Put Some Motion in your Meditation!

There are a lot of books written about what is meditation and how to do it.  To be honest, it’s often more enjoyable to read about meditation than it is to actually attempt it!  Most of us are nowhere near ready for what we might consider meditation: sitting perfectly still on a cushion with an erect spine, effortlessly surfing waves of bliss.  Frankly, it’s a lot more rigorous than you might think.  First off, our bodies are no where physically ready to sit comfortably (usually on the floor) for an extended period–you’d be surprised how long 10 minutes can take when seated on the floor without support–our hips have long since adapted to chairs and for many, there’s no going back! Besides, is sitting really what we should be doing in our leisure time?  Is anyone out there wracking their brain thinking, “How can I sit more?”  (People who work on your feet all day, you are perhaps the only ones who may answer “yes”).

As if the body alone weren’t enough of an obstacle, we have to consider the over-tasked modern mind.  If you don’t already have ADD or ADHD, you’re probably catching it like the flu from your devices. All of these inventions that were supposed to save us time and energy simply multiplied all the things we’re supposed to get done at once!

The answer for 99% of the people I meet who want to reap the benefits of meditation ranging from boosting mood and immunity to cognitive function are best served by a yogic “meditation in motion” practice.  The yogis were the first to make the mind-body connection and flip it upside-down: instead of mind over matter (the body), they learned that you could use the body (and breath techniques) to calm the mind.  This was (and still is for many), a revolutionary idea!

Finding the right combination of breathing and slow moving postures taught in a serene environment can lead you to those meditative bliss waves. And, by serene I mean quiet. Meditation requires confronting silence, stepping back and watching your thoughts.  This can’t be done while listening to music or looking in a mirror (hence the “no music, no mirrors”).  While music can be relaxing, it can’t help but generate memories and emotions–both considered “errors” of meditation (ask people who compose music for hospitals how tricky it can be).  Mirrors put you in the comparative part of your brain where the ego lives, another “error.”  Even if you’re not checking out your neighbor, you might be comparing today’s image with a previous one;  besides that, you aren’t focused internally. I once asked for hardship pay after trying to teach a group of teenagers yoga in a mirrored studio–and I got it!

Keep in mind, yoga postures were developed to prepare the body and mind for meditation, as a prelude to the higher states.  Swami Kripalu realized that most people didn’t actually have 10 hours to sit in silence daily like he did, so he promoted a style of yoga that makes the “container” of the body stronger while reaping the rewards of meditation.  The practice then finishes with a full length Savasana (corpse pose).  Big-box fitness yoga tends to reduce it to a couple of minutes of “relaxation,” to get you out the door so the next class can move in,  missing the point entirely. It’s like sending you away w/ a peppermint instead of an artfully crafted tiramisu.  A proper savansana is the piece de resistance toward which the class has been building. You, the student, have a small window of opportunity to transition from “meditation in motion” to just meditation, now that the mind, body and breath have been carefully prepared.  To forego that opportunity is a loss and shows a lack of respect or understanding for the underpinnings of classical yoga.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You must be free from doubts, fear, delusion, egoism, anger, passion and Raga-Dvesha

Is Your Spouse the Biggest Threat to Your Health?

I have been working with “active seniors” so long, that I am literally starting to become one.  The AARP knows where I live.  Decades of helping people discover self-care, often in the nick of time (around retirement) has given me an insight I’d like to share. It may sound a little harsh…

Look around the room of my “Fit and Feisty 50+” crowd and you WILL be impressed! There are students ranging in age from mid 40’s to 90+.  There’s not necessarily a correlation of age to ability either in the areas of strength, flexibility, focus and balance.  Some of our oldest students are the fiercest and fiesty…est.  What they all seem to have in common is that they’re committed to longevity and doing the aging thing “right.”  They’re socially plugged in, active, purpose-driven, taking care of family, serving on boards, continuing to work, pursuing passions like art, writing, travel, and faith.  I love to remind them that even on their worst day, they’re in the “upper percentiles” compared to their peer group!

So how and when does it go wrong for them?  Well yes, it might be a health crisis like a fall or a diagnosis, but what I see more often than not is that the illness of a spouse is most likely to throw them off-track.  The next thing you know, they’re missing their own self-care to take care of a spouse: running to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, picking up all the slack in doing errands, taking care of grandkids.  And, more often than not, while they have gotten into the habit of wellness/fitness/self-care, their spouse has not.  Maybe the spouse was the sole breadwinner or perhaps it’s just that opposites attract. Whatever the reason doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  The spouse needs them and that’s what they signed up for–it’s in the contract.

So what’s a healthy senior to do? My advice is look around and learn.  Get those spouses off the sofa and get them engaged in wellness. If said spouse likes to try new things and has a sense of humor, riding shotgun to your yoga class may, in fact, be an easy answer.  However, more often that not, I find that men especially are squeamish about joining a mostly female class surrounded by women who are likely in better shape than they are. Remember, yoga is about the balance of strength, flexibility, breath and focus.  While men often show up with greater strength they can find the yoga combination vexing.

So here’s what I recommend: a little couples private yoga to get them going and build confidence. Whether they are coming off a long career of corporate work at screens and travel or construction and repetitive motion, chances are it has taken a toll on their bodies and their minds. Yoga teaches us the mind can’t truly relax when the body is full of “resting tension” that never goes away–even during sleep.

