If you ask ten people what meditation is, you’ll probably get ten different answers. And if you ask those ten people if they meditate, most will probably say that they fail at it. Most will say that they just can’t quiet the mind in order to sit and think of nothing. But is thinking of nothing meditation? Can a person think of nothing?
In yoga we practice focusing attention. It could be while sitting, it could be while in a particular pose. It could be focusing attention on breathing – counting inhales and exhales. It could be closing the eyes and looking at the inside of the space between the eyebrows. It could be looking at a picture, or a candle flame. But whatever brings focus, the mind will wander. Thoughts come into the mind no matter how hard we try to keep focusing on something else. They don’t stop. What we do in yoga is lovingly bring our attention back to the breath, or the flame. Every time the mind wanders, simply bring it back. Then we can train the mind to hold that focus longer and longer, and learn not to follow thoughts as they come into focus, but to let them go out of the mind without dwelling on them. At some point this sustaining of the focus of the mind becomes what we call meditation.
But not dwelling on what meditation is, let’s talk about why to do it. Pausing in our daily activities to sit and focus brings a wealth of benefits. It’s refreshing. It helps the pulse and blood pressure to lower. It can help us to weather the stormy times. It helps us to reset, defragment, and recalibrate. When we sit with just ourselves doing nothing to distract us from ourselves, we cannot hide from ourselves. It may be the only moment in the day that we are nothing more than ourselves.
What are we when we are not ourselves? Perhaps during the day we try to become things that we are not. For example, the person who says, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that with you, I’m too busy,” really might mean, “I’d rather not commit to do something with you in case something better comes along.” Or does “Look at the guys I’ve dated,” really mean “No one would love me if they knew me, but I can keep trying?” Perhaps “This food is cold,” really means “People don’t like me. This waiter intentionally served me cold food.”
You get the idea. We want people to think we are the people we really aren’t. We lie to ourselves and try to distract people from the truth. When we pause during the day to sit and quiet ourselves we have no one to be with but our true selves. We are forced to confront the things that we are trying to hide behind. We look deeper and deeper into ourselves to see past all of the distractions and misconceptions and we find that there is a serene, honest, unhurt center to ourselves that need not be hidden. We imagine what a day would be like if we were that person in the center, and what we would do in a day’s situations as that person. If only we could be that person.
Even deeper inside than this fantasy of daily life there is a root consciousness in us unaffected by the outside world, and not needing to respond to the daily distractions. It is in sitting and pausing, in breathing and focusing, and in being alone with ourselves that we discover this root existence. Allowing ourselves to experience this being, even for a moment, enables us to better weather the stormy distractions that a day can bring. It gives us the opportunity to choose truth over lie. It gives us the confidence to be ourselves.
When people find out that I’m a vegetarian many immediately ask me what I eat. So many friends, strangers even, are very worried about my intake of protein. Others are worried about my vitamin quotas. A few have expressed concern that I will eat too many avocados, since they are so high in fat. Keep in mind that these are people who routinely ingest large quantities of animal muscle, identifiable or not. I appreciate their concern. It also opens up a discussion of what we both eat, and that’s a good thing. We learn from each other.
A few years before I became a vegetarian I explored a detoxifying diet that included a morning shake. I subsequently learned a few more morning tricks from a very helpful doctor. This all spoke well to the influence growing up of my mother who was a dietitian. She sparked in me a curiosity from as far back as I can remember about what was in food, the varieties needed in a balanced diet, the benefits and pitfalls of synthetic vitamins, and a general love of food.
So, what do I eat for breakfast? At home, where I have a Blendtek and stores of strange ingredients I typically make the following:
Place in the blender:
2 T. soy lecithin granules
2 heaping T. (rotate each day) of one of four protein powders - whey, rice, egg, or hemp
1 heaping T. brewers yeast
3 heaping T. nutritional yeast flakes
1 heaping t. spirulina
1 c. plain full fat yogurt
1 T. sour cherry concentrate
1 T. elderberry extract
1 T. omega 3 oil
1 c. aloe gel (whole leaf)
1 T. or more coconut oil
1 T. chia seeds
1 T. really raw honey
Fresh herbs from the garden (rotate each day) - green basil, purple basil, sage, parsley, oregano, thyme, or rosemary
1/3 c. apple cider vinegar (Braggs, with the mother)
Grind in a coffee grinder (not the one your husband uses for his coffee in the morning, or he’s in for a big surprise) and then add to the blender:
1 T. flax seeds
1/2 stick cinnamon
Dash of cardamom seeds (out of the pods, or you’re in for a bit of a surprise)
Sometimes I add a banana, blackberries, blueberries, pears, or other seasonal fruit
I think I’m getting an acceptable amount of protein and a variety of nutrients. Most people cringe after the first few ingredients. Others worry that I’m wasting precious morning energy with all of the above labor. It takes me less time than making an omelet. It also tastes good. I look forward to it. I do have to be careful with the amount of vinegar. I don’t measure many of the ingredients.
I’d be interested in comments from people. Keep in mind how I’d react when I find out you eat bacon, however. I’m not vegan, but if I were I’d use soy yogurt and would skip the egg and whey protein, and the honey.
Bon appetit. What do you eat for breakfast?
