Archives for October 2017

Top Doc Explains Why Women Over 40 Need Yoga

This post is brought to you by our own YogaHotDisher, Top Doc,  and  Minnesota Monthly CoverGirl,  Dr. Carrie Ann  Terrell, MD, University of Minnesota (UMN). Thanks Carrie for contributing to our blog!


The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website for an overview of the benefits of yoga as presented by the National Institutes of Health.  The evidence is solid as is my experience.

My most common patient scenario presents with a litany of concerns that reads something like this:

  • Fatigue, low energy, difficulty completing the umpteen tasks before her
  • Low libido
  • Inability to focus, memory loss, distractedness
  • Mood swings, irritability
  • Weight gain, digestive problems
  • Dissatisfaction with life

These women are 40-60 years old, often partnered with a significant other of varying participation in the relationship/housework/child rearing/care taking/cooking/shopping, have busy/successful/demanding careers, are the primary caretaker of the house/parent(s)/children/pets, and have unwieldy expectations for what they “should” be doing to take care of themselves.

These patients are essentially working every hour of their lives.  If and when they sleep it is erratic and interrupted and they wake without having rested. Or they “rest” while watching TV, iPading, gaming, texting, Facebooking. These activities are not restful, rejuvenating, nor replenishing. As if this isn’t enough they are also constantly talking to/bombarding themselves with negative or expectant commentary that translates as “not enough or not good enough.” In fact, the incessant loop of streaming thought these women live with is exhausting.

These women often come in seeking a magical hormonal cure.  They read that estrogen or bioidentical hormones or compounded hormones will resolve all of their issues; that their issues must be related to menopause or perimenopause. Now, I’m not underestimating menopause. Estrogen deficiency causes hot flashes.  Hot flashes can disrupt thought, the work day, the physical body. When hot flashes occur at night, sleeplessness results and irritability, mood swings, memory problems can follow suit. However, in many many cases, estrogen deficiency is not the problem. These women need a break, a time out, a mini-retreat, a respite.

Many women have found their solution. Some have found it in running, others in meditating. However, for many the potential solutions are untenable, unreachable, or add to the never-ending list of shoulds. Or, the options are so overwhelming women cannot begin to decide what to do or how to perform self care.

For me, this is where yoga comes in. When taught well, with attention to the philosophy and teachings, Yoga provides peace, quiet and a chance to observe ourselves.  Some know yoga to be an exercise; a physical activity leading to fitness, improved health, increased heart rate, etc etc. The secret is that asana practice (the poses are called asana) is solely meant to allow us to sit comfortably enough,quietly enough to see and feel clearly. Undoubtedly, the physical practice feels good. “Doing” yoga feels good, but, what feels even better is being able to look at my thoughts and see, ‘huh, those are my thoughts. I am not my thoughts.” Or, “look, this awful thing happened to me or someone said this awful thing to me and gee, I don’t have to be affected by that. I can still be me.” Or, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. My muscles are shaking. This is dumb. I’m way too important for this pose. Why did I come? I have better things to do.” Which over time can become, “This pose sucks. I hate this pose. I’ve gotten through this pose before. I am stronger. My resilience is better.”

After 14 years of practicing yoga I can honestly say it makes me a better person. I build better relationships. I think more clearly. I know my limitations and know what I need to care for myself. I can separate myself from my wrongdoings, my suffering, my awards, my rewards, my family and my thoughts. With this ability, I am able to set my work and personal goals in alignment with my deepest beliefs. I am able to achieve lifelong goals and hold positions of leadership with a sense of love and responsibility. I get to choose how I will react to incoming stimuli (if at all) and I can readily access a place of peace and serenity within myself.

Kamakura Japan: buddhas, beaches, and badasses

Kamakura Buddha

Kamakura for Kyoto?

