The Art of Yelling at Bicyclists to Relieve Pain

True confession. I ate an entire pint of fig, balsamic and mascarpone ice cream for dinner a few Sundays ago. 

Ten minutes earlier I placed a reasonably sized portion in a small bowl and sat down to stream a few episodes of The Good Place. But on my way to Netflix I made the mistake of stopping by CNN. There was, of course, breaking news.

I know it was only two weeks ago but right now we’re living in the Upside Down and it’s difficult to keep track of the drama and the tragedies. To the best of my recollection either North Korea had launched a second test of short range missiles, the man living in the people’s house had said something ill-advised, offensive and untrue or someone decided to take a semi-automatic rifle and mow down a group of beautiful humans.

Whatever CNN’s bright red, all caps banner headline was screaming at me on that particular Sunday I remember reading it, mumbling something slightly stronger than ‘screw it’, and then grabbing the pint of ice cream from the freezer and a spoon of sufficient size with which to freeze my emotions.

Yoga is not about building a better butt, or meeting friends, or having a reason to purchase flashy overpriced leggings. All those things might happen if you attend asana classes regularly, but it’s not why we practice. When we practice Yoga we are building a strong foundation of self-regulation from which we can observe our actions and reactions. 

But sometimes foundations crack. My self-regulation is crumbling and eating a pint of ice cream for dinner is not my only summer sin.

I’ve taken to screaming at bicyclists who mistake sidewalks for bike paths and then rush past me from behind with nary a warning. Even worse are the ones who speed down the pedestrian tunnel near the train station by my apartment with no thought for the safety of the shuffling, elderly woman wrapped in a coat on a warm August morning pushing her cart full of groceries.

But the salty invectives I hurl are not intended for the two-wheeled speed racers any more than eating a full pint of mascarpone ice cream is about hunger.

They’re simply misplaced reactions to events happening not only in the world but in my personal life. Both my B and I have endured a summer of parental ill health, sudden emergencies and painful loss. At some point in life we all take this journey and I’m grateful to be moving through it with B. Still, while we are each other’s support system the journey is still an intensely personal one and for me it’s one filled with conflict, guilt, lost opportunities and misplaced memories.

And to cope with that internal storm (and because I don’t want to weigh 400 pounds) I yell at bicyclists. I call my sudden rash behavior a ‘stress fart’.  Yes, it’s enough to make a yoga teacher blush but so far no one has yelled back and while it doesn’t feel good at the time it feels wonderful after.

That being said, I’m pretty certain there are better methods of self-care during times of extreme stress…hmmm…like a restorative or yin asana practice, a few extra minutes of meditation, exercise, a healthy diet, a long soak in the bathtub…

Yeah. About that long soak…


Day XIII, Week II, Phase I: I Feel Good

I feel good. And it’s not a lingering sugar high from the emotional ice cream binge I enjoyed a few days ago. I just feel – good.

Two weeks in and the tweaks I’ve made to my wellness routine are beginning to pay dividends.

It’s safe to say my routine needed some major tweaking. I’d begun to lose my way and was beginning to feel too much like a hamster running on an out-of-control wheel.  

My optimal diet is not too far removed from the suggested diet plan from NaturalStart Medicine’s Detox, Flush, Reboot program: fresh, organic, locally sourced vegetables and fruit, whole grains, avoiding (with the goal of eliminating) sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy and gluten. Chicken and fish for omnivores. I’m not restricting my calories because my primary reason for being part of this program is not weight loss. Because I’m making healthier choices, however, I won’t complain if I drop a few pounds.

When did I stop making healthy choices? When did convenience become my default mode? Over the past few months I’ve found myself unable to gain traction at work. I blame my Bullet Journal. Any organizational tool that allows me to create a list of projects that I want to complete within a specific period of time dooms me to failure. I simply can’t keep up with the expectations I create for myself. Preoccupied with keeping pace with my to-do list I began to rely too much on avocado toast, frozen veggie burritos, and Friday night pizza for sustenance. I began to self-medicate with a glass (or two) of wine on most evenings. Pulling myself out of bed at 5:30 AM and immediately sitting behind a screen was still not enough to keep pace with the demands I placed on my life.

A ‘detox’ only works if we follow the guidelines. And, of course, that’s why they can be a very effective way to modify unhealthy behaviors.