The idea is not to do couples private yoga forever, but just to get going.  A duet class is convenient in that, even if one person can’t make it, the other likely can resulting in both students getting to zero-in on their individual issues and concerns separately from time to time.  Eventually, the spouse may start to inquire about group classes and here’s the interesting part: it may not necessarily be your group class–he/she may want to venture out and have their own “space.”  No problem!  The sense of community will be good either way; and, you will share a common interest as a couple that will lead to some interesting discussions and even some inside jokes!

I hope this paints a better picture of how “aging” can be. In the West, we assume that old age brings reduced mobility–not so in many of the Eastern cultures.  And remember, in helping your spouse, you’re helping yourself while becoming a healthier couple on many levels.

What’s Wrong with Senior Yoga?

It was never my intention to teach senior yoga… or to grow old for that matter!  However, when I heard reports (often from my Mom) of what was passing for “senior yoga” at the local Y, fitness center, health club, community ed,  etc., I knew I had to get involved and rethink the whole genre.

Perhaps the most egregious violation of my yoga sensibilities was the practice of referring people of a certain age to “chair yoga.”  I couldn’t believe all the fully mobile and even active seniors that were doing “chair yoga.”  Now, if you are in a wheelchair, or use a walker, then yes, perhaps chair yoga is your jam.  However, if you’re as able as the folks I saw who were taking it, then the only people being served by chairs are lawyers and inexperienced teachers.  These groups love chairs because the chance of anyone getting hurt (in spite of iffy teaching credentials) is small — even smaller than the likelihood of getting any measurable, meaningful results!

Next on the list of grievances are the number of young, inexperienced instructors teaching a gentler form of their regular vinyasa class and calling it “senior yoga.”  Seniors have all kinds of special issues and until you’ve experienced inflammation, joint pain, vertigo, chronic illness, heart trouble, etc., you haven’t a clue what your students are going through.  While sympathy is great, empathy matters as does the instructor’s ability to teach to bodies of different proportions with different ranges of motion and fitness levels. What inexperienced instructors (fond of chirping, “You can just modify.”) don’t realize is: the whole approach to stretching has to be altered to protect the joints at all costs. Moreover, the attachment to aesthetics in the poses has to be dropped–this is not yoga for Instagram! 

Finally, on the list is the lack of meditative and breathing practices: American yoga in general loves to liberally cut these corners, yet in yoga philosophy, both of them trump asana/ posture practice and are higher up the hierarchy of importance.  In places where yoga is a lifetime practice, pranayama (breathing) and mediation practices are meant to grow as we age so that when the body inevitably starts to deteriorate, the “higher practices” take over and create a rich, immune boosting, mind clearing, relaxing practice that could even be done in a hospital bed.  To not teach these keeps one’s practice in the physical realm at a time when we should be trying to transcend it.

The previous grievance shouldn’t imply that there isn’t a strong physical component to the YogaHotDish approach for this population.  I find many teachers underestimate how much the 50-90 crowd can actually do, as long as students are committed.  Sure, we do planks, dogs, pilates inspired core, and loads of balancing. It’s the way we do it:  long holds, a selection of poses offered with easy transitions and the freedom to pick and choose what works,  Moreover, poses where the “risk” doesn’t justify the “return” have been carefully weeded out over time. I suppose it could also be said that some students are weeded out over time.  Commitment to the small group environment is key.  The non-committal don’t last as they grow increasingly frustrated when those around them continuously improve.  Sure, the hands-on assisting and individual help can make up for a lot, but, it’s not fair to turn the class into one’s own private yoga session either! As an experienced teacher of 20+ years, I know that 12 is about the right number. Be skeptical of large group fitness senior classes–there’s no way the teacher is going to remember your knee replacement, torn rotator cuff etc.

If you’re over 50, you know that there’s not way to make up for experience. I can’t just train anyone to teach this class, as it has been evolving over 20 years.  There is no one else in the area teaching a class like this. When I go out of town, I have to cancel the class–there’s no sub.  Also, there is no “senior rate.”  Why? Because this class takes every ounce of energy and experience I have to execute.  I leave nothing on the mat looking after a dozen people with illness, injury, challenges and assorted issues–I often log around 2000 steps!  In fact, this class is priced at the top of my range at $15/ class.  Sure, you can get those next-to-nothing classes with your “silver sneakers”program but you will get precisely that for which you pay.  There is no comparison which is why though many of my students belong to LifeTime, Shoreview Community, the YMCA, and do Community Ed they still show up every week.  Many students have been with me for decades; in fact, we joke there’s only one way out of this class!

To keep the environment small and inviting, I am delighted to add a new FIt & Feisty 50+ class on Thursdays, 3-4:30 pm in North Oaks.  90 minutes?  That’s how long real yoga takes. Never trust a one-hour yoga class and don’t trust what “big yoga” is marketing as “senior yoga!”   Please check the class out here if you’re ready to be Fit…and a wee bit Feisty!

 

 

 

 

Angry Yogini: does rage really become her?