Do you hate complainers? Or even worse, whiners? There’s a yoga pose called Utkatasana, often translated as Awkward Pose, or Fierce Pose, or even Hazardous Pose. Good name. I used to hate it. It’s a complaining pose. It nags about everything that my body finds uncomfortable. For the pose you sit back in midair as if you’re sitting in a chair, but there’s no chair there. Sometimes people call it Chair Pose. For the longest time while I was doing it in a yoga class all I could think about was, “How long am I going to be in this?” “I hate this pose.” “If I collapse in this pose everyone will think I’m as bad at yoga as I know I am.” “This teacher hates me for making me do this pose.” “I suck. This is my last yoga class!”
You see why I call it a complaint pose? What do I do now in Utkatasana? I breathe. That’s it. Just breathe. Deeply. Long slow breaths. I’m not going to say the pose is easy. I can’t hold it a whole lot longer than I could while I was mentally abusing myself, but that’s not the point. The complaints my body was making to me and the complaints my mind was whining at me are allowed to dissipate into their invalidity during the time of my deep breaths. My relationship to my body can heal a bit as my body benefits by the wisdom of the pose.
Maybe I should try that with complaining people. Can they possibly be worse than Utkatasana? Could their complaints have more validity than the pummeling I used to give myself? The next time someone complains to me I’m going to look them in the eyes during a long deep inhale and exhale and see what happens. My hunch is, unless there is an urgent matter I need to address at the moment, they’re going to look away. In the deafening silence of my respiration I bet they’re going to say something quite different than their original compliant. Perhaps I’ll learn as much from my encounter with them as I do each time I breathe through Utkatasana.
Sitting at the computer. For how many of us is this a thing of pain, or at least discomfort? For some of us it is the cause of a lot of back and neck pain, tendonitis in the wrists, or maybe even Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
What does yoga teach us about sitting at the computer? Think about sitting on the floor. How can that be comfortable? With a vertical spine, abdominal muscles slightly contracted, legs in a comfortable place, neck a relaxed vertical extension of the spine. We can do that while sitting at a computer.
Consider the chair. Can we sit in the chair so that the spine is vertical? Yes. Probably near the center of the seat, or toward the front, rather than at the back and leaning back against the backrest.
I like to use an exercise ball. Take an exercise ball and sit on it while in front of the computer. In order to balance on the ball you have to sit with a vertical spine while in the middle of the ball with both feet flat on the floor. Otherwise the ball goes out from under you. You also have to slightly engage the abdominal muscles. This teaches us how to sit comfortably at the computer.
Make sure the ball, and any other chair you sit on while using a computer, is high enough so that your forearms are horizontal. In this way, the wrists don’t have to bend while you type. Things inside the hands and wrists work better when they are not bent. Also sit close enough to the computer so that your upper arms are vertical and relaxed, and you don’t have to reach forward to get your fingers to the keyboard.
As long as your spine is nice and vertical, keep the neck a relaxed vertical extension of the spine. Adjust the monitor so that you can look straight at it without tensing the neck muscles or having to bend your neck to see the screen.
Try it out. The ball is a great tool. Not just for the gym!
Next blog: Yoga exercises to do while sitting at the computer!
I get asked that question all the time. Also, "So what do you eat?" I often answer it by asking, "Why do you eat animals?" I then usually listen patiently to a litany of reasons why humans should eat meat, which often includes that we are designed to eat meat, we have canine teeth, we can't get enough protein (vitamin B12, folic acid, etc.) unless we do, the deer would over run the state if we didn't (this usually from people who cringe at the thought of eating Bambi), vegetarians are pale, and that the human brain would shrivel without meat in the diet.
If the questioner is still receptive to an answer from me, I offer simply that I've always wanted to be vegetarian. This baffles people. They seem to want me to launch into an argument with them about the yoga principles of non-violence, the humane treatment of sentient beings, the vast amounts of grain and water that it takes to create a pound of animal flesh, the health benefits of a plant-based diet, 70s communal living, the Buddha, and Bill Clinton. But I usually don't get that far. I simply say, "I've always wanted to."
That amount of resolve in my answer appears to be disarming. Well, that is, after allowing the questioner to launch a barrage of carnivore defensives. Often my reticence is a profound enough answer to allow the questioner to begin to name obvious health and environmental benefits from a plant-based diet. I often catch them glancing at my still-just-as-olive-toned skin, my healthy hair (not so much on my head), the fair amount of muscle tone I've managed to keep into my 50s, my level of energy, and my apparent overall health (my doctor says that I should sell my blood).
I often get asked, “So do you miss it?” I know that they assume I that I know that they mean eating meat. I answer, “Not in the least.” It’s true. I also don’t miss drinking soda for the last thirty years, Ding Dongs, Twinkies, anything with Aspartame in it, and a lot of other things that I don’t eat any more. I do miss putting coffee in my mouth, but that’s another blog.
So, that's why I'm vegetarian. Simple. Well, ok, conserving water, respecting all sentient beings, the health of the planet, the ozone layer, the yoga principle of Ahimsa, the awareness of nutrition from my dietitian mother, my overall health, and the fact that I like vegetarian food may have something to do with it. Bill Clinton is vegan, if you were wondering. Feel free to ask me, though, why I'm vegetarian. Better yet, eat with me. I'll show you.
