables, is the insomnia due to the asana or to response to the asana? The former is purely physical and physiological, while the latter is distracting mental commentary, whether about the asana (from “I made a breakthrough!” to “Did I tweak my back again?”) or about other preoccupations.

If insomnia strikes, what should be done? It’s common to try focusing on the breath and other yoga/meditation techniques to still the mind. I wonder about this approach: Might it be a bad habit to “train” oneself to fall asleep doing focused breathing? Might this foster a Pavlovian effect?

Sleep remains a great mystery and, yes, a great necessity of life.

Images: Yoga Journal

*Walker, Melanie, Gregg Meekins, and Shu-Ching Hu, “Yoga Neuropathy: A Snoozer,” The Neurologist, vol 11, no 3, May 2005, pp 176-78. Without a subscription, I could access only the abstract. If you have full article access, please share!

Heard the one about the yoga teacher fired for enforcing a no-cell-phone rule in class?

According to her post on elephantjournal.com (and the prior San Francisco Chronicle story), Alice Van Ness taught yoga at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Before class one day, she requested that students turn off cell phones. When she enforced this rule, glaring at a student (in the middle of the front row) texting while she taught Ardha Chandrasana, she got fired. Wha—?

I was incredulous. What student would text during class? What teacher would allow it?

Actually, she was fired not directly by Facebook, but by the fitness contractor that employed her. “We are in the business of providing great customer service,” said her termination notice from Plus One Health Management. “Unless a client requires us to specifically say no to something, we prefer to say yes whenever possible.”

The whole situation—yoga teacher contracted out by fitness agency—was foreign to me. In Iyengar yoga, which I study and teach, teachers aren’t farmed out willy-nilly. But what really fascinated me were the divergent reactions.

Some commentators to elephantjournal.com emphasize the corporate context, in which Facebook sets the culture, not the lunch-break yoga teacher. Others focus on the disapproving look Alice shot at the student, arguing that singling someone out is unacceptable. Still others, including Michelle Myhre of Devil Wears Prana, state that the teacher must rise above such undesirable behavior and let students overcome distractions and habits by themselves, not by teacher pressure.

The consensus seems to run the other way, however, in support of Alice. A poll on VentureBeat, a business/technology website, showed approximately 91 percent of 2,480 voters (as of today) thought she should not have been fired. In a CTV news piece, a Toronto etiquette expert sided with Alice, stating simply that cell phone use in class is “rude.”

I guess the whole “controversy” baffles me because of Iyengar yoga’s clear, high expectations. Whether stated or unstated, students know what’s expected in class: Pay attention. Listen to instructions. Watch the demonstrations. Respect the teacher and fellow students. If you must drink water, use the bathroom, or make a phone call, quietly leave the room. Texting in class? Unheard of!

Can such basic rules (essentially common courtesy) really be too much to ask?

To me, texting in class is unacceptable. But here’s an interesting question: What if students ask to use cell phones to take pictures or videos in class? While such use would be relevant, might the onslaught of iPhones nevertheless distract students and disrupt class?

Image: Safetysign.com; lululemon advertisement

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

Three weeks ago, I switched my computer mouse to the left (I’m right handed). I’d tried left-handed mousing about five years ago, when I injured my right shoulder and had no choice. During that episode, I was forced to use my left arm and hand: To pull up pants and deal with zippers and buttons. To brush my teeth. To use a fork and spoon.

Over time, I grew more coordinated and comfortable using my left arm and hand (albeit far from ambidextrous). I imagined new neural connections sprouting. If anything happens to my right hand, I’ll be prepared, I told myself.

Despite my return to right-handed dominance since then, left-handed mousing felt less foreign this time. (My new Magic Mouse is a plus.) Of course, using my left hand is still slightly annoying. I can function, but I’m a bit clumsier and slower. Clicking around websites and working with software is less smooth. It’s like having a mild cold; life goes on, but less easily.

So why am I doing it?

When I first began doing yoga, it felt odd to clasp my hands with my right index finger in front. So I forced myself to clasp only this way—until it felt natural. Eventually I could barely tell which was which. I had reprogrammed my body. By then I alternated right and left clasps with a system I described in On symmetry.

When I swam laps for exercise, I forced myself to learn alternate breathing. It was excruciatingly awkward at first. But eventually it become second nature and made my body feel balanced.

I initially assumed that elite athletes must use their dominant side to excel. But I read that Pete Rose was a “switch hitter” and that Rafael Nadal writes with his right hand but plays tennis with his left.