Anger is like water. No matter how hard a person tries to dam, divert, or deny it, it will find a way, usually along the path of least resistance.  As I will discuss in this book, women often “feel” their anger in their bodies.  Unprocessed, anger threads itself through our appearances, bodies, eating habits, and relationships, fueling low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and actual physical illness.

From the book,  Rage Becomes Her,  by Soraya Chemaly

 

Did you know that studies show men and women have about the same amount of anger?  Yet why, in the 21st Century is it still so risky for women to show anger?  Why  are we so likely to hide it, putting other people’s feelings of comfort and ease ahead of our own?  Because we know if we express it, there will be consequences. While anger is the weapon of choice for alpha males everywhere, when displayed  by females, it’s perceived not as strength but as irrational, emotional and weak.

Continuing from Rage Becomes Her:

“Anger has a bad rap, but it’s actually one of the most forward thinking of all our emotions.  It begets transformation   manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world.  It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.  Anger warns us viscerally of violation, threat and insult.”

Author Soraya Chemaly goes on to point out that people who express anger are even more optimistic –perhaps because they feel an empowering energy to change things for the better.

You don’t have to know much about yoga to know that “authenticity” is a buzz word. “Live authentically” implore numerous ads in Yoga Journal, as if you could be “authentic” by using a bamboo water bottle or taking a “Yoga Journey” to Nepal. Most of these ads are targeted at women.  I contend, however, that regardless of what kind of water bottle you wield, if authenticity is what you’re shooting for, then sister, learn how to express yourself in a way that leverages your anger, propels your forward and keeps you from succumbing to the depression/ anxiety quagmire.

Not so sure, are you?  Gee, but people might get offended; you might lose friendships, or even a job.  What’s the downside of not expressing anger adeptly?  As mentioned above: anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and a host of physical diseases. Those are high prices to pay.  I wonder how many women seeking treatment for these conditions are able to connect the dots back to the likely origin: unexpressed anger.  My guess is very few.

In the yoga world, we often view emotions in energetic terms. Anger is energy, energy that can be harnessed and directed toward “unstructured,” creative thinking and problem solving.  Heck, this very post came to me moments after hanging up the phone from my battle-royale with Alamo Car Rental. The trick is in leveraging the energy boost into something productive, not kicking the dog or driving 50 in a 30.

In reflection, I think I have typically expressed anger in a more masculine way.  I pity the fools who poached my brand new pink tennis balls I received for my birthday, around age 10.  I chased the pair of boys down and beat the crap out of them w/ my shiny metal tennis racket.  I remember my Dad beaming when one of the Father’s phoned and my own father replied, “My recommendation to your child is not to steal tennis balls.”  They never bothered me again!

Later, when working in a male dominated field in a male-dominated culture, I deliberately took note of how men expressed anger.  I realized that to be taken seriously, I was going to have to raise my voice, throw around some coarse language and, ideally, beat them at sports –at the risk of making them mad, as opposed to the typical feminine role of putting men “at ease.”   I quickly  realized that expressing anger wasn’t that big a deal in the wolf pack; what was probably more harmful was holding a grudge, an area in which many of my female colleagues exceled.  I deliberately avoided that age-old, passive-aggressive play.  Amends are fairly easy to make in Man World –usually a beer does the trick in keeping future collaborations on the table/bar.

But what does this have to do with yoga? It has dawned on me that perhaps what drew me to the practice in the late 90’s was the way it helped me manage the anger that was “trapped inside my body” as mentioned above. Years of working in sexist countries in IT, plus a health condition dismissed by male doctors took its toll.

Anger is energy that needs to be processed productively, and ideally, in “real time.”  That can take many forms, from taking a long walk to chatting with a sympathetic friend. However, sometimes those things aren’t available.  But, there’s always a floor. There’s always 10 minutes.  There’s always the breath.

As a teacher I have numerous female students confide in me that they’re on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.  But maybe they’re not sad, maybe their Sad + Mad =SMAD.  They’re bottling up years of ill-processed anger and it’s fermenting into sadness and “unexplained” anxiety.  Yoga meditation trains us to feel feelings with subtlety and skill; so much so, I often compare it to wine tasting.  We move well beyond defining things as red or white,  noticing layers, complexity and even “notes” of emotions—It’s how I came up w/ “SMAD.”  I could hold anger and sadness together, but crying seemed more socially acceptable than punching someone in the nose or shouting them down in a crowd.

Meditation, yin, self-study (avidya), breathing exercises for controlling energy—Yoga offers us a wide array of time-tested techniques. The issues are in the tissues. If you’re a woman living in a #metoo world, get real, get angry and get to your yoga mat!

Finally, have you ever noticed, a lot of old ladies aren’t exactly “sweet”? I’m thinking of the ones who outlive their husbands by decades, continue to live independently, managing their own affairs.  In my experience, the longevity bet is on fit and feisty, stubborn and assertive!

PS.  Some of you reading this, male and female, will be tempted to dismiss me as a ball buster, feminazi, or worse. You are living in the past, and maybe that works for you. Yoga, however, challenges us relentlessly to be here, in the present.  And, for me to care what you think would mean putting your feelings (a complete stranger)  ahead of my own, which is another way women end up miserable.  Please don’t feel like you need to share your thoughts with me on the subject. This post is meant only to encourage and validate those who are wanting to break out of typically “feminine” ways for expressing anger that aren’t working for them.   If this isn’t you, then kindly run along! Namaste.