I hate standing in line. I don’t know many people who like standing in line. But it appears that many people are much more patient than I am while standing in line. Often while standing in lines at the bank or at the grocery store I pull out my iPhone and check my email. Then I answer a few chat messages, or text a friend. But I do that all day anyway. So what can we do while standing in line to pass the time productively? Yoga, of course!
No, I’m not going to drop to my knees and roll up into a headstand while I’m waiting to deposit checks at the bank, as much as I’d love to follow the urge to do that. Well, wait a minute. I would have little problem doing that. I’m not sure how much longer I’d have an account at that bank if I did do that on occasion. But what I have found myself doing often is the breathing exercise I spoke of in my blog on being in the car. Inhale to the count of four, hold the breath for four, exhale for four, hold the breath out for four. But I thought of a few other yoga things to do in lines:
- Inhale deeply and then see how long you can safely draw out an exhale. One time I kept a slow, steady exhale going for a minute. Start slow, with maybe a ten second exhale or you might pass out!
- Inhale and expand the belly. Then start to expand the rib cage on the inhales while exhaling normally. See how far you can lift the sternum while keeping the shoulders down and back. Like there’s a string drawing the center of your chest forward and up.
- Wrap one hand behind your back and bring it toward the opposite hand. Interlace your fingers with all the knuckles pointing in front of you. See how far you can pull the hands forward. Then do the other way.
- Look up and let the head drop back comfortably. Keep the mouth closed and feel a really great stretch along the front of the neck.
- Try to touch your chin to your chest and hold it there for a while.
- Try to touch each ear to a shoulder and hold it there for a few seconds.
- Place one hand behind the back, palm facing out. See how low you can get that elbow down your back while pressing the back of the hand into the back. See how high up the back you can get your hand. Reach the other arm into the air and then bend the elbow and see if you can grab hands. This only works if you don’t have your check book or your phone in one hand. Do the other way.
- Lift one foot off the ground and see how long you can balance without starting to fall over. You can also place that knee on top of the other and balance. Or even wrap that lifted foot around behind the other leg and wrap the toes and ankle around the other leg.
- Stand really tall, but with the shoulders down and back. Close your eyes and see how long you can keep them shut before you have to open them for fear of the line moving, or for fear that they are going to haul you away for therapy, or before you think you’re falling over. If you fall asleep and fall over, please don’t hold me responsible.
- Interlace your fingers behind your back and bring your palms together. Then see how much you can safely straighten your arms. Then try to move your hands away from your back. Resist the temptation to fold forward and bring your hands toward the ceiling. That move might get the manager on your case.
- Finally, the ultimate yoga exercise. Stare at all of the people in line in front of you. One by one wish all of them so much good fortune and wealth that they would never ever again have to wait in a line at the bank, or do their own shopping, or get a driver’s license. Then you’d also never have a line to wait in!
Yoga in Daily Life, Part 5 – The Belly
It’s there. We know it. We try to hide it. Sometimes we just let it hang out. No matter how much weight we lose it’s still there hanging out beyond the belt buckle. And the sides. Yes. The sides. Like the melting top of a muffin.
Get over it is what I say. It’s a part of the adult anatomy. Sure I could do crunches until I puke and end up with abs so tight I couldn’t breathe in. That wouldn’t be good for yoga, singing, and especially tuba playing. So I get over it.
The greatest tragedy of the belly is the number of guys who use it as an excuse not to do yoga. I say be the happy Buddha with the belly and breathe!
There are many ways to practice yoga with a belly:
Sitting: It’s going to be more comfortable to sit on the floor using a block. Get a yoga block. Most studios and gyms have them. I bring several to the classes I teach. Sitting on one makes the angle between the legs and the spine greater and more comfortable, which can also make room for the belly to rest between the legs in a cross-legged position. I sit on one when I’m going to be sitting for more than a minute because otherwise it would feel like knives were being stuck in my back and my hip muscles were a boa constrictor.
Standing: There are times in yoga where the abs need to be engaged, but trying to hold a belly in for an entire class is futile. When it comes time to relax the abs, let them go. If you think the entire class is staring at your belly, believe me, they are too worried about their own bodies and who is noticing them to notice you.
Kneeling: When kneeling and coming forehead down on the mat in something like Child Pose, bring the knees a little bit farther apart to allow room for the belly to sink toward the floor and the seat to come farther down toward the heels. You can even rest the arms and forehead on a block or a blanket if they don’t come down to the floor.
Supine: While lying on the back, take advantage of the relaxation this allows the lower back. If the knees need to come up close to the chest, separate the knees to allow room for the belly, just like in kneeling above. The weight of the belly as we go about the day can cause stress on the lower back. Many moves in a supine position can help the lower back area.
Prone: Only you know the extent to which lying face down is comfortable. This is a time for using wisdom and judgment. There are many gentle backbends that can be done in this way that can exercise the back muscles. A blanket can come in handy to raise the floor to other parts of the body so that the belly isn’t an obstacle to lying face down.
There are two things never to be embarrassed about and prevent you from practicing yoga: body hair and a belly. They are parts of being adult males. So grab a mat and get to a yoga class!
Yoga in Daily Life, Part 4 – Excuses
We all do it. We make excuses. I try to rationalize doing it by convincing myself that it is part of being human. The more I study and practice yoga, the more I realize I need to stop. I need to just tell the truth. State the facts. “I didn’t do it,” rather than “I didn’t get to it because..” That’s it. Maybe I watch too much Judge Judy. “Don’t tell me that. I don’t care about that.” Last night she was great. She said, “I love the truth. Just tell me the truth!”