In Iyengar yoga, symmetry is fundamental. Not only must we cross, clasp, stretch, and kick up with each side in turn, we must stand in Tadasana and lie in Savasana with utter evenness. If we pay so much attention to symmetrical alignment in asana, why do we settle for one-sided dominance in the rest of our lives?

With my left hand, I can barely write; I’ve never attempted to eat with chopsticks or to peel an apple. Even walking the dog on my left feels less secure. So I decided to alternate right- and left-handed mousing again as an experiment. Can I reprogram my body and become ambidextrous in the realm of computer mousing? After less than a month, I’d say “yes”! The trackpad is next.

Image: Magic Mouse, AppleChirality, Wikipedia

I just bumped into a yoga student I taught in February. He’d attended my classes while his teacher was studying with the Iyengars in India. “Ned,” a professor emeritus of chemistry, was brand new to yoga. Following directions seemed alien to him at first, and I had to be extra firm. He found basic stretches very intense, and he wasn’t shy about breaking the studio silence with some audible huffing and puffing.

But he didn’t mind being corrected and was very motivated to work on his tight shoulders and hamstrings. I appreciated his commitment: he arrived for class early and he asked smart questions. And despite his old-school macho-ness, he could laugh at himself.

Now, over three months later, he told me that he’s still attending class. “And it’s actually gotten easier!” He seemed incredulous.

“Is it still helping you recover from hockey?” I asked. He’d mentioned picking up hockey after decades of hiatus. “Well, I’ve had no injuries!” he said. I had a hunch that he was hooked on Iyengar yoga.

After we parted ways, I contemplated our chance meeting. Had three months passed? Three months! The length of summer vacation. It seemed like forever in elementary school. Back then, kids could transform themselves between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Now the months pass in the blink of an eye.

Since February, Ned, a lifetime academic in his late 60s, had changed. It made me wonder how much progress I’ve made in the same three months.

Image: Simpsons Channel

In January my friend Louise, a writing teacher, environmental activist, and yoga practitioner, had a small heart attack. Around the same time, I heard that one of Canada’s senior-most Iyengar yoga teachers had an aortic dissection. It struck me that two females and lifelong yogis, have heart disease.

It made me wonder about the value of aerobic exercise, also called “cardio” and touted to prevent heart trouble.

Do you do cardio?

Casual yoga students typically do other sporty activities, such as running, swimming, and cycling. In fact, they often view asana as complementary to their main sport. But what about serious yogis who practice two or three hours daily? If yoga is your first priority, do you also make time for sweaty, heart-pumping exercise? No matter how strenuous a yoga sequence after all, it’s unlikely to bring on your target heart rate.

Does it matter?

When I first met Louise, suntanned, lanky, and lean as a greyhound, dressed in rustic flowing skirts and Birkenstocks, she looked 100% Berkeley, if you know what I mean. In her early 70s, she’s always watched her diet, walked long distances, done qigong and yoga, and lived healthfully. But heart disease runs in her family. She wrote to her email list:

I guess the one thing I could not transform is ancestry; now I realize that both grandfathers, my dad and five uncles all had heart disease. My youngest uncle, still very active at 89 with a stent and double by-pass surgery behind him—called when he heard the news—welcoming me to “the family tradition.”

Medical experts acknowledge that lifestyle habits, including cardio, make a difference only to a point. Those who eat Big Macs, smoke cigarettes, and drive everywhere would certainly benefit from a lifestyle overhaul. But in Louise’s case, more exercise probably wouldn’t have overridden her genetic predisposition for heart disease.

Does it matter that it might not matter?

Before I discovered yoga, I “worked out.” I’ve gone through phases of running the Berkeley Fire Trail,  doing the Stairmaster, swimming laps, lifting weights at the gym. (Nowadays yoga monopolizes my time, so I just do cardio machines and walk everywhere.)

I like to work out. I like the rise and fall in heart rate and body  temperature. I like the way my breathing automatically finds a rhythm. A workout (and a good asana sequence) has an arc from beginning to end, like a Bell curve. Maybe that’s why I found Bikram yoga strange: To enter a 105°F room and immediately sweat?

A good workout can be solace, escape, solitude. Way back when, a guy I knew called his workouts “penance.” I suspect that many people need a visceral physical outlet to feel satisfyingly transformed. Maybe that’s why asana typically resonates with people first, before pranayama or meditation or reading philosophy. Likewise, maybe that’s why a challenging asana session is so exhilarating. By experiencing physical catharsis, people feel ready for and worthy of more-profound transformation.

Four months after her heart attack, Louise found healing in exercise:

The greatest healing tool for me, though, is rigorous daily walking and a little work with weights. Though thinking of myself as “athletic” all my life, my actual exercise has been more and more intermittent. Now I often feel like I did in my 20s when I was ski-racing or mountaineering on the weekends and walking all over Berkeley with ease during the week. Intensional [sic] working out strengthens and clears the arteries and I’ve started to create some visualizations to help it happen.