And that’s why I feel good. To the best of my ability I’ve made thoughtful, considered choices about what to put in my body. It shouldn’t surprise me and yet it does – fourteen days in and healthy, nutritionally dense foods have returned to me the vitality I thought I’d lost.

I’m starting Week III on Monday. If I stick to my schedule I’ll be moving into Phase II of the program –  the ‘flush’ phase. But I’ve not decided yet if that’s what I want to do. I may hang out in Phase I for one more week. I’d like a full week with no wistful cravings for pizza. I’d like a week where I don’t automatically stuff my emotions with ice cream.

Plus, I think it’s important to be psychologically prepared for the flush and I’m not quite certain I’m there yet… 


Day VIII, Week II, Phase I: Oops, I Did it Again

I’m an emotional eater. Always have been. What does that mean? It means when something comes along to jangle my equilibrium – a quiet disagreement, a perceived slight, difficulties at work or even just the voice in my head chipping away at my self-esteem – I eat.

And believe me, I’m not stuffing my face with kale salad. Nope. Remember, sugar is my nemesis.

I reach for ice cream.

I knew there was a half eaten pint of Talenti gelato in our freezer and with a little foresight I would have either finished it or thrown it away before the start of this reboot journey. But I didn’t. You can figure out the rest of the story.

“I’ll just have a spoonful,” I said to myself. Three spoonfuls later I said, “Just one more.” Thankfully, Ben was home and pried the carton from my cold, curled fingers before I could inflict any more self-harm. He and I both knew a few spoonfuls of creamy chocolate goodness wouldn’t derail the progress of my detox/flush/reboot journey. The guilt scheduled to arrive the moment that last spoonful hit my gullet would be my undoing.

What do we do when our best intentions take a back seat to our reflexive instincts?

One of the gifts that a yoga practice offers is self-regulation. Yoga teaches us to have a measured response – the ability to dial down the strong reactions we might have to external events. In other words, instead of reaching for the ice cream I might have reached for the meditation cushion.

But sometimes self-regulation defaults to stress-induced tantrum and before I know it I’m a sticky chocolate mess. When that happens – it’s time to practice forgiveness. When forgiveness opens my heart I remind myself that one of the gifts of this program is the opportunity to look at the small choices we all make each day. Approaching each choice with presence and mindfulness and – sometimes – a little bit of forgiveness is an act of healing.


Change and the Hope of Being a North Star

fullsizeoutput_596My favorite sweatshirt is from The Lost Whale, a bed and breakfast near Trinidad, California. On the front, in bold blue Times New Roman, is the word ‘lost’. On the back, of course, is the word ‘found’. 

I was much better at being lost when I was younger. I thought nothing of exploring foreign cities or wandering off marked trails when hiking the hills near my childhood home.

I now prefer leaving the getting lost to others. I want to believe my resilient and brave self of the past now clings to safety – clings to what is known – because the world has changed.  But as much as the world has changed, so have I.  My fearlessness has been tempered by sixty years of life experience. It emerges from time to time but for the most part I enjoy cheering others as they take great leaps of faith.

Months ago I had a conversation with a student weeks away from graduating from a 200-hour yoga teacher training about how it feels to be lost. This student was filled with deep uncertainty and considered leaving the teacher training and abandoning his yoga practice. Reading a recently published book about yoga in the West triggered deep self-doubt and distrust in a tradition thousands of years old. He felt lost.

My advice? I counseled the student to stay true to himself. I told him to read more books and to embrace feeling unmoored. To trust the unknowing and to not be afraid if he found himself wandering from a well-trod path.

I don’t know if my advice was sound but I can empathize with his dilemma. How do we continue to teach yoga when the practice we love evolves into something that feels far removed from what we understood yoga practice to be when we first began? Change is constant. Are we obligated to be carried along? It can be a positive force but change can be detrimental, too. So how do we discern the difference between change that elevates our practice and change that dilutes the power of our practice?

polaris-2-15-2013-Ken-Christison-NC-sq-e1463582304603Remaining true – living authentic lives – leans against the change that arrives unexpected and uninvited. It leans against the change that is slow and stealth*. Leaning against the latter – against the change that can’t be felt until we look behind and see how it all once was – requires a steadfast awareness of who we are as individuals and what we offer as yoga teachers.

We’re encouraged to ‘be the change we want to see’. That’s nice advice. But what if we turned it around. What if we decided to be a North Star? What if, as teachers, instead of riding change and trends what if we became a shining light? I guess what I’m trying to say is this: be true north for your students. Keep studying. Keep learning. Understand the depths of the tradition we teach.