I try to advertise my yoga classes in any way I can. Facebook, Scruff, Growlr. Yeah. I’m there. But, frankly, at my age and relationship status, it really is much more interesting to talk to guys about yoga. My profile picture is of me in one of my favorite yoga poses, Crow. Me balancing on my hands, knees bent up by my shoulders. It gets attention. And a LOT of guys want to talk about yoga. They ask me all sorts of interesting questions. Many, many guys out there practice yoga. It’s great to meet them and talk about yoga. A LOT of guys want to take yoga. Many seem genuinely interested in starting a practice. If they are nearby, I invite them to whatever class might be near them. I must have had a hundred guys tell me that they are definitely coming to my next class. Out of that hundred do you know how many have actually come to a class? Two. Yeah. Two out of a hundred. I don’t doubt that the other 98 were genuine in their interest. But some of them have told me several times that they were definitely coming! But I’ve never seen them. If I see them again (and sometimes they disappear) online, I get excuses. “I fell asleep.” “I got home and sat on the couch and just couldn’t get back up again.” “Was it last night?” “I’m just so busy and things are just so hectic.” All the more reason to get to a yoga class.
Something deep inside me says that we shouldn’t make the promise in the first place, but then, if we didn’t, would we ever do anything? If we didn’t promise to do something, would we do it? I say, “Yes.” The next time someone asks me to do something and I’m not sure I want to or will be able to, I’ll say, “I’d really like to do that,” instead of, “I’m there!” Or better yet, if I tell someone that I’m going to do something, I will be certain to do it. Yeah, that’ll work. We will see.
My least favorite thing to hear when I tell someone about something I think they should do, like going to a yoga class, is, “I’ll try.” That tells me that they aren’t going to do it, they just want to tell me something to keep me asking them to do things. I never expect to see someone show up that tells me, “I’ll try.” Then again, with the above mentioned odds, I’ve come not to expect anyone to show up at anything.
I have to get past all of this. What to say to someone who promises to do something? How to respond to “I’ll try” without offending anyone? How to get people to actually come to a yoga class? Yoga teaches me to disregard the wicked. But are they really wicked? Yoga teaches me to be compassionate toward the unhappy. That’s it. We make excuses because we are unhappy. We want people to like us, so we tell them an excuse for our behavior so that they will continue to like us, but then we can go with whatever better comes along instead of the original activity requested. But it still leaves us unhappy that we didn’t fulfill a promise made. Or perhaps we are unhappy at being caught.
The bottom line is, don’t make promises. Honor people’s requests if you can. Decline them if you can’t. Tell the truth. Be friendly toward the happy. Have compassion for the unhappy. Delight in the virtuous. Disregard the wicked. Go to yoga class. Breathe.
I’m a fairly patient person. I can get angry just like most people, but my threshold for bursting with emotion is pretty high. Usually. Except when I drive. Yes, it’s all of the other drivers’ fault, and the signs’ fault, and the weather’s fault, and the sun in my eyes, or the stupid idiot that should be going three miles per hour OVER the speed limit. Now! Move over. You don’t deserve to drive….!!!
Oh, sorry. Another illustration:
Back in about 2007 I was having problems with my voice. It would tire easily and be very raspy. Not good for a singer, let alone anyone who has to use the voice for work constantly. I noticed also that I had occasional heartburn. I went to the ENT and did 8 weeks of a strict, acid-free, diet, two different kinds of medication, bed wedges, etc. Nothing changed. The ENT told me to get voice lessons. I laughed. A friend suggested acupuncture. I went to a woman who was a fifth-generation Chinese acupuncturist as well as a Western MD. She sat me down in her office soon after meeting me, asked if I thought she was going to hurt me, and then said, “We will address the reflux later. First we address your stress.”
Stress? What stress? I’m not a stressful person.
“You know. Like when you drive.”
How did she know that?
We determined over the next few weeks that my reflux was caused by stress and not by any dietary issue. In about three weeks the reflux was gone and my voice returned to normal.
So what about that driving thing? I’ve gotten a little better. I still often can’t help myself. It’s such an easy way to let out lots of anger and frustration at the poor driving habits of suburban New Jerseyans. But if I remind myself in time, I can use my yoga experience to get beyond that temptation. Like the other day when I couldn’t find my phone and woke up my husband screaming that he needed to help me, and that a phone just couldn’t disappear. He later called me on the phone while I was driving (the phone was in the car the whole time) and said, “You need to do yoga or something.” What I try to do is practice some of the breathing exercises, the pranayama, that I learned and teach in yoga:
Breathe in to the count of 4. Expand the ribs. Keep the air moving in for the entire count of four.
Retain the breath in for the count of 4 while keeping the throat relaxed and open.
Breathe out for the count of 4. Draw in the abdominal muscles to make the breath move out for the entire count of 4.
Sustain the breath out for the count of 4 keeping the throat relaxed and open.
I do this for about a minute or more and it’s amazing. I’m not worrying about the other drivers. I let people in front of me. I take off after a red light at a normal acceleration rate. I stop while the light is still yellow. And before you know it I’m at my destination in a delightful state of mind and all of the other drivers are out of sight and out of mind.