Who knows how much we can alter our genetic destiny, but it can’t hurt to try.

Image: Asics GT 2160 (my current shoe); Kitsilano Pool, Vancouver, BC (Canada’s longest pool, 137 meters/150 yards)

My yoga friend Helen, a pianist, recently mentioned the work of Don Greene, a well-known sports psychologist and performance coach. Skimming his writings, I found the following tip for “centering” before performing:

Conjure up a “process cue”: words, images, sounds, or sensations associated with successful performance.

This could be a phrase like “good tempo,” a positive memory, a song. He says that music is very effective. It conjures up a mood, a setting; it can psych you up or calm you down.

A song? In February I took my Intro I assessment toward Iyengar certification. (Intro I is akin to a qualifying exam; if you pass, you can proceed to Intro II assessment for the first level of certification.) Driving to the early morning practice segment, I was absentmindedly listening to CBC Radio when the host played “Good Morning Starshine”:

Good morning starshine
The earth says hello
You twinkle above us
We twinkle below

Good morning starshine
You lead us along
My love and me as we sing
Our early morning singing song

Now, I’ve never seen the musical Hair. I’m neither a ’60s flower child nor a nouveau hippie wanna-be. But who hasn’t heard this song? I can’t recall if it was the original or a cover, but I recognized the melody and lyrics. They were perfect at that moment.

“Good Morning Starshine” played in my head all day. When I rode the bus back to the studio for my afternoon teaching segment, guess what I heard in my mental soundtrack? For some reason, the song made me feel lighthearted on a very consequential day. For a week after the assessment (which I passed!), I couldn’t shake off this tune.

I’d probably pick another song if I were deliberately to choose a musical “process cue.” But this accidental one worked just fine.

What is your go-to song?

I don’t get it. Why do some blogs generate dozens of comments (and shares and likes), while others sit pristine like wallflowers?

Bloggers can check click rates to see if anyone’s reading. But what if people are reading but not commenting? What does that mean?

And why should I care?

Before I launched my blog in 2009, I’d never read yoga blogs, as I discussed in The Wide World of Yoga Blogs.  I just wanted to organize my free-floating thoughts about yoga. I was curious to see if I could sustain my stream of thoughts or if the well would run dry.

Once I became a blogger, I got sucked into the milieu. I skim the gamut of blogs: food, travel, writing, knitting (and I can’t knit!). Blogging is unlike old print media in the expectation of audience response: Before, the lag time between publication and response was long (think “letters to the editor”). Now, instant feedback rules—and any feedback is better than none!

So, if a post generates zero comments, it disheartens me. Momentarily. Then I remind myself why I blog:

Blogging as writing practice

By blogging, I am “practicing” writing. By crystallizing an idea and playing with words, I am working my mind. I end up with a tangible product, a blog post. Regardless of audience feedback, the act of writing itself is transformative. I am different before and after writing a post. Maybe that’s enough.

I’m reminded of the way people might consider law school to be process learning: one supposedly learns to “think like a lawyer.” Laws differ state by state, but a lawyer’s analytical skills ideally should be transferable. Likewise, my blog posts themselves might have limited consequences, but my mental transformation should be lasting.

Blogging as discipline

In my first six months of blogging, I was prolific. Now, I feel productive if I post once weekly. Where’s my discipline?! In Resurrecting my blog: inspiration from a cactus, I wrote about my blog’s slowdown. Could it thrive and grow again? Or do bloggers have only one shot at making it?

It can be hard to be disciplined about an unpaid blog. Maybe that’s the crux of discipline. If we’re forced to do something, for work or other obligations, we’re not being disciplined, just diligent.

Blogging as community

At first, my audience comprised mainly fellow yoga bloggers, including YogaDork, Roseanne, Eco Yogini, and others mentioned in Peer-reviewed blogs. Locally I heard from fellow writers, including Eve Johnson and Jessica Berger Gross, both excellent writers. Non-blogger yogis tend rarely to comment. They might email me about a post (I’m heartened by the gesture of camaraderie) but my blog would be much livelier with public comments, shares, and likes!

Of course, I can empathize with those who are private and busy with their own lives. Indeed, I’ve never considered yoga as a social pursuit. Online, while I initially made connections with other bloggers, I’ve since lost contact (and sometimes my place on their blogrolls) because I can barely keep afloat in my own life and thus rarely comment myself. But I enjoy checking back when I can—and I’d be disappointed if their blogs were gone.

