Monday, August 31, 2009

Mixing it up!

Well, I had a lovely yoga weekend! (And I am bummed to be back in my office right now but oh well.)

I did my usual Bikram classes at 10am on Saturday and Sunday. But there was also a guy named Brian in town (one of my internet buddies, in fact) who was doing a hot yoga workshop downtown which I went to on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. He's been teaching for like a million years, and he was trained by one of Bikram's students, not by Bikram, so his yoga class is different from Bikram's but very closely related. He's kinda like a stepchild of the Bikram family. He teaches a great class and I learned whole a bunch of things!! The class on Saturday was ALMOST the same postures as Bikram's beginning class, but with a bunch of little changes in sequence, and the class on Sunday had a lot more postures from the advanced series and basically felt like 45 minutes of hip openers. (At first I was like - hm - hip openers - that's what I need like I need a hole in the head - but it ended up feeling really good.)

And ALSO, one of my old teachers from Boston sent me a message the other day saying, "J, are you doing backbends?" and I was like "...... noooo I never do that...." and she gave me some instructions for doing backbends down the wall at home, and it actually sounded like a good idea. So on Saturday, after I did regular class and Brian's class, I went home and did 25 backbends down the wall. Then woke up Sunday for two more yoga classes again.

I think there must be some benefit to mixing things up like this, cause I did something BRAND NEW after the last class on Sunday (and it wasn't even really hot in the room)! After I took my savasana at the end of Brian's class, I was like, hmmm, my body feels so bendy right now, I wonder if I can do anything interesting. So I tried pushing up into full cobra - toes to nose - and that felt good. So then I though - Hmmmm, I wonder if I can take my hands off the floor and hold my feet. (Which is something that I've attempted doing several times in the past, but never with any success. I usually just hold my knees.) So I grab one foot - Hm, that's easy enough. Other foot? Fumbled around a little (damn tight shoulder) and then got that one too! Then I just... PULLED.... and all of a sudden I'm wearing my feet like a damn necklace. I was like.... HUH!! I did not expect that to happen! Came out, looked at Brian - Dude, did you see that?! Let's see if I can do it again. I try it again. It still works!

Brian goes - Man, I can't believe your head was almost on your BUTT. I'm like - Whaaaaat?! NO it was not. Do you have a camera?!? He has an iphone. Hooray! I do it a third time and he takes some pictures. Brian - Look at how close your head is to your butt!! Me - Nooooooo that's just an optical illusion cause I have black pants on... actually..... oh my god...

Check this out. I am totally shocked by it. New party trick!!!!! (Just kidding.) I am posting since you guys had a good respose the last time I posted a picture! :) The NEXT step is to let GO of my feet and have them stay there by themselves. Maybe I try that tonight.

OMG that's not even normal. I think my hips need to be DOWN!!!!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

"The data is always innocent."

Yawn!  I stayed up til 2am with my sister last night watching this freaking AMAZING TV series called "Being Human" that we DVR-ed from BBC America.  There are only 6 episodes of it so far and it ROCKS.  It's a supernatural drama/comedy show about these three roommates who are a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost, and it might be an idea that's been done a million times, but they do it SO well.  It had us laughing hysterically and screaming in horror in basically the same breath.  This has absolutely nothing to do with my "yoga post" today... I just wanted to pass on the recommendation.  If any of you guys are into the slew of vampire stuff that's out right now (so trendy ugh), or if you liked Buffy back in the day (so good), you will adore this show.

Meandering back onto topic now... I finished off my grad school "work week" last Friday with a meeting with JS, my research supervisor.  JS really leads my research group because the professors are very busy and important and not so "hands on" with the students.  So he reports to them, and I report to him.  And he is GREAT.  He's one of the reasons I'm still here.  He comes from industry in Korea and is slightly high-strung and hardcore about deadlines and results, but he still is SO easy to work with, he never gets mad when one of us screws something up, and he threw a big barbeque on the beach one day for all the students in the group when my advisor was out of town.  When he's giving me a lot of work to do, he spends half the meeting telling me ALL the stuff I need to get done and the other half of the meeting apologizing for it.