 

Yoga Teacher Trainings: buyer beware (and do the math)

CorePower Teacher Training Pyramid Scheme

UPDATE MAY 2019:  I wrote this post several years ago as I was noticing an influx of newly minted teachers from “big yoga” flooding the market.  I had heard stories of teachers at CorePower and elsewhere encouraging young, (mostly) women to become yoga teachers who had little to no experience and had only done yoga in one studio in one style.  I knew it was a money grab:  RENT!

Rent is such a huge issue for yoga studios trying to stay afloat.  They pump money into high traffic locations with decor and more:  hardwood floors, fountains, mirrors, sound systems, online booking etc., but guess what?  There’s nothing left over to pay qualified teachers.  So what do you do? You start your own teacher training program, priced HIGHER(!?) than training in India or a stateside residential training program (including room and board for a month!). This creates loads of revenue during the down-hours of the studio; plus, it encourages a steady supply of cheap (and we know now) exploitable labor. To make matters worse, many young people were being encouraged to TAKE ON DEBT for the trainings, often to the tune of $3-5K.  Nevermind they were already unemployed or under-employed.  While always a CorePower skeptic, never did I imagine the level of sinister greed rampant there.  The New York Times article even features a Minnesota CorePower location!  COREPOWER ARTICLE HERE. 

In retrospect, I  should’ve known the teachers were being “coached” on how to sell the trainings as I kept hearing the same refrain, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach. I just wanted to ‘deepen my own practice.'”  Please! I can give you lots of ideas on how to deepen your practice on $3-5K! Buy an around-the-world airfare and call me!

Finally, as my classes tend to range in age from about 40-80, I consider the young people who show up and stick with us exceptional.  They’re out looking for something deeper and they know they won’t find it in a mirror. To us, they are treasures and we feel an inclination to help them, take care of them and embrace them.  I offer a reduced rate for my millenials/Gen Z’s living at home/unemployed and “college kids” (some are pushing 40, working on PhDs).  They add so much to our community. The fact that CorePower and even local studios with aggressive training programs based on the CorePower model  exploit young people is deeply disgusting and makes my heart hurt.

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About once a week, I get an inquiry from someone looking for a yoga teacher training program or, a recent grad looking for a job or mentoring opportunities. It’s easy to see why people want to teach yoga and do what they love.  However, from where I stand, there seem to be some troubling  (maybe slightly sinister)  market forces at work out there concocting a glut of young, under-prepared, overly in-debt teachers.

For the record:  I don’t have a downward-facing dog in this fight.  I don’ t do teacher trainings and don’t aspire to in the near future.  I have been teaching yoga for just 17 years–not long enough.    The people I trained with had decades (not combined, but individually) of intensive teaching experience, often in residence, in ashrams.    To be clear, the notion that you can somehow teach an all-encompassing practice like yoga shy of middle age is a Western one.  Back when I trained in 2001, there were a limited number of established schools  ( lineage back to India) in the Yoga Alliance.  They were supposed to “protect” the legitimacy of the certification by careful vetting of training programs. Somewhere along the way, a “growth” strategy took over and qualifications like residential training went away.  With that, so did my annual dues, as I couldn’t figure out what they were providing for me as a teacher. That little badge you see up above, in my view has lost its meaning. It doesn’t distinguish whether you did your training online, with a famous Swami, a yoga thought-leader or “Jenny from the Block. ”

So why the boom in Teacher Training programs? I see three main market forces at work:

1) They’re lucrative and provide the lion’s share of revenue for bricks and mortar yoga studios to pay the rent.  Starting at $2000-2500 for a 200 hour basic program, you multiply that by 15-20 students participating and you can make a good chunk of change.  Moreover, you can wedge in the teacher trainings at off-hours on weekends when the studio isn’t being optimized, say on Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons.  Better yet, offer an on-line component so you don’t even need to provide space.  Really? On-line teacher training?  Would you like a  massage therapist or a doctor trained on-line?   But, all the schools are doing it!    Why?  (see number 3).

2) They create a perpetual pool of low-cost employees for the studio. Each session graduates newly-minted teachers eager to work for peanuts to gain experience.  Of course, the studio can’t possibly hire all of their graduates now, can they?   Those who don’t get jobs will have to hit the pavement and look for jobs at other studios, but of course, those other studios have their own graduates to hire. Smaller  indie studios with a discriminating clientele want teachers with loads of experience who’ve mentored under big names.  Then the options narrow to places like LifeTime, Snap Fitness and the like, who are always hiring, due to a huge turnover rate.  Why the turnover? Because teaching yoga for $25 / hour is only gratifying for so long, especially when you’re trying to recoup your $2000+ investment.  Think about it, at that rate, you have to teach 80- 100 classes just to break even on your investment!!!  If they hire you for 2 classes a week, that’s almost a year of your life teaching for FREE! Besides, you have student loans to pay….which leads to my Grand Finale Point:

3) Student Loans, including PELL Grants can be used for Yoga Teacher Training.  Ah haaa!  Now we see the real reason for the boom in yoga teacher training programs, and the accompanying college-like  tuition inflation.    It used to be you could go live in residence at an ashram or a yoga center with a full campus , room and board included for what these strip mall studios are charging for their teacher trainings. Moreover, the demand is such that they can pluck their “lead trainers” from their own in-house schools after they’ve only been teaching themselves for a few years and no one questions it. So, instead of “going to the mountain,” and training in an immersion environment with a cast of experienced teachers from a reputable school of lineage (back to India) as well as teaching assistants, chefs, anatomy professors, etc., you go down the street and train w/ people w/ names like “Nina B.” or ‘Tommy Y.”  who themselves have only taught yoga for maybe a few years.  Oh, and you don’t actually immerse yourself and live like a yogi  because you can’t really afford to quit your day job given the exorbitant cost of the program!  Kids ~ this is NOT a good deal!