Blogging as 21st-century experience

I occasionally meet people who still don’t use email. Or who can’t quite define “blog.” Unbelievable. But I can relate: I much prefer reading the print edition of the New York Times! I use my cell phone only when necessary. I created a Yoga Spy Facebook account, reluctantly, as late as spring 2011.

That said, the Internet is indispensable to my existence. Websites are my go-to sources for information, and if I have the chance to create my own, why not go for it? Live in the 21st century. Be a participant. (In the 2000s, I missed the entire run of The Sopranos because I didn’t have HBO. Sure, it’s just a TV series, but I’m missing a slice of that decade. What else did I miss? What am I missing from this decade?)

Blogging as karma yoga

Regardless of audience feedback, I keep blogging. Why? In my all-time favorite post, Ginger and karma yoga, I highlight my late kitty’s example of karma yoga: To do one’s duties, or dharma, in life, without concern for reward. If I choose blogging as a current duty, I shouldn’t waste time questioning why, much less whether anyone cares. Just do it!

Image: wallflowers, apartment therapy; Alex Gregory cartoon, The New Yorker, The Cartoon Bank

Vancouver’s indie Book Warehouse is closing its West Broadway location (sigh). All stock is discounted 25%. I was tempted by 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die*, a 960-page reference edited by Peter Boxall, English professor, University of Sussex. But the sheer number put me off.

It’s probably impossible to read all 1,001 selections, but I crunched the numbers anyway. If I read 25 books a year, it would take 40 years. If I rack up a staggering 50 books a year, it would take 20 years. Actually, popular blogger Steve Pavlina made a compelling argument for this very goal, Read a Book a Week.

A book a month is already challenging. A book a week? What a feat!

Is that a worthy goal? My literary knowledge would be broad and varied. I could make smalltalk about virtually every notable writer. But speed reading is not my thing. I prefer to savor good fiction. Plus I need “digesting time” after finishing a book.

To read selected works by hundreds of authors also runs counter to another half-baked goal of mine: to read every work by a chosen writer. Reading one author’s entire body of work would narrow, but deepen, my knowledge. I’d become somewhat of an expert on that author. I’d have a “relationship” with that author.

So many yoga teachers, so little time

I’m reminded of a yoga friend’s recent remark about attending workshops with visiting teachers. She skipped the last workshop with senior Iyengar teacher Gabriella Giubilaro because she plans to attend other workshops this year. “They’re all good,” she said, “but how many teachers do I need to study with anyway?”

I agree that too many workshops can lead to information overload. If I need to digest a book, I likewise must assimilate lessons from a workshop. That means repeating the poses, sequences, and ideas—and that takes time.

Of course, it’s hard to resist the draw of an established teacher. Sometimes I already know that the teaching resonates with me. Other times, I’m just curious, based on the teacher’s writing or reputation. Exposure to another face/body/voice can jolt me to attention, and I enjoy the multi-day immersion.

Famous teachers have no trouble filling up their on-the-road workshops. After all, it’s become de rigueur to study with lots of big-name teachers. Teacher bios sometimes border on the absurd, as I wrote about in Naming names.

But there’s a big difference between attending 25 workshops with 25 different teachers and 25 with the same teacher. Can I truly understand a teacher’s teachings in one or two encounters? Do his or her teachings stand the test of time?

Both variety and continuity are valuable. We must experience broadly, otherwise we have no context, only tunnel vision. But eventually, delving deeply, with authors and with yoga teachers, might take us further.

All that said, I’m still eyeing 1001 Books

Image: Gingerbread yogis, Randomization (cookies and cookie cutters from Baked Ideas)

*This book is part of a 1001 Before You Die series.

Big press and little press

Fast becoming the muckraker of yoga, William Broad has written another controversial New York Times article: “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here” (February 27, 2012) posits that it’s no surprise that yoga produces “so many philanderers”—and that “scientific” research shows heightened sexual response from hatha yoga. (See responses from it’s all yoga, babyYogaDork, and Leslie Kaminoff.)

The same day that article was published, I read a few back issues of the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria newsletter that I’d recently acquired. A slim, homemade-looking pamphlet back then, the newsletter impressed me with timeless content, including exclusive interviews with BKS Iyengar and wise essays by Shirley Daventry French.

Prashant Iyengar on yogasana’s effects

The July/August 1997 issue contained a piece by Prashant Iyengar on how yogasana affects not only one’s physical state, but also one’s psychological and physiological states (and beyond). He gives an example using brahmacharya, explaining that one might avoid overindulgence but that “[i]nvoluntary desires may be tainting us from within.” If trying to follow an moral code, asana can help calm the pineal and pituitary glands, thus “quieting the physiology behind sex.”