Anyway, that's JS.  I went to his office on Friday feeling totally bummed out, because I had worked all week (including a 2am lab session) to get a certain set of data, but the very first step of the process had not gone so well.  I had put in my "good faith" effort to get the data, but I was feeling pretty sure that the results would be useless.  So I told JS everything, and he said, "Actually I think you have succeeded.  I think we can use the data.  Don't be sad.  The data is always innocent."

Of course this made me feel better, and I was also totally struck by that sentence that he used: The data is always innocent.  So cute.  And so... true.  So useful.  In research, in yoga, in everything!  Data is data.  Information is information.  It's not good or bad.  It's "innocent."  It's our interpretations that make it good or bad, right?  Isn't that a line in Hamlet?  "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  That could practically be a quote from the yoga sutras.  It's such a central idea.  I was so delighted to see it pop up in such an unexpected place.

I think that the bottom line here is that we can learn observation without judgement.  And I think I MUST have mentioned this here already at some point, but for me, that lesson was the single biggest change that I saw in myself when I started yoga.  I came into the practice so programmed to look at myself in a mirror and judge, oh, that was bad, that wasn't right, it should have been different, etc etc.  But for some reason, the way that the yoga class is set up - so safe, so objective - helped me to drop that.  I could look in the mirror and think, "oh, ok, I need to move my right hip forward, aha, that's better now" instead of thinking "my right hip's not far enough forward, OHmygod-I-totally-suck-at-this-I'm-so-embarrassed-I-fail-at-life."  Just observe.  See the data, listen to it, find out the next move.  No knee-jerk emotional response, no judgment.  (We misunderstand our world.)  I remember that I recognized this change very quickly and I recognized some - though not NEARLY all - of the implications.  This was what kept me coming back to the class.  I didn't give a SHIT about doing "pretty" postures.  I just wanted that mental clarity that came from seeing something as it was without constantly projecting onto it.  

And if my personality has changed or developed at all in the last few years - which my close friends and family tell me that is has - this is the root of it all.  Observation and innocence.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reality check for me!

Today I abruptly realized just how busy I'm going to be this fall. I am going to be VERY, VERY BUSY. Here are the grad school-related things that I am going to be doing between now and November.

- I have to take my quals (qualifying exams) probably by the end of September. This involves intensively studying a research topic and giving an oral presentation on it to a bunch of hardcore professors. I have not yet chosen a topic. Where did the summer go???

- I have to try to get some good data from my never-ending research project so that I can give a talk at the big annual review session during the first weekend of November, which is attended by all the member companies who supply our funding.

- I also have to try to write a paper on said research, assuming it ever works.

- I also have to work on our group LED research project.

- I also have to take a class.

- I also have to TA for one of the first year materials courses, 200A. This happens to be possibly the MOST labor-intensive and time-consuming class in the entire materials graduate program. I just found out about this 12 hours ago and I am kind of horrified. The upshot is that I get paid extra, and I get to meet all the incoming first years (as they collectively have a stroke). The downside is that it's gonna be a lot of freaking work!!

I looked at all of these things today and realized that certain things, such as a 60-day Bikram challenge in Sept/Oct or the championships in the beginning of November, should maybe NOT be high on my list of priorities right now!!!

I love yoga soooooo much... sometimes I have to remind myself that the object of yoga is to help you do BETTER in the rest of your life, not to distract you from it!

This is not to say that I WON'T end up doing 60 classes in Sept/Oct or getting my butt up onstage in a leotard in the beginning of November. (The SoCal championship appears to be like two days after the massive annual review that I'm involved in... this is just not great TIMING.) But at this point, I've got to just let it HAPPEN. I'll go to class when I can, and I won't when I can't. I'll practice my routine when I can, and let it go when I can't. I'm just gonna do my practice. If November rolls around and I feel like my practice is worth sharing at that point, I'll probably hop up on stage and have a good time. If not, no biggie! I can go down and cheer on some of my friends. There's always next year, and the next year, and the next year. It's all good. It's ALL yoga. Hatha, raja, karma, all of it. Even when I'm not in a class, I'm still doing my yoga.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the OTHER hand...

So in my last post I talked about how sometimes your poses totally go to shit when you aren't paying attention.  But on the OTHER hand... sometimes you get to pleasantly surprise yourself!