Daily? You mean I have to do this every day?
When I first started practicing yoga, it was a good week if I went to the class at the gym once. That class was about 50 minutes. I also lifted weights, so it wasn’t like that hour or so class was all of the fitness activities I did. When I first started attending classes at yoga studios, someone told me that when you move from once a week to twice a week, the benefits of yoga increase exponentially. But my objective at the time was to be regular about going once a week. And that I did. It helped that I liked the studio, or liked the teacher, or found him attractive, or had a new yoga outfit I wanted to show off. The important thing was that it became a habit. A habit that I liked, and was convinced that I was getting great benefits. When I started going twice a week, the realities of attending teacher training began to formulate. I would call that an exponential increase.
Even before I went through the certification process and became a yoga teacher, I attended a workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in the Berkshires of Western Massachussets. I met so many other people that seemed to be a lot like me. I talked with them about how yoga fit into their lives. One of them told me that yoga began to become a profound part of his life when he started a daily practice at home. Soon after that I went to an ashram in the Catskills for a week, the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch There, yoga was part of my life all day, every day. Since I was the only guest that week (it was the dead of February and in the middle of the week) they treated me like the ashram residents. We sat and meditated at 6 in the morning. We sang a lot. We did yoga for about four hours a day. We ate vegan meals and practiced service by cleaning and cooking. After I got home I started doing the yoga moves, the breathing exercises, and the meditation at home as many days as I could.
In the past two or three years my home practice has settled into 20 – 40 minutes, four or five times a week. Sometimes because of work and home schedules, I do fifteen minutes here, 10 minutes there. The important thing for me is the habit I have developed, and the feeling that I am missing something profound if a day goes by and I don’t practice at least a few minutes. I try to get to a class now and then which forces me into an hour or more of deep, sweaty, and perhaps out of the ordinary, moves and exercises. It also maintains a connection to other teachers and students in the area.
The important thing about yoga is that it become a part of our lives, every day, every encounter with people or situations, every quiet moment of repose and reflection, every deep, rib-expanding breath. Ten minutes of breathing every morning, or twenty minutes of yoga poses and breathing a few times a week, will have a great impact on our health and happiness. So, right here, right now, sit with your spine vertical. Relax your shoulders. Take a deep, long inhale that expands your abdomen and ribs. Exhale slowly and completely. Draw your shoulder blades closer together. Move your shoulders far away from your ears. See, now you have a home practice.
I like to get up early, before anyone else, while the streets are still quiet and the streetlights are just about to go out. I creep down the steps so as not to wake the dogs (impossible) and not to wake my husband (wouldn’t happen anyway). I have a special spot on the hardwood floor of the living room, between the piano and the dining room table. When company comes, there is a Turkish rug in the center of the floor. But on most days, it’s rolled up and stashed behind the couch. Usually my favorite yoga mat, the expensive one that I never let anyone else use, is either rolled out on the floor, or rolled up and stored in the old entertainment center that was too nice to throw out once the new TVs would no longer fit in its square box. I like to leave the mat rolled out because it serves as a constant reminder to me that my yoga practice is a continuous, daily thing. It lives with me with every breath that I take. It also marks this spot as my special yoga spot.
I like to challenge myself to leave the house dark as I sneak down the steps and into the living room. I take out a bean bag yoga cushion or a block, depending on the way my muscles and bones feel that day, and set it in the middle of the mat. I take my yoga candle from the table by the window where I keep my singing bowls, my Tingsha cymbals, and my mala beads, and light it. I place it at the end of the mat, sit on my cushion, stare at the flame for a few seconds, and then close my eyes. I can still see the glow of the flame. I place it at the space between my eyebrows and imagine all of my focus going there. I start to slow my breath and deepen my inhale. Then the counting begins.
54 – in and out, 53, 52. Somewhere around 45 I notice that I’m thinking about work and the 16 phone calls I have to make. What number was I on? Back to 54 – in and out, 53, 52…41, wow I made it all the way to 41! Don’t lose count. 40. Focus on the breath. 39…
When I first started to meditate, I thought I had to have a completely blank mind. I thought I was a failure and that I’d never get it. As I progressed, and talked to more and more people who meditate, I discovered that it is always a struggle to keep the mind focused on just the breath, or counting down, or on the candle flame. It’s almost a game. The mind wanders, I bring it back. Each time, I’m less and less angry at myself for losing focus. It’s kind of like with my dogs. The angry dad just makes the dogs wonder why I’m angry. The persistent and compassionate dad teaches the dogs the behaviors I want them to learn.
Inhale 4, exhale 4. Inhale 3, exhale 3. Inhale 2, exhale 2. Inhale 1, exhale 1. My mind is at peace. The day is still young. The sky is starting to glow a faint blue of the sun’s promised rise. I get up to make tea and to wake the dogs.
I started doing yoga at the gym. I’m not sure I would have ever gotten into yoga had it not been for the gym and my friend who convinced me to attend class there. It got me started. I can’t say I really began to understand yoga because of it. I went once a week or so. The room was always freezing because of the aerobics class right before yoga. I was thankful for the mirrors lining the walls so that I could see the teacher from all angles. The floor used to bounce because the studio was on the second floor, right next to a line of cardio machines. You could hear not only the yoga music the teacher played, but also the rock music blasting throughout the gym and the grunts from the meathead lifters that seemed to pride themselves on the animalness of their grunts and the amount of noise that dropping their weights would make.