In Iyengar yoga, poses affect our bodies and minds in particular ways. We can either rev up or tamp down our energy, including sexual energy. This differs from Broad’s generalization that yoga primarily enhances sexual desire.

Further, Broad implies that doing random yoga classes can markedly affect our physiology. Change does not come easily. It’s tough enough to loosen tight muscles, much less change the workings of inner organs. Would Viagra be a zillion-dollar industry if a round of deep breathing cured sexual dysfunction?

In contrast, Prashant states that asanas must be “done with a sensitive diligence, to experience their depth.” What an understatement!

Power of the pen

Reading Prashant’s and Broad’s articles on the same day, I was struck by the difference between a yogi’s perspective and a journalist’s. I admit that I somewhat empathize with Broad because I, too, am a journalist. On one hand, I believe that a good investigative journalist can do justice to any subject, regardless of personal expertise. On the other, it’s exasperating to read a non-yogi’s statements on yoga.

Actually Broad took up yoga in 1970 (!). But listen to this February 8 CBC radio interview, in which he admits that he sustained his first yoga injury in 2007 in an “advanced” class:

“…. There were a lot of beautiful ladies around, stretching and bending themselves into all kinds of great shapes. I had a gorgeous partner with me. And I was, you know, feeling pretty good. I was strutting. I was talking to her. I was bending way over, and—ouch!—my lower back went out….

What the—?

Don’t get me wrong. Watching his February 9 video interview with Roseanne Harvey, Broad comes across as likable enough. I’d argue against some of his conclusions, but he probably means well—and, as a journalist, he needs catchy hooks for his articles. But why is he becoming the yoga source?

The Times and other mass media have a huge footprint. The Victoria newsletter and scads of blogs, even well-trafficked ones, have a limited audience. Alas.

On choosing well

I haven’t even touched on the John Friend revelations. But my conclusion regarding mainstream yoga coverage applies to my thoughts on his behavior (and especially on the behavior of his followers):

Are you choosing well? This goes for yoga teachers and trusted allies, reading matter and beliefs, thoughts and actions.

There’s a sea of choices out there. It’s up to us to choose well.

Images: newspapers, Apartment Therapy; Vitruvian Man, Wikipedia; Pololu Valley, Hawaii, YogaSpy.

Years ago I discovered Lydia Davis‘s fragmentary short stories. While extremely brief and lacking standard beginning-middle-end structure, they were strangely compelling. Recently I was reminded of her: the title of my last post, “The End of the Story,” is the title of her only novel. For fun I Googled her name and found an interesting 2008 interview in The Believer.

When asked about how Samuel Beckett‘s writing influenced her, she responded:

I came to Beckett very early on and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.

I added the underline to the words that leaped out at me.

Yoga teachers who challenge my intelligence

While we universally respect another person’s intelligence, Davis offers the reason why: If challenged by another’s intelligence, we tend to push our limits and rise to the occasion. We become more intelligent by way of another’s intelligence.

That’s why I do Iyengar yoga with teachers who make me think. While Iyengar yoga definitely has a “feel good” effect, it requires effort. In class one cannot drift off and casually go through the motions. Instead one must constantly pay close attention to the body from head to toe—to train the mind toward stillness. BKS Iyengar often refers to body intelligence, which he differentiates from body language, as he did in a 1998 interview with Gabriella Giubilaro.

I’ve occasionally dropped in on random yoga classes where teachers give minimal instructions and no corrections. The emphasis is on ease and fun. One Vancouver yin yoga teacher often says, “If you’re feeling it, you’re doing it.” But can an anything-goes attitude lead to intelligence?

Intelligence and imagination

Among the teachers who challenge my intelligence is Berkeley-based Donald Moyer. Known for his deep teaching, he guides students anatomically, physiologically, mentally, and philosophically, using precise words and metaphors. For example, he might teach poses via the kidneys. “Lengthen the kidneys down, toward the thoracic spine,” he might say in Uttanasana. “Rest the lower kidneys against the ribs, and penetrate the upper kidneys deep into the body.”

Huh? His instructions can be difficult, even abstruse to the uninitiated. Daydream for a moment and you’re lost, trying to identify body parts and to perform multiple actions.

Sometimes a student will say, “That’s impossible. The kidneys are organs. You can’t move them!”

True. We cannot literally move the kidneys as we do our arms and legs. But Donald guides the intelligence through the imagination. By attempting to move the kidneys, we move the surrounding muscles and bones subtly, from the inner body.

Sometimes we must move beyond the literal—in literature and in asana. I rarely read poetry, but I’m reminded of it here. If a poem mentions a blue rose, one could argue that there’s no such thing. But then one is stuck in the prosaic.