First, a word on the yoga championships.  I am hoping to participate in them again this year - it would be my third year now! - so I decided that I might as well get my shit together and start ACTING like I'm going to give it a try.

In keeping with this, I decided to do a first "rough run" of my competition routine after class tonight.  But since the competition is done in an unheated auditorium (or possibly a mall this time?!), I've decided that this year I want to practice "cold" as much as possible.  So I took class at 4:30, showered off, came home, put on some dry clothes, set down a yoga mat in my backyard, and practiced postures while my sister cooked dinner for us.  My friend came by at 7 and I asked her to be my camera-girl and take a video of me.  This was actually a great idea, because having somebody watch me - even a good friend who is totally ignorant of yoga and impressed by everything - gave me a considerable performance adrenaline jolt, like "oh, ok, we are seriously doing this now!"  (She was a great audience - she goes, "I'm pretty sure that cobra thing you did defied the laws of physics."  She also said, "That doesn't look like a rabbit!")

In my short-sightedness, I did not clear my memory card beforehand, so we only captured about 1 minute of the 3 minute routine.  Whoops.  But I got to see the first two and a half postures, and that gives me plenty to think about!

First posture: standing head to knee.  Hmmmm.  Why does my kicking leg drift up in the middle?  How long has this been going on?!  I can't tell whether it moved BECAUSE I was loosing my balance, or whether I started to loose my balance because it moved.  But very good to see!!  Also, would love to get forehead higher on the knee.

Third posture: floor bow, cut off in the middle.  Not sure if I saw the final posture or not.

Second posture: standing bow.  The topic of this post!!!  I am totally surprised and delighted to see that my standing bow is NOT the total train wreck that I was envisioning.  This might actually be my new favorite picture of this posture on me.  (Posture-wise that is.  Camera-wise I think it's like 1 megapixel resolution, pretty ugly.)  Hooray!!  There are still plenty of things that I want to tweak (like the shoulder alignment and the placement of that free arm, which is in a really odd position), but the essentials all look okay to me.  I was so sure that I was loosing the grip on what used to be my favorite posture... but I guess I've still got it in there somewhere!  And I have to admit that it really is MUCH easier to do without all that SWEAT.

Don't hate me for being vain enough to post the pic... it's late at night, I'm just now seeing it for the first time, and it is making me kinda happy.  :)

Taa daaaa!!  Keep it locking....

Friday, August 21, 2009


You know what I've noticed?

Just because I was doing something right last year... or last month... or yesterday... that is no guarantee that I don't have to worry about it today! I've been through this cycle so many times, but it always amazes me a little bit. First you learn how to do something. Then you have to concentrate really hard to make sure that you're doing it. Then it gets easier. Then maybe it gets so easy that you're like "oh great, I can totally do that now, I don't have to worry about it so much." Then you start thinking about other details in the posture. And then you wake up one day, months and months later, and go "uh oh... what the %$#& happened to my locked standing leg in standing bow pose?!" And boom, back to the beginning. It was SO obvious that I forgot all about it.

That's why we have to exercise CONSTANT VIGILANCE!!! (And yes, of course that is an intentional Harry Potter reference. But seriously.) You've got to listen to the dialogue word by word. Every time. If you realize that (uh oh...) your instructors might be leaving something out, then you have to remind yourself of it. Every time. Even (especially!) if it's something totally obvious that you figured out how to do ages ago. Like locking the knee. Like fixing the eyes. (I busted myself for slacking on both of those things this week.)

I practiced to a recording of one of Craig's TT classes one time, and he said something at the beginning that I loved: "Be patient, be passionate, be vigilant. No fear." I thought that was perfect. No fear...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's all true!!

More fun reading material!

I had a great "HOLY CRAP" moment just now when reading today's New York Times online. There is an article titled "Does Exercise Reduce Your Cancer Risk?" The result from the medical studies is that, even when you control for other factors such as weight, the answer is YES. This is great, but not TOO shocking. Here's the line that really got me:

"What these recent studies, including the one from Finland, share is the suggestion that, in order to use exercise to reduce the risk of cancer, you must make yourself sweat."