So what is a sincere, aspiring yoga teacher to do?  Stop. Breathe. Discern.  I don’t want to say that you must put your life on-hold and take an immersion program, but it is the gold standard.  That said, what I do feel strongly about is this: don’t pay Ivy League Prices for a Community College program because you couldn’t spot the difference!  If you have to study piecemeal or even online, then just don’t pay what you’d pay to go live somewhere; and, keep your expectations in line.  If you need to teach yoga to pay your bills, then choose carefully and consider programs where you have not one,  but several teachers with decades of experience at your disposal.  Frankly, I can’t imagine the egotistical leap necessary for a sole individual of a tender age to claim to be able to teach you everything you need to know about being a teacher.

I’ve included some links to some reputable programs which have withstood the test of time; they also have a lineage to somewhere other than the mall or Los Angeles!  Some of them even offer SCHOLARSHIPS (i.e. Kripalu).  In the meantime, keep up your own practice, study w/ as many teachers of as many styles as you can to narrow it down, save your money and please, don’t go into debt and end up paying even more (with interest) for a sub-standard “canned” program. They will only turn you into a cue-reciting parrot, not a yoga teacher! 

 

Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health — Scholarships available!

Integral Yoga San Francisco 

Minneapolis Yoga Workshop

 

Why Your Balance is Bad

One of the top concerns new students have in yoga is their balance: they know it’s not as good as it used to be and they’re concerned they’re “losing it.”  No one wants to star in the old “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” ad.

What many don’t realize is that poor balance is just a symptom of a systemic problem: you’re not just losing balance, you’re losing your proprioception in general.  Think of proprioception as the messages the body sends to the brain.  Your brain is constantly telling your body what to do, but the problem is the other part of the feedback loop. You body has a whole bunch of signals–sensations–that it sends back to your brain. Modern life has essentially dulled your reception of those signals.  Poor reception means you can’t adapt.  You’re trying to “will” yourself to stand steadily on one foot, but it’s a one-way message to your foot from your brain–not enough to achieve the “steadiness and ease,” or sukkha and sthira we aim for in yoga.

What’s the easiest/fastest way to improve? Ditch the shoes.  Many of your proprioceptive powers are in your feet.  Walking around in shoes–especially ones with thick soles and orthopedic supports–is like a speaker with a pillow over it.  They bugger your reception.  Go back to basics: bare feet walking over as many surfaces as possible.  Now, be advised, the people who make/prescribe the ortho supports will disagree…hmmm.

My first yoga teacher HATED sticky mats.  She thought they were something for “weak Americans.”  She encouraged us to do yoga on as many surfaces as possible.

In addition to poor receptors, you probably have “weak American” feet, that are stiff, not pliable.  They can’t make the subtle adjustments necessary to keep you steady.  Do you know the most important joint in the body?  Your ankles! Are they strong, or weak–prone to rolling in or out?

Yet, I hardly ever have anyone come to yoga saying they need to strengthen their feet.  Hands and wrists are another story. Most people have no business trying to imitate those amazing Instagram arm balances–their hands and wrists are no where near strong enough, even if they’ve build up shoulders and core.

Proprioception issues go beyond the feet, but start there.  You’ll soon be ready to join one of our proprio-positive YogaHotDish classes.  And please, do not arrive squeamish about taking off your shoes AND socks or leaving the “safe space” of your sticky mat.

PS. DId you know that proprio yoga will also improve your working memory?  I almost forgot to mention that 🙂

 

Top MN Doc Carrie Terrell: 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!

DrT

The evidence for yoga improving various health problems is deep and varied.  I recommend the website nccam.nih.gov 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.

Yoga vs. Fitness: What Do Cupcakes Have to Do with It?

I often get asked, “Why should I do yoga instead of ___?” (Fill in the blank with pilates, kickboxing, crossfit, kettlebells, strength training, etc).  This is a vexing question to answer in say, a party situation.  No one wants a lecture on the benefits of yoga, but how can I sum up what a tradition thousands of years old has to offer us before the cake course?

I’ve already gotten myself in trouble: yoga postures as practiced commonly in studios and gyms across America are not all that old–maybe 100-150 years old with the exception of seated poses like Lotus.  The parts of yoga that are ancient are the breathing exercises and the meditation–two potentially time-consuming areas often dispensed with in a one-hour-or-less fitness setting.  I can understand why someone might take a mat pilates class at their club one day, a yoga class the next and think, “Meh, six of one, half-a-dozen the other.” Let’s try to break it down with a couple of questions:

First, have you ever done a yoga class with a “final relaxation” of more than 10 minutes where your instructor explained the how/why of the pose (Corpse) and the mental state (Yoga Nidra)?  If not, I dare say, sure, you’ve done some yoga poses, but it’s a little bit like a cupcake without frosting.  I can’t believe how often I see people bail on the last few minutes at my health club.  I want to shake them: don’t they know everything they’ve been doing for the last 55 minutes has been preparing them for the last five ( should be 10) minutes?  Nope, guess not.