With intelligent teachers who challenge us, we go beyond ease and fun and the obvious—and toward our own intelligence.

Image: Genetically modified “blue” rose developed by Suntory, Wired; Uttanasana, Yoga Journal

The other day, waiting at a bus stop, I noticed a well-dressed man racing to catch his bus. The last passenger was already boarding, and drivers are notorious for zooming off. A few onlookers turned to see whether he caught it. (He did.)

That’s human nature, I thought to myself: We want to know what happened.

If I get halfway through a disappointing book or dud movie, I often forge through to the end, for closure. If I hear an anecdote, I’m especially curious to know the end result. Obituaries (or even, forgive me, the name-dropping New York Times Wedding/Celebrations page) can grab me because I am fascinated by the trajectory of people’s lives.

Way back in law school, I was already second-guessing my choice to become a lawyer. So I was all ears when someone told me a story about an acquaintance who left law and tried one alternate career after another. The story went on and on, until I finally had to interrupt, “So, what happened? Did he figure out what he really wants to do?”

“No, as far as I know, he’s still searching.”

Huh? What a letdown. I expected to hear that he’d finally found his element and was a renowned artist living in Tokyo or something. He was still lost and scattered?

Happy-ending guarantee

Back then, in my dark moods, I wished there could be a happy-ending guarantee. I could tolerate anything if I knew things would eventually pan out. While I’d long outgrown Disney, I still wanted a fairy tale.

But, really, what if an omnipotent power could guarantee that you’ll pass your boards or make partner? That you’ll live robustly till age 100 or have a good marriage? That you’ll one day do full Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I (or II, III, or IV) with ease. That you’ll pass every Iyengar certification assessment that you undertake?!

Would that make you happier today? Maybe. But it would also take the mystery out of life. And breed complacency. Besides, according to the sages, we shouldn’t aim for end results anyway. Rather, according to the Bhagavad Gita, we express karma yoga by doing our duties, or dharma, in life, without concern for reward.

So, maybe it doesn’t much matter whether the man caught the bus or whether the ex-lawyer established himself: That they were trying to do something might be the key.

Image: Disney castle, Favim.com; BKS Iyengar in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, Kat Saks Yoga

Last month I acquired a couple of Yoga Journal magazines from the late 1980s and early 1990s. What a revelation! I’m familiar with the magazine, having subscribed on and off (mostly on) since the late 1990s. But what a difference two decades can make.

So impressive were the back issues that I found limited archives online at Yoga Journal on Google Books. Here are my observations, albeit from a third-person point of view:

Personal transformation

Back then yoga was less about fitness and more about transforming one’s mindset. YJ readers were seeking a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. They wanted to uproot their whole way of being—away from convention and banality. Today, most yoga practitioners, even serious ones, aren’t trying to overhaul their lifestyles, but to reduce stress, to tone the body, to still the mind. Mainstream yoga is more popular now because it’s more approachable, less of a leap. Of course, true transformation remains as slippery as ever.

While yoga was the focus, there was ample coverage of other disciplines, including tai chi, aikido, Buddhism, Taoism, and psychology/psychiatry (particularly Jung-based exploration of the unconscious). The common thread was profound awakening. As an Iyengar practitioner, I noticed that Iyengar yoga was prominent, probably partly because BKS Iyengar was still actively teaching worldwide.

Timeless writing

Feature articles back then were satisfyingly lengthy and thorough. Reading them forced me to think. The content remains valid and fascinating. I read interviews and profiles featuring genuine scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Joan Borysenko, Charles Tart, Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, Jean Klein, and Stanislav Grof, names new to me.

The asana teachings still ring true. What a treat to read Elise Browning Miller‘s primer on her specialty, scoliosis (May/Jun 1990), or Donald Moyer‘s inimitable insights on Marichyasana I (Nov/Dec 1987) and Salabhasana (Sep/Oct 1989). Perhaps the coverage is deep because the magazine was run by people such as Stephan Bodian, an editor in chief who is an ordained Zen monk and an Advaita Vedanta scholar.

Don’t get me wrong: I regard today’s YJ (especially the writings of Sally Kempton and Roger Cole) highly enough to subscribe. But it lacks its former gravitas. In 10 years will anyone care to read the September 2011 music issue’s mini interviews with Alanis or Moby or the guys from Maroon 5? (No offense.) Further, the book reviews were actually critical. Nowadays, unless you’re dealing with the New York Times and Ms Kakutani, scoring a review generally guarantees either praise or summary. What’s the point?!