Can you believe it?! Everyone laughs at Bikram when he claims that he can prevent cancer, and he's been right this whole time! Hooray for us. It's all true. Do Bikram yoga, wear sunscreen, and live longer.

A word from someone else

I'm finding it impossible to write anything this week. A few of you know why. Something pretty amazing actually happened in my yoga world and I may spill the beans at some future date...

For now I'm just gonna redirect you to a nice new little blog from one of my former Boston teachers. She has a good review up of a seminar that she went to last weekend. It's very articulate, and I am 100% on board with every word in it. Especially that bit about "modifications." I was absolutely "raised" on the concept that there are no modifications in Bikram yoga (just like "there's no crying in baseball!" ha), but so many people seem to have trouble getting their head around that idea. (The number of times I've heard teachers say, "just modify the posture like this"... aaarghh.... )

Go here!

EDITED 8/21 TO ADD:  I've gotta go with my first instinct and keep my mouth shut on this topic, mainly because the story could reflect really badly on a certain other person, and I've always made a point of avoiding bad-mouthing on here.  So if you were holding your breath.... stop doing that.  ;-)  

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Lower back, middle back, upper back

Happy Sunday, yogis! I am chilling at the desk at my yoga studio after practicing the 8am class, drinking tea, listening to music, and feeling like a cat... totally relaxed, nice and loose, comfortable, easy, flexible. It's cold and rainy outside (and I biked to the studio today!!), which made it was so nice to be in the hot room this morning.

I was thinking about backbends today (which is like... what's new??) and I realized that I want to amend a comment that I made about them back in June.

For the last few months I've been trying to move my backbend more into the middle and upper spine, instead of relying so much on my super-flexible lower back. This is correct. But I was also being told very strongly by a couple of teachers to STOP using my lower back altogether until I could get more of a bend in my upper spine. I tried doing this for a while, and I do not think it works! It really just made my back hurt to restrict my backbend like that. It was also making me tense my neck up, because that let my arms go back to my ears and created the illusion that my upper spine was bending more. Whoops! PSA (public service announcement) number one: there is nothing in the dialogue about the arms being with the ears. The arms go back TOWARDS the ears, and eventually (in the future) they might touch them, but that is incidental

Here is what I think IS correct: the dialogue. First step, inhale. Next step, drop your head back as far as it goes. Arms back immediately, try to touch the wall. Bend the spine backwards from coccyx to neck. Lower back, middle back, upper back. Total spine backward bending. Push your upper body back, try to fall down backwards. For someone like me, whose natural backbend is kinda like "lower back, lower back, and more lower back," it makes sense that I will have to work hardest to make sure I am also bending my middle back and upper back. (Actually, it's true for everyone that the middle back is the hardest part of the equation, which is just due to anatomy. The thoracic spine has your ribcage on it, and all those other internal organs. Makes it pretty rigid.) But I can't believe that I shouldn't use my lower back at all! Bikram says it: "touch the floor." Emmy says it: "let the weight of your body pull you backwards, so you hang back like a wet rag." Emmy also says to use your natural gifts. Not to RELY on them, but to USE them. This makes sense.

I am totally indebted to my teachers who harped on me about my backbend, because they helped me understand where my backbend is NOW and where I need to take it in the future. And when I was at advanced seminar with all the super bendy yogis, I concentrated a lot on looking at the shapes of all the different spines, and that really helped me understand what is possible. So many nice, deep, SMOOTH backbends! The only debate is over how to GET there. And I'm going with dialogue.

The corrollary to this discussion is the question of "chest up." I dunno if you guys hear teachers saying this in class for the backbends. I hear it all the time. It's not dialogue. The thing is, that instruction DOES make sense for a very small minority of people, but it's not going to help everyone else, and I think that often it will mislead people into restricting their backbends, doing them incorrectly, and making their backs hurt in the process! Dialogue, however, works for everyone. Even the flexies, once they understand it correctly.

I can explain this better with camel, since this is how it was explained to me. The dialogue for camel basically says "hips forward, hips forward, hips forward!" Because for 99 out of 100 students, that is the correct instruction. Most people can't get their hips forward enough, so that's where the effort in the posture is. However: for the 1 student out of 100 who has a very flexible spine (hi Mei, that's us!), the hips CAN go too far forward, past perpendicular, and then there is nothing happening. So then the chest has to lift up in order to improve the backbend. But that's an individual correction for those few students. It can't go in the dialogue, because you can't really do "hips forward" and "chest up" at the same time in camel; it's one or the other. Half moon follows the same principle. (Though half moon IS always "hips forward.")