I survived gym yoga for about a year when I met a male yoga teacher online who talked me into trying out a yoga studio. I searched online for a class at a studio nearby taught by a man. I wanted a male perspective on yoga since the classes I had taken were taught by a woman and attended almost always by women. I found one near Red Bank. I signed up for a beginner special where I paid a low price for three classes. I rolled out my mat in the warm, sunny, quiet studio and waited for the teacher. Dan soon entered the room. As class time came it was apparent that I was his only student. I then had an hour private lesson. It was great! We did a lot of things I had done in class before, but lots that I hadn’t. Not easy things, but things that didn’t seem impossible like the moves I had done at the gym class that required a lot of flexibility in the legs and hips that I and a lot of guys just don’t naturally have.
I went to quite a few of Dan’s classes. On one day soon after I had started attending his classes, there were about five women in the class with me. I was making what I would consider slow progress with yoga, but certainly faster progress than I was making at the gym classes. Dan instructed us to go next to the wall, come down on our forearms, and raise a leg up to the wall. The others in the class either refused to do the move, or were groaning and falling back down on their mats. I not only put one leg up to the wall, but both legs easily went up into what is called a forearm stand. Dan came over and said, “Wow, you’ve done this before!” I told him that I hadn’t but that it seemed fairly easy to do. For the first time I did something in a yoga class that none of the other students could do. That was a feeling that helped sustain me on my journey into yoga studio classes.
I stopped going to the classes at the gym, and ended up visiting quite a few yoga studios in my area. Although I teach occasionally in a studio, I do most of my practice at home now. I’m thankful to the many teachers and studios that inspired me to become a yoga teacher.
Is my ego trying to kill me? Sometimes I think Iím my own worst enemy. A long time ago I was digging out a stump in my back yard. My back started to hurt. I kept digging. Iím a man after all. We do things like dig up stumps no matter what warning signs our bodies try to give us. Well, my back hurt quite a bit for a week or two. Then it went away, more or less. I was young (yes, I consider 30 to be young). I would easily mend, or so I thought. My back bothered me now and then over the years until I started to get more active with yoga. A serious practice of yoga, no matter how safely done, can enable the body to surface issues that have been buried and forgotten. Also stress and emotional issues can further inspire those issues to surface.
In 2010 I was preparing to enter yoga teacher training. I was afraid not only of being the oldest person in the class, but also the least flexible and least skilled at yoga. Thereís a typical yoga class move that goes from a somewhat intense backbend (Upward Facing Dog) to a forward bend (Downward Facing Dog) that I had been doing in class in the standard way, instead of how I had often adapted it for my tight hamstrings and (buried and forgotten) back issue, of momentarily dropping my knees to the mat to lessen the tension on my hamstrings and lower back muscles. I kept saying to myself that a yoga teacher should be doing this the standard way! My lower back would twinge slightly the more I did it, but I kept at it. One day in a class right after doing that same move my back felt weird. I kept with class since there was no real pain and drove home. The next morning I could barely get out of bed. My entire back was in a spasm that sent sharp pains like a knife being driven next to my spine every time I tried to move.
I went to the doctor. An MRI showed two herniated discs in my lower back (no surprise). Many people lead active, even athletic lives never knowing that they have herniated discs much worse than mine. But my levels of stress and worry must have played overtime in throwing my muscles into a tailspin. I worked through the issue with therapy and a softball that I would roll up and down my back while lying on top of it, and made it through teacher training just fine. I wasnít the oldest in the class, nor anywhere near the bottom concerning flexibility and yoga knowledge and ability.
Over the past three months, since my back had been feeling so good, I started doing that move again. No twinges. No pain. Great! Iím a new man, I thought. Iím a yoga teacher. I should be doing such standard moves with my body! Then my lower back started to ache. Just a little. We were coming into the Christmas season (my least favorite time of year) and things were getting busy and stressful at work (church music work). I kept at my yoga move. Granted, itís not the most aggressive move, nor was I following a very strenuous yoga practice. But I continued to marvel at my success. I went to the chiropractor to seek some relief from the tightness in my lower back when, lying face down on his table, he pressed gently up and down my spine to determine if things were in order. And all of a sudden my entire body went numb and I felt shooting pain in my lower back. I couldnít get off the table. He had to help me up. I could barely walk. And any movement caused this tight pain to shoot up and down my back.
My buried issue has come surging back to the surface just in time to divert my thoughts and worries away from the holiday season. The lessons learned? My body seems to be wiser than my mind and tries to tell me, clearly, when to back off. I donít have to prove anything by maintaining an image of a man or a yoga teacher that I have constructed in my mind. I should do things in my life and in my yoga practice that are good for me and my body at the time that I do them. Iíll work through this and any other stressful or painful time of my life and be a stronger, better person because of it.
Iíve heard it many times: I understand doing yoga, but why naked yoga?