*the rise of the YIC (Yoga Industrial Complex), the need for yoga teachers to also be adept at creating mix tapes, the presumed need for Yoga Alliance, the glut of factory-like teacher training programs, the focus on asana at the expense of seven other limbs, the revelations of teacher misconduct and the assumption that if you see the words ‘guru’ or ‘master teacher’ in front a name then it must be so, the loss of humility…


Isn’t All Yoga Therapeutic, Part II

Ok.

So Maybe Yoga Therapy Isn’t Everything

For example, it’s not yoga. And when Gary Kraftstow took us on a journey from the roots to the fruits of yoga therapy during his keynote address on Thursday evening he described a yoga therapist as someone who has “a specialised knowledge base and skill set differentiating them from a yoga teacher.” Our yoga therapy training must teach us the skills that allow us to understand a client’s limitations. It should support our ability to build a practice with the client and for the client that takes into account their needs and their goals. A yoga therapist will, according to Kraftstow, “inspire their client to practice, thus empowering them to become an active participant in their own health-care.” The work we do with clients and the partnership we develop with them should support their ability to connect to “a deeper meaning and purpose in life.”

This is a huge responsibility. Yoga therapy is not simply “physical therapy plus yoga”

(an aside Kraftstow made that garnered a healthy round of applause). As yoga therapists, we should feel inspired to continue our education and to remain humble – to resist the urge to, as Kraftstow quietly demanded, “assume we know what we don’t know.”

The Case for Clear Knowing

We’re wise to follow Kraftstow’s advice. As yoga therapists we should continue our education, break our reliance on unverified beliefs and our habit of treating clients with similar issues with the same protocol. Yoga therapy is, after all, more than a series of asana.

But Carrie Demers, board-certified in internal medicine and who now blends modern medicine with holistic and traditional therapies, reminded us in her plenary session on Friday morning to listen deeply and to “know what we know.” She spoke to the devaluing of human intuition and asked us to “open up to the intuitive mind.” She asked us to “Listen deeply, with your eyes, ears and heart.” To do this, she said, is to hold space and to reflect the story back to the client. This gives room for our clients to reframe the story and to begin a new chapter.

Practice What We Preach

In their talks both Kraftstow and Demers told us that we can not offer to clients that which we do not practice. Without a strong practice of our own the work we do with clients lacks authenticity. In particular, the changes to our brain’s architecture that meditation promises connects us to the roots of yoga therapy that Kraftstow spoke of and, says Demers, it “keeps us compassionate and opens the door to our intuitive mind.”

What Have I Learned?

I still have one more day of talks and classes at SYTAR 18. My mind and heart are full and I wonder how much room is left in my brain for new knowledge…although I suppose there is always room in our hearts and minds and brains for more.

These three days have shown me that I am not alone on this journey. Yoga Therapy encompasses so much and can be given in so many ways: VA Hospitals, pain clinics, private clients, wellness centres, Dean Ornish programs, cardiac care units…even the Department of Defense (yes, I met someone who has a DOD contract to offer Yoga Therapy).

This can only mean that the roots Gary Kraftstow spoke of are very deep and numbered. The promised fruits are varied and beautiful. We nourish them through our personal practice, our continued education and our open hearts.

 


Isn’t All Yoga Therapeutic?

down dog 2I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question. My answer is ‘yes’ – all yoga is, of course, therapeutic. And so, one might wonder, what is yoga therapy and how is it different from our day-to-day practice?

The answer is complex. It’s on my mind, however, because I’m spending a few days in Reston, Virginia at the Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR). This annual gathering of yoga therapists from around the world is an opportunity to meet Facebook friends in the flesh (I’ll be looking for the roomie I had during the last SYTAR I attended at Asilomar). More than that, of course, SYTAR is our chance to gather as a community and to be inspired, encouraged and educated.

It wasn’t too long ago when it seems like all it took to be a yoga therapist was a business card. Over the course of many years and most likely more than a little heated debate, however, in 2015 the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) announced a rigorous certification process. I know the process is rigorous because I survived and since 2016 have had the honor of having the C-IAYT credential behind my name.

But that still doesn’t answer our question. Just what is yoga therapy?

It depends on who you ask.

I know yoga therapists who are also licensed MFTs who use yoga therapy to support the work they do with patients in session.

I know yoga therapists who excel at sports. They’ve created a clinical protocol and work with individuals with sport-related injuries.