By the way, there are plenty of instances in the dialogue where the instruction is keyed to the vast majority of the students, but a more experienced or flexible minority will have to do a different or opposite action. Easy example: half moon! Dialogue says "upper body back," because most people's upper body will naturally be slumped too far forward. But it shouldn't go back so far that you loose the straight line of your body and compromise the pure side bend. So with experience, as a student, you learn that you don't actually bring your upper body further back every time you hear the words "upper body back." It's a checklist. You think to yourself: "Is my upper body back far enough? No? Move it back. Yes? Stay there, don't change." And there is always space for the individual correction: "Everybody hips forward more, upper body back more. J, little too far back, bring your upper body forward 2 inches." See how simple?

I ain't saying it's EASY for the teacher - you guys know that I have never taught a class in my life!!!!! - but that is my understanding of how the dialogue can and should be used. And it sure is helpful to understand some of these things as a student, when you practice to the dialogue! The dialogue is ALWAYS right. I really believe that. You just have to know how to listen to it, how to use it. Having doesn't mean ANYTHING if you don't know how to.... what? USE IT!! :)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A LITTLE bit about Yoga Anatomy

There's a really cool book called Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff that shows crazy illustrations of what's happening to your muscules and your skeletal system in different yoga poses.  (Kind of like that Bodies exhibit, if any of you have seen that... I saw it in Boston and thought it was wicked cool.)

I don't own the book, but I was thinking of it the other day because I was talking with Mei about the anatomy of the spine (shout-out!).  I found in ebook form - yay!! - but it cuts off right before the part that I was trying to remember!  Boo!!  It is still an amazing read, though - the whole first chapter, which describes the anatomy of how we breathe, is available online right now: Yoga Anatomy  Highly recommended FREE reading!  It kinda makes my head spin, but it's amazing stuff, especially when you start thinking about pranayama breathing in an anatomical context and you realize what you are actually doing to your body during the exercise...

The part that I was looking for (which I did not find!) explained the different ways that your spine can move.  There are five.  Forward bending (extension), backward bending (compression), lateral bending, twisting, and axial extension (which I think was called by another name).  If I'm remembering correctly, the vertebral discs (the little cushions between the vertebrae) get farther apart when you round forward (like rabbit) and closer together when you bend backwards.  Axial extension, where the spine actually lengthens by reducing the curvature, is the only one of these motions that virtually never occurs in day-to-day movement, unless maybe you're reaching for a REALLY high shelf.  

It's pretty easy to break down any yoga posture into the different actions of the spine that are involved.  A few examples: we get pure forward bending in rabbit and all the "head to knee poses."  Back bending is obvious - half moon, spine series, camel.  Side bending is half moon, of course.  Final spinal is pure twisting, though there are other twists; standing bow is sort of a composite twist and backbend.  Axial extension - think of standing separate leg stretching, or the final stretching posture.  I'm also CONVINCED that pranayama breathing is all about axial extension, which I think is brilliant.  Think about all the length that you can create in your spine on the inhale, using the leverage of your hands on your chin.  That's what REALLY prepares you for half moon, which hits you right away with three of the other actions.  (Isn't it a great series?!)

Incidentally, this is why I think it's weird when people talk about avoiding compression in backbends, since they are compressions by definition.  The vertebral discs move closer together.  That's the anatomy.  However, it IS true (and very important) that before you do any back (or side) bend, you need to create as much length in the spine as possible.  Again, this starts in pranayama!  This is also why, if you pay attention to the (pure) dialogue, you'll notice how many side and back bends start with an inhale breath and axial extension, either explicitly or implicitly.  Like in half moon side bend, the last instruction before the bend begins is to "stretch up out of the waist one more time, touch the ceiling."  In the half moon back bend, the instruction is to take a deep inhale ("inhale breathing, full lungs") immediately before beginning the backbend from the cervical spine ("drop your head back as far as it goes, look at the floor behind you").  Lengthening precedes compression, without exception!