Most people will admit to understanding some of the benefits of yoga, even if theyíve never experienced them. The stretching. Many peopleís understanding of yoga is limited to stretching. Yes, many things get stretched in a yoga class. But thereís more than just stretching. The relaxation. Yes, there is much relaxation in a yoga class. But a deep relaxation rarely comes without some sort of work beforehand. The breathing. If people understand that underlying much of yoga is the breath, they are well on their way to comprehending much of the power of yoga. The focus of the mind. Now we are talking serious yoga. The stretching, the relaxation, and the breathing can all lead to an increase in the ability of the mind to focus. And this can lead to meditation, which is rarely discredited for its powerful benefits. So where does the naked part come in? Itís hard to explain without experiencing it, but being naked can make all of the above easier. How? I donít know. I can only go by the effects.
Often when I have gone to a yoga class, particularly if there are other guys there (yes, I know, some sort of ego thing with being male I suppose) I can get into a state of competition. I can find myself constantly looking around and comparing myself and what I am doing with everyone else. If someone else is doing a pose, I feel the need to do it better. If someone else is standing on his head, I will make sure that I stand on mine longer. If thereís an attractive man, I need to imagine the details of his body over and over again throughout the class and especially afterward, perhaps even trying to get his attention. However, when Iím in a class of all naked men, much if not all of that goes away. I spend the majority of my energy focusing on what Iím doing. Iím much calmer, and can deepen my breathing. I spend little if any time looking around the room comparing myself to others. I feel much more content doing what I should be doing and not worrying about what other people think. Iím much more relaxed.
Perhaps this has a lot to do with being comfortable being naked. Itís no secret. Iíve been going to the nude beach at Sandy Hook for over twenty-seven years. Iím ok being naked and being around people who also are. Many people whoíve never done it tell me that they would do such a thing if only they could get a little bit more in shape. I try over and over to tell them that that isnít what itís about. There is every imaginable body type there. Itís not where people go to show off being in shape. But it is a very large group of people comfortable with who and how they are. I tell them about the experience of the first time going there: You worry, but you want to do it. Youíre excited and scared at the same time. You look around and see thousands of naked bodies. You work up the nerve. You let the desire of wanting to do it overcome the shame and embarrassment you might feel. So you do it. You get naked. You feel the thrill. You enjoy the sunshine on your skin. The wind through your hair. You stand there for a minute or two in complete naked liberation. And then it hits you. You come to the sudden, sad realization that NO ONE IS LOOKING. You worked yourself up and finally did it, and not one person noticed. Youíre standing there buck naked to the world and not one of the hundreds and hundreds of pairs of eyes within normal corrected-vision range is focused on you.
So, to put it more concisely, get over yourself. And once you do, and youíre able to stand there naked among nakedness, life and all its distractions, worries, comparisons, ego fits, and fears of embarrassment start to disappear. That is naked yoga.
Life is a path. Sometimes we are running down the path. We trip on bumps. Sometimes we crawl on our hands and knees. Rarely, it seems, do we pause on the path just to enjoy where we are. So often we get distracted by how much we think our path should look like anotherís path, or we are worried that if we pause, people will think poorly of what might appear as our laziness. Consider your yoga practice, or any form of physical, spiritual, or mental activity as a path. To be even more specific, letís consider one yoga move, or asana, as a path. Tree pose, or Vrksasana, for example, is when the body balances on one foot. In a good yoga practice when doing such a pose, one wants to achieve a balance between having just enough challenge put upon the body and mind, and enough comfort where the body can relax the parts it needs to in order to keep the body in the pose, the breath can relax and deepen enough to keep the body from falling over, and the mind can focus on its own body without being distracted by other bodies and activities. In tree pose the standing foot needs to stay relaxed in order for the weight of the entire body to be balanced on it. If the panicking mind causes the foot to tighten, it becomes very easy to fall over. A person balancing the body in tree pose needs to proceed down the path of adding a bit of challenge and must know when to stop down that path and allow relaxation to settle in where the mind can reflect on simply breathing. Many times in a class setting, other students and the teacher will move farther down that path to the level of challenge that they need to be at that edge of challenge and comfort, and the mind, pushed by the ego and not wanting to be left behind, entices some people to go too far in adding challenges simply because someone else is, and the body topples over. We all need to gain the wisdom to know where on the path to pause, and the strength to be comfortable in that place where we can simply reflect on where we are without having to prove to others that we can take on more than we can handle. May our standing foot always be relaxed, and our ego be content with our awesome spot on the path where we can simply breathe and be.
I was never very athletic growing up. I hated gym class. I detested playing softball or basketball, and avoided playing them if I possibly could. In grad school when I was about 29, I thought I should do something with my body, so I took advantage of the wonderful facilities at Rutgers, and I started swimming on campus. I enjoyed it very much. I had taken swimming lessons as a kid, so I progressed quickly in my laps. After graduation I joined the local Y so that I could keep swimming. Then my husband and I bought a house that wasnít near any Y or JCC or indoor pool. It was sometime late in 1999. So I checked out the local NY Sports Club that had no pool, and joined. I got a few free training sessions, and hooked up with two other guys about my age, to work out together.
A few months into my membership there another friend of mine took a yoga class at my gym. She came to me immediately and said, ďYou need to do this!Ē I kind of brushed it off at the time, but the intensity of her statement ate away at me. She again said to me that yoga was something I really needed to do. So I went with her to a class. The room was dark, but with just enough light that I could see myself at all angles in the mirrors on the walls surrounding the studio. I used a mat from a pile stacked up at the back of the room. Who knows where they had been and who had been sweating on them. I lay down on the mat in a corner of the room and breathed as the teacher instructed us to do. So far so good. The slow rhythm of the breathing quickly brought my mind to a calm, focused place that even hours of singing had never done.