Fringe element

Yoga wasn’t trendy and ubiquitous in the 1980s and prior. Practitioners and YJ readers (judging by the letters to the editor) possessed an exploratory, eccentric bent. With the Beat Generation and the revolutionary Sixties still driving American culture, yoga had a streak of radicalism. Today, it’s more rebellious not to do yoga than to do it!

The juxtaposition between serious study and the far-out fringe element quite amused me. Magazine ads offered futuristic contraptions to alter consciousness; an article bio might read, “… is a writer, ritualist, and hypnotherapist…” I’m not particularly New Agey myself and can’t help regarding ESP, channeling, astrology, etc, with skepticism. But the kooky dimensions don’t detract from the whole—rather, they only emphasize the era’s quest for alternate, higher consciousness, whatever the means.

That said, asana was also a highlight, classily illustrated in pictorial calendars and the occasional magazine cover (see Angela Farmer‘s silhouette above). But most covers featured a portrait of a leading thinker; only in the 2000s did the lithe female “cover model” become standard.

Yogic pioneers

Reading the old YJs was rather a humbling experience. Those who did yoga before the 1990s were pioneers. While we respectfully honor the giants, such as T Krishnamacharya and his successors, we must also acknowledge prior generations of less-famous (or anonymous) yogis. I consider myself a fairly serious student, but let’s face it: I’m a yoga child of the late 1990s and 2000s, swept up with the tide. Those pioneers were the real deal, and they trod a distinct path for us to follow.

Images from top to bottom: Nov/Dec 1988, Nov/Dec 1987, Apr 1982.

I need not introduce How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, the New York Times article that’s gone viral. My first response upon reading it: These anecdotes are outliers! Who sits in Vajrasana for hours daily, tears Achilles tendons in Downward Dog, or pops ribs in a spinal twist?!

My second response: No Iyengar yoga teacher would intentionally push students too hard, beyond safety. Salamba Sarvangasana without a stack of blankets under the shoulders? Unheard of! If a novice tries a headstand or an Upward Bow backbend before she’s ready, the teacher would immediately say, “Stop! Come down now!”

My third response: Uh, I’m sitting here with a strained piriformis (or something), probably from yoga. My body isn’t “wrecked,” but since taking my first yoga class over a dozen years ago, I’ve occasionally sustained asana-related injuries. Examples:

  • Overflexing my neck I’ve tweaked my cervical spine in Halasana and Salamba Sarvangasana, typically when pressing my chest too forcefully toward my chin. Lesson: Ground my elbows (and rest my ribcage in my palms) to lighten the weight on my neck. Cultivate a sense of repose in shoulderstand and its kin.
  • Unexplained knee pain after Virasana In early 2010, I felt pain in the back of my right knee after exiting Virasana. A doctor conjectured that my meniscus had micro tears and would heal by itself over time. Indeed, my MRI results were normal and the pain eventually subsided. Lesson: Work on stretching my quadriceps and gradually increase my Virasana hold time. Expect “mystery” conditions to appear now and then.
  • Strained hamstring attachments About four years ago, I practiced too much Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and began to feel twinges at my sitting bones. I made the typical mistake of assuming I needed to stretch more. Suddenly forward bends weren’t easy and relaxing, but challenging and humbling. Lesson: Moderate and vary my practice to allow for recovery. Tone down rajasic energy. Accept change. (“Easy” and “hard” can suddenly reverse.)

That said, I blame my injuries on my own overzealousness and momentary attention lapses. Asana, no matter how strenuous, is not inherently risky. It’s not speed skiing or tow-in surfing! Asana is controlled movement in a controlled setting. Chances are, I could have prevented my injuries.

While the serious cases mentioned in the NYT article are inexcusable, occasional muscular strains are perhaps inherent in a vigorous asana practice. If I’d done only restorative yoga and never attempted to move beyond “level one,” I might be injury-free today. But isn’t yoga about exploring our perceived limits? If I do a pose and feel absolutely comfy, I’m probably merely going through the motions. I should feel strong sensation (which, by the way, isn’t synonymous with pain) during practice, but not after. And if I do injure myself, I must determine why—and learn from it.

Additional reading: Insight from Injury, Carol Krucoff, Yoga Journal

Image: Michael Fleming via the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cat

Note: Blog post title owes a debt to Mary Oliver‘s poem “Wild Geese.” from Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)

I just returned from a trip to Hilo, my hometown on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. During my stay, I spent four nights in Captain Cook, South Kona, to attend a workshop by Aadil Palkhivala at Big Island Yoga Center. I rented a rustic in-law apartment with futon on floor and open-air kitchen and bathroom. Tropical foliage surrounded the house, along with a few wild chickens and cows.