There are yoga therapists who focus on individuals with cancer and yoga therapists who focus on depression.

The application of yoga therapy can take place in a group or one to one. It can be practiced in a studio, a medical setting or in a client’s home. Yoga therapy will almost always be informed by the therapist’s own yoga journey – whether our practice is Iyengar, Viniyoga, Yin or Restorative.

Is attempting to define yoga therapy a fool’s errand?

Yoga therapists certified through IAYT must have received their yoga therapy training from an IAYT-certified school, of which there are few (although numbers are increasing). The education provided by these schools must follow strict curriculum guidelines set forth by the IAYT – these guidelines are available on the IAYT website.

Our education teaches us to use our strengths.

And that’s why, if you asked ten yoga therapists to define yoga therapy you’d get ten different answers. As yoga therapists and as students of yoga we work from our strengths. We trust the knowledge we’ve gained through our education and our experience to develop the correct protocol whether we work with individuals or with groups, whether we are clinicians or work transpersonally. We trust our instincts to know our boundaries, our limits and our skill set. We trust ourselves enough to know when to advise a client to see a doctor, or accept counselling, or to seek a different yoga therapist who might be better able to provide care.

What is yoga therapy?

It’s everything.


When Did Yoga Arrive in America? It’s Complicated.

The thing about truth is that it’s not solid. It’s not one thing. It’s filled with light and shadow and nuance and biography. What is a wonderful truth for you may be devastating to the person sitting next to you on the bus. I suppose, too, that we can choose how we feel about a truth. For example:

Donald Trump is president. How do you feel about that truth?

Of course, some truths are absolute. They have no nuance, no foggy shadow blurring the edges. They are clear truths that stand on their own and have not been muddied by the filter of life’s experiences. For example:

Two plus two is equal to four. I’ve only met one person in my life who will debate this arithmetical truth, a fellow student during my graduate studies and a psychotic provocateur whose one mission in life was to irritate the sane, rational minds of our cohort (this is an opinion, not the truth).

I’m pondering the question “what is true?” because there is a great and varied debate about the origins of yoga in the West. Among my friends and fellow teachers, there are some who begin America’s yoga journey with the arrival of BKS Iyengar. And as much as my practice and teaching is informed by Iyengar yoga, I respectfully disagree. 

When I consider the story of yoga in the West I fall into the camp that looks toward the Transcendentalists, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot. In particular, Ralph Waldo Emerson and his buddy Henry David Thoreau, who has been called ‘The First American Yogi’.

But is that true? Did Thoreau know anything about downward dog or sun salutations? Did he begin his day with a brisk Ashtanga Series I or a simple slow flow? No. But Emerson and Thoreau were entranced by ‘Hindooism’ and we’ve been taught that when Thoreau decamped to his pond in 1845 he spent much of his time in deep contemplation; perhaps meditation. He was mindful of his actions, aware of the world around him and in communion with nature. Henry David Thoreau was a student of yoga.

UnknownIt was Vivekananda’s arrival at the World Parliament of Religion, however, that sowed the seeds of yoga across a wider receptive audience. His delivery of twelve off-the-cuff speeches stole the show and made him a sought-after teacher of the yama and niyamas, pranayama and Kundalini. Vivekananda’s yoga was Raja (Royal) Yoga. Raja Yoga is the practice of attaining unity with the mind, body and spirit. In other words, attaining a state of yoga. It differs from Hatha Yoga in that while Hatha intends to still the mind through the body and breath, Raja brings the practitioner to a state of yoga through the control of the mind. Hatha prepares the student of yoga to practice Raja. The practice of asana is not the key element in Raja Yoga as it seems to be in Western Hatha Yoga, and Vivekananda ignored asana. That doesn’t mean the practice of asana isn’t important, but the practice is intended to build strength and flexibility in order to tolerate long hours of sitting in meditation.

I know that I’ve skimmed the surface. Perhaps I’ll continue to explore how we all landed here and that will inspire more writing. Still, what I’ve written here is, for me, the truth of how Yoga came to America. The documented truth of Vivekananda’s impact is enthralling.

Yoga was here, in America, long before Jois or Iyengar or Bikram. But the story of asana, and how it came to America and morphed into a six-billion dollar industry…well…that’s a different story and a different truth. 

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within, by controlling nature. External and internal. Do this either by work or worship or psychic control, or philosophy, by one or more or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”