Why was I talking about this?  Oh yeah... because Mei posted measurements of her spine when it was compressed, extended, and in its natural state, and someone wrote her a comment saying "What the heck?!  How can your spine change length?"  Visual illustrations were requested, and I happen to have some handy, so here you go.  I've got a bunch of random yoga pictures of myself, including a few in rabbit, camel, and pachimottanasana.  Picture time!  

My pachimo - close to max length, though standing separate leg stretching would really be an even better example

Rabbit: Maximum extension

Full camel: maximum compression.

These were all taken last year (some of you will be able to tell which one was taken over Christmas break by looking at the carpet...) and I can see TONS of room for improvement, but I guess it is kind of my job to look for those things since it is my own practice.

Cool though, right?  Look at the spine!  It can change so much!  And in this post I have barely even scratched the surface of all the things that are interesting about the spine!!  I would have to write a whole book to talk about how crazy important the spine is!  Every sentence would probably end in an exclamation point!!

My sister is sitting in the living room with me and I kept shouting stuff out to her as I read the Yoga Anatomy ebook, and she did not agree that it was incredibly fascinating.  This reminds me of a friend who was in grad school for geology, who one day, at the age of maybe 25, turned around with this expression of shocked realization and said "OH my gosh, I just realized something!  Not everyone thinks that rocks are incredibly interesting!!!"  To each her own, I guess...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Location, location, location!

Well, I'm moved into my new house!! Still no internet there (so this is gonna be a short one cause I'm at work.) I LOVE it!!

It's so nice to be in a new space. I was so productive there yesterday... moved everything, came in and worked for 5 hours, then went home and unpacked until about 1 or 2am. Then straight to sleep!

Of course this is a transition period, but I noticed that being in a new space put me in a totally different frame of mind. I was more focused than I have been lately, and more positive about school. I didn't stay up unnecessarily late reading stuff online or bouncing around looking for things to do. Out of the blue, I started thinking about how good it will feel to finish a PhD and what a great accomplishment that would be. Through this whole year, I have honestly never envisioned myself completing this program before, so that was surprising.

It's amazing what an effect a change of scene has on your state of mind. Just because things aren't the same as they were the day before, you SEE them for the first time, instead of being blinded by habit and pattern.

Good idea for the yoga room, too, I think. That's why I really make a point of trying to practice in all different place of the room - right, left, front, back - instead of settling into one spot. Sometimes even a change of clothes can make a difference, as weird as that sounds. Like the first time you see yourself in shorts!! I actually switch from my sports bra to a tank top occasionally just because it changes my view of my body. When you keep yourself just a little bit out of equilibrium - or, on the flip side, when you make a REALLY big change - sometimes that's the ONLY time that your mind is really clear and you can see things for what they ARE instead of just seeing what you expect to see.

Just something to play with.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Strange behavior

Got up nice and early today, had productive day, but still can't get to sleep! Hmm. Went to kitchen for some midnight(ish) cheese and crackers and ended up practicing some balancing postures in the living room. I am still in my old apartment, and I have discovered that if I balance my camera on the stovetop... and stand in front of the coffee table... I can take decent videos of myself. So that's what I did at 1am tonight: video analysis of my standing head to knee and standing bow pulling...

Sometimes I just don't know what's wrong with me! Ha.

I have been all over the place with the SNACKING today! I had like 5 cookies on the way to class. But I WAS hungry, and they were good cookies. My mom baked them and shipped them from Massachusetts, which is pretty awesome.

I did consider posting the video, but then I thought twice. Bit revealing, don't you think? Either you will think it's GREAT and think I'm showing off, or you will see all my mistakes (there are many) and think I'm not that good. Loose-loose for everyone!!!

What I REALLY should have been practicing was half-tortoise pose.

Why does "tortoise" have that second O in it? I always think it should be "tortise," but spell-check says "no."

I wonder if someone got rich for inventing the spell-check? And if so, did someone ELSE get rich for inventing the grammar check, or was that just the obvious extension? How come spell check appears on everything, but grammar check only appears in Microsoft Word when I don't want it on?