Second question: have you ever done a yoga class in a quiet room without music and mirrors?  If the answer is “no,” again, no frosting! Mirrors take your awareness to the exterior body of which you are probably overly aware anyway.  That said, they are great for the group fitness approach where someone “performs” the workout up front and you follow along, often wishing you had the instructor’s ____ (abs, delts, glutes) and that your hair looked better.  Instructors don’t have to be so adept at teaching, just able to do their workout while throwing out some “cues.” Classical yoga instructors do not consider their classes their own practice time and are constantly roving around the room to assist.  In a typical class, I might clock 1 mile in steps by the time I set up, tear down and teach for 90 minutes.  To sum it up, you can’t meditate in front of a mirror for what I hope are obvious reasons.  Music, while good for relaxation can’t help but induce emotion and memory.  In a meditative yoga practice, we’re trying to slow down the external inputs and level up mentally beyond relaxation.  Both music and mirrors are distractions to the deeper practices.

If you answered “no” to one of the above, you may have not experienced the richness of The Whole Cupcake, so comparison to pilates, kettlebells, etc. is difficult.  Of course, the solution to this is to look for a different sort of yoga class to try: a little more classically Asian, a little less American group exercise.

Until then, I can only try to give you my least flowery explanation of what you’re missing–like describing frosting to someone who has only tasted cake:

Yoga will change your relationship with your body:  instead of viewing your body as some kind of “machine” or “science experiment” to be endlessly fine-tuned, you will see your body as a beloved container to be nourished.  This will, in turn, change your relationships to food and exercise in general into something more experiential and positive that doesn’t have to be micromanaged and constantly controlled.

You will change your relationship with your mind:  the “mind-over-matter” mindset is exhausting to both the body and the mind itself.  You won’t take your PFC (prefrontal cortex, frontal lobe) so seriously all the time and you’ll know when you need to take a break from all of its planning, listing and judging.  You’ll open up new mental states leading to greater peace and more creativity–no wonder so many artists, writers and actors do yoga. Numerous cognitive benefits of yoga have been validated by research which is probably why the American Alzheimer’s Association has two yogis on full-time staff in top positions.  Finally, you’ll also learn how to better compartmentalize stress and keep your worries off your mat during practice and potentially beyond.

You will change your relationship with others:  better self-care beyond a fitness work-out will restore and energize you for taking better care of others.  More awareness of yourself and your own mind will lead to a better understanding of others.  You can say a lot about the stereotypical yogi, but “grumpy” wouldn’t be on the list.

To sum it up, yoga is a holistic approach to wellness that includes fitness, but transcends it at the same time.  Many people show up for their bodies, but they end up staying for their hearts and minds.  The heart and mind are a source of ongoing, ever-changing challenge.  It is for this reason I believe yoga has become a lifestyle and lifetime pursuit.  Yoga neither burns-out or bores. That said, you needn’t give up your favorite exercise du jour as yoga compliments everything from pilates to strength training, as well as all sports.  Think of it as a path to master the self–not just the plank!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commit, Man!

Commit, Man!

 