I had my first meditation experience in Kyoto during college. I was sitting still in total silence, possibly for the first time in my life, mesmerized by snowflakes falling in the zen rock garden Ryonanji.  Our intrepid Professor Braulick of St. Olaf took the initiative to offer the first study abroad to Japan from a Minnesota college.  Had it not been for those miraculous moments on a freezing January day when I and 24 kids straight outta’ Olaf managed to be quiet simultaneously and appreciate the rare treat of having a World Heritage Site all to ourselves,  I don’t think I would be writing this.

I managed to return to Kyoto some years later during peak season when I was working in Japan back in the 1990’s.  It was disappointing and about as “mystical” as Epcot Center.  Throngs of tourists elbowing to the front for photos–and that was before the selfie!

This year, I passed on Kyoto for reasons of crowds, cost, and time.  Moreover, my teen traveling companion was more interested in pop culture than high culture, understandably.   That said, we did visit another ancient capital, this one much closer to Tokyo, often heralded as “The Kyoto of the East.”  I dare say this ancient capital is almost as compelling as crowded Kyoto and perhaps better suited for a yoga retreat whistle stop.

Here’s my not-so-short list of reasons to visit Kamakura:

  1. It’s where zazen, seated zen meditation landed in Japan.  Monks from the area traveled to China (circa 1200) to learn from zen masters and brought the practice to Kamakura where it was first embraced by the samurai class. They practiced a rigorous, disciplined version. Later, in the 1300’s, a kinder, gentler version was brought over for “the peasants,” known as Soto Zen.  Soto Zen is described as, “Meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.”  Sound familiar? Do you think zazen is some mysterious practice? It’s not, silly — you “peasants” do it at the conclusion of every class when we steady ourselves in a sitting position! It’s just old-school seated meditation, with roots back to India. In fact, the word zen is derived from dhyana, which is a Sanskrit word for meditation and appears in the Yoga Sutras (last stop before Samadhi) and in the Bhagavad Gita when Krishna describes it as the yoga of meditation.  
  2. Kamakura is a samurai town.  When the Mongols were set to invade in the late 1200’s, the court of high-maintenance aristocrats in Kyoto would have caved and Japan would have been part of China!  The tough guy Samurai of Kamakura were the ones who rallied resistance with their southern flank in Kyushu to defend the country. They sent a strong message by beheading the Mongol navy seal team. Then, the “divine wind,” or kamikaze turned up in the nick of time to wipe out the other 150,000 invaders.
  3. Kamakura has the same layout and design as Kyoto since the Daimyo (lord) who designed it was born in Kyoto.
  4.  Kamakura is a beach town–it’s close to the ocean on the Shonan Coast, where surfing and the surfing lifestyle was first introduced to Japan back in the 60’s. Dudes, it’s known for its laid-back lifestyle, thrashing waves, and great seafood.  I much enjoyed eavesdropping on a teenager in line with me for coffee in the AM; he was clearly cutting class arguing on the phone with his Dad about why the day was better for surfing than schooling!
  5. The Great Buddha at Kamakura is amongst the best big bronze Buddhas (more beautiful than Nara’s, which may be more famous).  It was cast in the 1300’s and has survived all sorts of calamities, including earthquakes, floods, and fires. What didn’t survive: the hall that encased it.  Finally, it was left out in the open, so you can get a good look at it. Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem about it, with stanzas appearing in one of my favorite books, Kim.

Indeed, we “feel the soul of all the East” in Kamakura and in Japan in general.  So much of Asia has washed up on its shores, like sea glass. The origins are distant yet familiar, cloudy yet with some discernable details. The edges have been refined by a people who believe in perfecting everything from serving tea to handing out business cards. My proudest homeschooling moment was reading this longtime favorite poem of mine on the train with my daughter enroute to see the statue.  No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Kamakura and the Shonan coast–both will be part of the YogaHotDish Japan Retreat: Finding Peach in Chaos, 2022(?)

And whoso will, from Pride released,
Contemning neither creed nor priest,
May feel the Soul of all the East
About him at Kamakura.                                                                        

A tourist-show, a legend told,
A rusting bulk of bronze and gold,
So much, and scarce so much, ye hold
The meaning of Kamakura

~ Rudyard Kipling