Yes, I AM this A.D.D. even with the yoga. I'm beginning to think that I was just never meant to sit still all day long. It's not the concentrating part that bothers me as much as the sitting around part. Maybe I should start practicing in the mornings or something. Like, twice.

Goodnight guys!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Them Bones, Them Bones...

Gonna... WAAAAAALK around...

(I'm not the only one who knows that song, right?? Actually, that's the only part of the song I remember...)

We are having such a fun chat over on the Bikram forum this week, and it reminded me of something cool that I want to bring up over here, too. (Duffy, sorry for giving you deja vu...)

A new poster was asking the question, "why don't the instructors in Bikram yoga tell you to engage the core as part of their dialogue?" I have a few ideas on that topic (big surprise). But to me, the most interesting point is the difference between moving muscles and moving bones.

One of the most interesting things I ever read about physiology is that your mind commands your bones, not your muscles. (This was in Mabel Todd's The Thinking Body, by the way, which I think is an excellent book.) When you go to lift an arm, you don't picture which muscles are going to relax and contract to complete the action. You picture the way your skeleton, your bones, are going to move, and the body responds appropriately.

It seems to me that Bikram understood this intuitively, because so many of the commands in his dialogue just tell you, in very plain language, WHERE to place your body parts. Arms touching ears, leg parallel to the floor, arms back, chest up, hips forward. Those commands will go straight to your brain, your brain talks to your muscular unit (the proprioceptive system really) and your body responds appropriately. It's almost like hypnosis. There are a few very notable exceptions (like "lock the knee"!!!),** but I think that a lot of the series works this way. If someone tells you to push your hips forward, you automatically use your butt. If someone tells you to lift your chest off the floor, you automatically use your back. If someone tells you to interlock your fingers and grab your foot in front of you, the only way your body can make this happen is by "engaging your core," so to speak. The dialogue makes it all happen, and your mind stays out of the way. (This is in the ideal scenario - teacher has perfect dialogue and student is perfect listener. Never QUITE happens that way, but.... it's the idea.)

I've also noticed that this is how some really expert teachers (i.e. Diane...) correct students. They don't usually say "engage this muscle" or "squeeze that muscle." They say "bring your upper body back!" and BOOM - all that other stuff happens automatically once the placement is correct. It is brilliant to watch. That's that I want to learn to do!! If the alignment is not correct, then the muscular instructions won't even make SENSE on the student's body. Nothing will move. You can sit at your desk and flex different leg muscles all day, WITHOUT changing the position of your leg. But if someone says, "straighten your leg" - aha, all the muscles have to fire appropriately, and you don't even have to think "ok I'm gonna flex my quadriceps, and relax my hamstrings"... the motion just happens.

Interesting, right? I think this is one of the most brilliant things about the way the dialogue is written. (And it can get a bit lost when people start to paraphrase, but you do NOT want to get me started on that...)


** "Lock the knee" works the opposite way. You have to direct the muscles specifically. I wonder if that's why this is the HARDEST thing to learn in all of Bikram yoga...?

I can only think of a couple other examples... "triceps muscles tight, nothing loose, nothing hanging," is one, and "compression of the abdominal wall, contraction of the abdominal muscles," is another... but there are not many of these!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Yoga TV!

Ok, technically it's only YouTube, but we're on the internet! So it's practically the same thing!

Just wanted to give you guys a heads up... there's some really excellent video that's been uploaded lately by the USA Yoga Federation. And in case you're totally confused, the USA Yoga Federation is basically USA Bikram studios. For the moment. Rajashree's been at the head of a lot of it. Its purpose is to get yoga closer to being included in the Olympics. It's kind of a long story... I should post more on that later. It's moderately confusing.

Anyway... check out usayoga on YouTube! So far they've posted nice quality videos of the top three men and top three ladies doing their routines at February's national championships. Really beautiful, inspiring stuff. I watched a couple of these right before I practiced on Sunday and it TOTALLY helped me nail that standing head to knee, cause I had such a perfect mental image of the posture in my head.

I figured out how to add video to my post (YIPPEE!!) so here is Joseph's routine. He got first place USA, second place world, and is a total sweetheart. (I was totally rooting for him to take the title... it was a close one.)