When my 12-yr old son was skateboarding and trying to make his way down a rather large hill with some trepidation, (in more traffic than I was comfortable with –hence the yoga) an older college kid blew by him on a board and shouted, “COMMIT, MAN!”  As much as I wanted to ring that guy’s neck, he was right. My son was stopping and starting to much, losing momentum, over-thinking it. So, on the cusp of March 2018, as many of you are looking at your New Year’s resolutions in the rearview mirror,  my message to you, yoga dudes: COMMIT! You will get the results you want– I’ll see to that. But, I can’t do my job if you don’t do yours: sign-up, show-up, COMMIT!
I’m going to be brutally honest with you and share what I’ve learned over 15 years of teaching yoga and studying human behavior around self-care/exercise.  If it somehow feels personal, please don’t take it as such. This is just human nature.
Ever wonder how people successfully use yoga to maintain their weight, health and wellness?  You know the people I’m talking about. They are adept at yoga, but not necessarily “superstars,”  they look “in-shape” and seem to be pretty chipper.
They’re the ones, that whenever you get around to going to class, they always seem to be there…Ah-ha! Here’s the first clue. The people that use yoga to stay healthy and avoid injury/ illness SHOW UP for class; and, this has a snowball effect. Because they do yoga consistently, they have fewer injuries, aches, pains, don’t become sick as much (scientifically proven: yogis’ immune systems function better), and therefore THEY MISS FEWER CLASSES! They keep coming, while others get derailed with sprains, strains, colds, flu.  Those derailments are what get you “off the horse” and few people get back on.
I’d like to say something else about life’s derailments…sometimes, we WANT an excuse!!!  There’s something called “aversion behavior” (Dvesha in sanskrit)  and I see it a lot, so I know it when I see it in myself and others.  Sometimes we WANT something to come up and keep us from our practice. We would rather drive a friend to the airport, meet for drinks–or be there to let the cable company in.  The truth of human nature is we don’t want to put in the work and we’re programmed to live in our heads /on our screens, not in our bodies anymore. The mind is scanning the horizon, all day, just looking for excuses. Maybe your shoulder is a little sore–better stay home. I assure you, atrophy is never the answer.  I’m sure your abs and diaphragm work just fine!
If you have an ache or pain, it’s probably from LACK of movement, sedentary lifestyle–not overwork.  Got a case of the sniffles? As long as you don’t have a fever come and do what you can. Maybe you boost your immune system and prevent it from getting worse.  The more time I spend in yoga, the less time I spend at the Dr’s.  It is easier though to sit in a waiting room and scroll on your phone, I’ll give you that.  Maybe deep down,  on some level, managing illness is just more palatable than dedicating yourself to prevention.  In short, you can’t get out of your own way.
Back pain, joint issues, tweaks, depression, anxiety, weight gain, are all so PREVENTABLE through yoga.  I sometimes have to refrain from wanting to SHAKE PEOPLE. So, if you’re one of those once-in-a-while yogis, please consider this a “gentle-shake” from someone who wants to help you take your health/wellness up a level. And if you’re one of my “regulars” then let’s level-up again in 2018!
Finally, don’t think you need some big studio/gym/ brand to be successful. Here’s the thing about “Big Yoga” : it’s a recipe for procrastination. If you do manage to get to class 1-2 times a week, your next battle becomes plateauing. You see, in those non-commital environments, instructors  have to make every class accessible to the once-in-a-while crowd, because that’s who those programs attract: people who think, “Well, if there are classes running all day, every day, surely I’ll get there…somehow?”  Moreover, you don’t really have community as it’s never the same group twice; and, community plays a major role in accountability.
Did you know most people drop-out of unlimited programs within 3 months but continue to PAY the year-long contract?  Then, they’re relieved when it’s over; at least they don’t have the financial guilt.   Furthermore, if they do continue, they attend, on average 1-2 times per week.  And guess what… the ones that “stick” tend to study at the same time every week. So, do you really need to support all that 24/7 infrastructure?  No!
What you do need to do is pick a class time, sign up, then show up.  Your “aversion brain” will kick in to be sure.   Notice if you perk up when you see it start to snow late in the afternoon and tell yourself, ” Traffic will be tough so I probably won’t be able to make it to yoga tonight.”  STOP!  Identify the perp: AVERSION BEHAVIOR.  Once, you I.D. it, you have power over it.  And you can reframe your self-talk to something more like , “I’m on to you, aversion brain, but I’m going to get there anyway. I know if I can just get there, my mood will change. Just because I don’t want to do yoga now, at this moment, in the office, doesn’t mean I won’t want to do it later, on my mat, surrounded by supportive, friendly faces.”
What if you resolve to notice “aversion behavior” in 2018 ? Who knows, maybe all those other resolutions, past and present, will fall into place.  Try it.  Then, COMMIT, MAN!

Annual Kripalu Yoga Teachers’ Conference 2017: Rooting Down, Rising Up!

It had been 16 years since I was last at Kripalu.  Like any reunion, there was a sense of trepidation.  How much had Kripalu changed–would it seem dated? Would I seem dated? Can you go back in time and rediscover the excitement and curiosity that led you there in the first place?

Little did I know, the “Kripalu Experience” would start in the airport shuttle from Albany. My rowmate was named Dana, from Maryland.  Within half an hour, we had exchanged life stories and marveled at how you can have conversations with strangers at Kripalu we can’t have with people back home you’ve known for years.

Checking into my dorm room, my 9 bunkmates started trickling in– Sharon from Connecticut, Lily from  New Jersey (a Macalester alumna!). There was a German national, as well as a younger woman just in from China with major jet lag. At any given time, there are about 600 people staying in the center, plus some in hotels around Stockbridge/Lenox and maybe 10 programs running.  The common thread that binds all participants is the twice daily yoga practices taught by Kripalu staff. In an effort to be more guest friendly, I noticed they moved the morning practice from 6 to a leisurely 6:30!

While eager to meet and greet, we all had to navigate four intense days of programming. We would pair off with the people who selected the same workshops we did or with whom we made a connection.  These connections would be cemented and expanded over some of the healthiest, most flavorful food on the planet in the dining hall. I happened to meet a guy in line for the buffet  (I meet a lot of people in buffet lines) who owns a Kripalu-sanctioned school in the trendy part of Tokyo.  The dining hall exudes a strong college vibe as people are discussing everything from transcendental meditation to how to adapt plank pose for seniors.

I came to the realization that, as Kripalu teachers, no matter when we attended and the prevailing yoga style of the time, we were all systematically taught how to form healthy connections with our students and each other.  Connection permeates the Kripalu zeitgeist in a way I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

Replacing “guru worship” and Indian notions of caste and male hierarchy was a daunting task taken on by Stephen Cope, who lead the charge to rescue the program when it took a wrong turn in the 1990’s.  Having had a successful psychotherapy practice in Boston in his former life, he was just the man to oversee Kripalu’s transformation. He went on to be Executive Director and is now a “Scholar in Residence” and well-known author.