As a Lonely Planet writer, I’ve viewed countless vacation rentals and mentally rated this one a “decent value.” It could’ve used a thorough professional cleaning (immaculateness can boost a no-frills studio to A+ in my book), but I loved the space and greenery. The noise outside—branches rustling and wings fluttering, moos and cock-a-doodle-doos—didn’t bother me, although I initially thought I was being spied on.

I did need to provide three things for myself: Dishwashing liquid. Paper towels. And a mirror.

I noticed the first two immediately, during my initial wipe-down of the place. The lack of mirror went unnoticed till late the first night.

Now, I’m not a constant mirror looker. I don’t wear makeup and only occasionally use contact lenses. I do Iyengar yoga, not Bikram yoga, which involves looking at one’s mirror image while doing asana. But don’t I need to check if my sunscreen is blended and my hair not a wreck? What about the eyelashes that seem to migrate into my eyes every so often?

The second day I bought a cheap compact mirror. It got me thinking about whether I could live without one. My dog and cat don’t check their appearances in the mirror. They groom themselves “blindly” and they are gorgeous. They are aware of themselves from the inside, not from looking at themselves from the outside.

Imagine if we never saw how we look from the outside. Would that change our self-image and our behavior? I recalled that 1954 Norman Rockwell painting Girl at Mirror. Growing up, all kids scrutinize themselves, especially their faces, to figure out the age-old question: Who am I?

We probably all look at ourselves in a mirror at least once daily, if only casually while brushing our teeth. Seeing our own faces viscerally reminds ourselves of our existence. We see changes from day to day, year to year, and we align “inner me” and “outer me.” Maybe mirrors help to keep us honest. Can you look yourself in the eyes if your conscience is guilty?

In yoga, it’s distracting to watch one’s reflection doing asana, but I find it revealing occasionally to check my form in a mirror: Is my thoracic spine really concave in Urdhva Mukha Uttanasana? Is my pelvis neutral in Chaturanga Dandasana?

Mirror issues soon gave way to full days of yoga (and island life in general). But these thoughts momentarily popped into my head thanks to the missing mirror!

When was the last time you took an exam that mattered?

During my end-of-summer trip to California, an acquaintance asked about my training to be a certified Iyengar yoga teacher. I gave him the gist, describing how the training program, while international in scope, is small and selective, mentor-based, and lengthy.

And then there is assessment. To be certified, one must pass a national assessment, by an objective panel of senior teachers, of one’s practice and teaching. Put another way, one can fail. In many teacher-training programs, participation is enough!

I’ve experienced a couple of assessments as a “student,” and I can vouch for the seriousness of the affair. Assessment strikes me as both exhilarating and daunting; it ups the ante in our training, arguably for the better. I’m not claiming that exams are necessarily a good thing. Some folks are lousy exam takers. Some end up obsessing on the exam, missing the larger picture.

The element of risk

But isn’t the element of risk present in any important endeavor?

If you’re a trauma surgeon, overlooking one detail can kill a patient. If you’re a parent, your patience and attention are constantly tested. If you’re a competitive athlete, facing defeat is part of the game. If you’re a US Army Ranger, your whole job is about navigating danger. Even if you’re practicing yoga or meditation, you’re not quite relaxing, you’re refining your mind and body.

Conversely, carefree pursuits have no element of risk. Watching TV, going shoe shopping, gossiping on the phone, eating potato chips. There’s nothing wrong with taking it easy now and then, but doesn’t that get boring after a while?

Living in modern, privileged countries, we face few real threats. We’re not trekking over mountains or fending off grizzlies. We live cushy lives. If we seek challenges, we end up creating them for ourselves. We might push our limits by choosing a demanding career, playing sports, entering contests, and so on. As kids, we are plopped into a challenging arena: school. But, as adults, we can get stagnant if we avoid risks.

Some might argue that circumstances shouldn’t affect our focus and intensity. Shouldn’t we go all out running solo, as if in a race? Sure. But most people try harder when stakes are higher.

What do “exams” really examine?

Whether it’s a bar exam or medical boards, a tennis match or a chess tournament, “exams” are meant to examine one’s aptitude in a given field. Actually, however, they probably measure one’s mental state in terms of confidence and composure under stress. In elite sports, competitors are comparable in physical talent and fitness; the mentally tougher athlete will win. In Iyengar assessments, all candidates are more or less ready in their substantive knowledge of teaching asana; rather they must shake off nerves and perform gracefully under public scrutiny.

In any endeavor, training toward mental toughness is just as valuable as substantive learning. Iyengar assessments perhaps develop this side of teachers. To me, that’s a worthy end.

Images: Wiseman Says

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