There are also two videos from the judge's clinic at advanced seminar, where you can hear Bikram, Emmy, and some of the senior teachers (Jim Kallet) talking about "how to perform standing bow pulling," with Courtney and Joseph (the US champions) demonstrating. They're talking about a lot of high-level details, so it's not necessarily gonna be helpful to everyone, but it's still very interesting to hear them talk.

There's also a video of one of Alisa's demos (last year's international women's champ), but the sound seems to cut out halfway through...?? I'm trying to find a better one... she did this beautiful demo to "Into the West" from Lord of the Rings that actually made me cry, but it seems like YouTube took it away because of copyright on the music?! That sucks.

Enjoy! :)

P.S. Yea... the second video is kinda spilling out of its space... I guess I am not yet a total professional at this.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A drunken monkey stung by a bee (Also: SYTYCD!!)

At the end of my practice on Thursday, all I could think of was Bikram's description of the "monkey mind":  "The human mind is like a drunken monkey... that's been stung by a bee..."  Yep!  That was me.  It happens.

Sometimes my own brain really is my downfall, especially in a dialogue-lite class.  In dialogue classes, I usually have no problem shutting my brain off and letting the teacher move my body.  That's how Bikram's classes are for me, and it's the BEST.  For 90 minutes, I don't have to think at all.  It's like he says - I don't have a brain anymore.  His brain, my body.  

But once the teacher starts to stray from the dialogue, my education and intelligence become my downfall, cause I end up constantly correcting, analyzing, debating the mechanics of the postures with myself.  At best, I just recite the dialogue to myself in my head.  But when I do any of those things, I'm just engaging my brain more instead of letting it go... so it's not the same.  And then my brain ends up just running off like a drunken monkey, so I have no focus at all!  WHOOPS.  Get it together, J!

But who am I kidding?  Yes, I would LOVE to be able to take great, technically precise, dialogue-driven classes every day, like I used to.  But at this point in the game, the baggage that I bring to class usually (maybe 90% of the time) has WAY more of an effect on my practice than anything the teacher does or doesn't say.

This week I was kinda stressed and my work was INCREDIBLY unproductive, and unsurprisingly, my practice was all over the map.  My body got kinda stiff and I couldn't focus for beans.

Today I had an awesome day and my practice went great!

So I can really only blame or thank myself.  Which is as it should be.  But some days, man, that monkey just don't want to sit still!  Another Bikram-ism: "My mind is like a little shrimp, jumping all over the place.  I have to grab onto him and say ASSHOLE, slow down!!!"  Haha... yep, that's me.

And now for something DIFFERENT, let me tell you about the things that made my day AWESOME.

1)  Signed the lease on the new house, paid the security deposit, and got the keys!

2)  Bought a fabulous queen-sized bed off craigslist and moved it into my new (master) bedroom!

3)  Spent like an hour in new house with very excited friend and roommate, planning out what we're going to do with the space.  We are going yard-sale hunting all day tomorrow starting at 8am, and yes it's past 1am now, but I'm kinda nocturnal and too wired up to sleep yet... house will be amazing!

4)  Went to In-N-Out at 11pm and got Neopolitan milkshakes - ENOUGH SAID.  (Gee, I wonder why I can't sleep...)

5)  Short story: a few months ago, it occurred to me that I live pretty close to LA, and Hollywood is part of LA, and lots of TV shows are filmed there, including my favorite summer TV show, So You Think You Can Dance.  (Or SYTYCD, for typing convenience.)  For those of you not familiar, it's basically like American Idol but for dance.  And with 500% more awesome.  So I went online and discovered a website where you can get on a waitlist to be in the studio audience for free.  So my sister and I both put our names in, and GUESS what we get in my email today - we are at top of the waitlist, just in time for the SEASON FINALE which is filming in LA on Tuesday.  We now have three free tickets (me, my sister, and another girl friend) to be in the studio audience of the finale of our favorite TV show next Tuesday night!!!  I can't believe it!  This NEVER happens to me.  And best of all, my sister was able to get all three on her pass, so I STILL have my spot on the waitlist and can probably use it at the beginning of next season!  Sweet.  I knew there was a reason I moved out here.

All in all... the weekend is off to a GOOD start.