After a sex scandal involving Swami Kripalu’s chief disciple from India, Cope and his devoted team set out to rebuild Kripalu as a “safe space,” where no one person could build a “cult of personality,” adding plenty of checks and balances. For instance, Teacher Training Programs had co-leaders and numerous assistants.  Imagine the potential for abuse in programs where one person decides whether or not aspiring teachers receive certification? (i.e. Bikram).   You can read all about Kripalu’s rebirth in Cope’s first book,  Yoga and Quest for the True Self.  


The book Stephen Signed was The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seekers Guide to Extraordinary Living. I presented him w/ my tattered copy and said, “This is the book I live in, so this is the one I want you to sign–yes I have your new one too.” He replied an author couldn’t ask for anything more than that–to have his books “inhabited” by readers! 

Giving teachers and students a safe space to undergo the “Quest for the True Self” may be Kripalu’s greatest contribution to Yoga in America by offering the antidote to a popular culture that encourages the relentless pursuit of the material, egotistical, accumulative “False Self.” Back in 2001, my mentor told me, “People do crazy shit for this yoga.”  He then suggested I go out to the parking lot and see the cars packed to the brim with the earthly possessions of people rebooting their lives and getting back to what’s important through Kripalu Yoga. Astonishing!

In comparing the in-house Kripalu staff w/ some of the “outside” presenters at the conference, it dawned on me that, yoga is entering a new era.  What matters most these days seems to be how well you do YouTube videos and how many Instagram followers you have. Sitting through a couple of workshops with this new breed of teacher, many with media backgrounds, I realized what is being lost: the art of connecting to students.  When a YouTube star comes over to give you a hamstring assist while simultaneously promoting her website you just feel more like a prop than a person.

Contrast that to the in-house trained Kripalu staff.  Many have medical degrees (i.e. MD expert on pain management and physical therapy) and have been doing/teaching yoga for decades.  There is a sense that the students become the teacher’s meditation. Moreover, staff are extremely approachable after presentations.  No one is “handling” them, running interference, bringing them water, etc.  Yes, some Kripalu staff are published authors, researchers of note and have appeared in Yoga Journal–one even on the Dr. OZ Show.   The point is: there’s just less …”packaging.”

At Kripalu, they refer to a technique called “holding the space.”  Can you really just sit there in the moment, listen and connect with another person or group of people–without “performing” and calculating what you’re going to say next?  We actually practice it, and, at first, it’s scary.  They team us up with partners and we listen to, in some cases, very troubling life stories, without reacting, analyzing, judging.  Stephen Cope has been facilitating it for decades and we’ve all been through it, several times in our 200-hour training. Perhaps at the time, I wondered what the heck this kind of intense listening had to do with yoga.  Now, I suppose we all know it’s the ultimate yoga, the yoga off the mat. It’s the yoga that keeps you striving for your True Self and not some derivative the world is trying to sell you because you also learn to hear your own voice along the way.   Sure, we can study the latest developments in Down Dog elsewhere, but we can’t immerse ourselves in this nourishing terroir, cultivated as if by magic, in a former Jesuit monastery in the Berkshires.

I enjoyed observing a tightly-knit group of eighty-somethings at the conference; they had been attending year after year and had an amazing camaraderie.  Mary Lou had opened the second yoga studio in her town in the 1990’s.  She had been there when the scandal broke and filled me in during our shuttle ride back to the Albany airport, including the lesser known fact Kripalu had brought in that scoundrel Bikram to advise on sequencing.  I learned there are even mirrors behind the wall coverings in one of the practice rooms (horrors!). I was riveted.  She also praised the strength and determination of the people who picked up the pieces.

Mary Lou admitted she was sick the first day of our conference and wasn’t sure she was going to make it through the week.  Yet, she was hurrying back to train teachers in Charlotte that very evening.


Snowbirds: Meet Lori from Tampa!

We said our goodbyes and I remember thinking, that’s who I want to be when I grow up.  Passion and purpose can overcome a lot, maybe even old age.

Kripalu is aging gracefully, has made some improvements, updated techniques, but still keeps the original character.  It remains quietly confident, evolving in its own unique way under an ensemble cast of leaders.  They haven’t given in to the narcissism of the global yoga algorithm that dictates everything has to be slick and Instagrammable, but there has certainly been a good sprucing up–decor, brochures, even buffets!

Kripalu has also maintained its own unique brand of spirituality which I can only describe as a “tradition of welcoming all traditions.”  This results in a peculiar secularism.  The idea is, use Kripalu Yoga as a vehicle to be better at what you already are–Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Agnostic etc.  This draws an interesting international crowd. As a Christian, I can’t imagine limiting myself by only practicing yoga w/ say, other Christians. Maybe it’s my FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

Perhaps the key to longevity in yoga is to be just commercial and successful enough to move forward on your own terms and to know your niche. Did I appreciate the improved gift shop featuring local designers offering extra long yoga pants?  You bet I did! Did I partake of the newly-added coffee at silent breakfast?   Yes, and I thanked God, Krishna and Jesus for it! Thirty-something Shaila was all-in and ready to give up coffee.  Now I know and accept, coffee is just part of my True Self.

Kripalu’s Back Yard:  A Great Place for a Cup of Coffee!