Then we stood up and went through some poses that were not easy to do while I was straining my neck to see and model the teacher. Then came ďChair PoseĒ where you sit back in an imaginary chair. The daggers of pain shooting through my lower body seemed to travel up and pierce my brain. All I could think of was, ďHow long is this wicked woman going to make me stay like this?Ē Incidentally, it wasnít until 2011 that I learned to be relatively comfortable in that pose. The rest of the class is a blur. I vaguely remember some other weird twisting things I attempted to get my body into, but I do recall the wonderful feeling of the final rest pose. The world seemed to pause and settle around me as I floated in a timeless bliss.
I thanked my friend for dragging me to class. I think I went for a few months on and off, then mostly off for about a half a year until the lure of the class beckoned me back. By that time my friend had bought me my own mat and bag.I went to class regularly for about a year until another friend introduced me to yoga outside of a gym. More on that later.
People often ask me what they should wear to a yoga class. Perhaps they donít want to stand out by wearing something too unusual and different than the other yogis. Perhaps they donít want to be the least nor the most dressed in the class. I always tell them that they should be comfortable, above all, and that the clothing, or the lack of it, should ensure that they remain safe, and that it can enable them to be aware of what the various parts of their bodies are doing. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Bulky clothing, or pieces of metal, zippers, snaps, and the like can get in the way, and even cause damage to the person, the mat, or the floor.
- Clothing that is baggy or too loose can shift around, get in the way, and prevent the yogi or the teacher from seeing what the body is doing, or can migrate to reveal more than might be appropriate for that class.
- Clothing, especially pants, that are too tight can prevent the body from breathing properly, prevent the sweat from cooling the body, and limit necessary moving of various appendages.
- Some materials can be slippery, making certain poses that require one body part to stay pressed against another rather difficult, if not impossible.
- Yoga done without clothing can be intriguing, but keep in mind that clothing can absorb sweat, and can make sweaty body parts less slippery.
- Keep in mind the others in the room, and the appropriateness to that class regarding the cleanliness and disclosure of what you wear.
If you are new to yoga, or new to a particular class and are not sure what to wear, ask the teacher ahead of time, or layer by wearing tight, short shorts under a more modest pair, and a tank top under a tee shirt. You can always take off as appropriate.
Check out my YouTube video on this subject.
And do yoga!
Early in my yoga journey I wasnít finding much success. I was taking classes at a local gym in a dance studio filled with limber women. One day we did a pose called ďCrowĒ and my success at it was worse than any other pose. In the pose you balance on your hands while your knees are near your armpits. I think I might have smashed my face into the mat in my boisterous, impatient attempts. Over the next few years I attempted the pose several times in various classes. I sweated a lot, which made my knees slip off my arms, and I came crashing to the floor. One day I was in a class where we were attempting the pose when the teacher said, ďDonít try to get your feet off the ground. Just work slowly and patiently with the balance of the body even while the feet are on the ground. It may take a while, but just be patient and breathe. Success may take a few lifetimes.Ē
The correlation of my attempts at the pose and the daily successes and failures of my life was a slap in the face. How much energy do I spend in fits, expecting immediate success, trying to push my feet off the ground, overheating and making the situation worse, when what I should be focusing on is creating the balance in the situation, and slowly eroding away the obstacles to progress.
Take a look at a video of the Crow Pose on my YouTube Channel.
Why do yoga? Most people think you have to be a limber gymnast to even attempt it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from any physical benefits from doing yoga, such as a more limber, healthy body and lower blood pressure, we do yoga to bring focus to the mind. Try this once today, and perhaps once a day this week, at any time, at any place:
- Pause what you are doing.
- Sit with feet flat on the floor and hands resting on your knees, or even stand where you are, both feet flat on the ground, arms resting at your sides.
- Close your eyes if you can.
- Focus your attention on your breathing. Notice how long you inhale. What the air feels like as it enters the body. Where it seems that the air goes. How long you exhale. What makes an inhale turn around and become an exhale.
- Allow your body to relax, and the breath to deepen and slow.
This simple one to two minute break in your day brings focus to the mind. It slows your heartbeat and lowers your blood pressure. Try it once a day, when you think of it, or when it seems you need a break from what you are doing. Enjoy the feeling of calm and the sense of being really present to yourself. Who knows. It might become a habit.
Check out my YouTube Channel for short videos about yoga:
Yoga for Men will meet tomorrow, Tuesday March 27th, at 7:30 PM at the Pride Center, 85 Raritan Ave., Highland Park, NJ. No experience necessary. Bring a mat. Wear gym clothes. Come breathe, relax, explore the possibilities of a more flexible and strong body. Check out my latest videos on yoga basics at my YouTube Channel.
Check out my latest two videos on yoga basics:
on bending to the side while sitting. It's a great movement to do at anytime, especially while taking a break from work at your desk.
on how to sit comfortably for a yoga class, or for meditation.
I lead a men's yoga group at the Pride Center in Highland Park every second and fourth Tuesday from 7:30 - 9:00 PM. No yoga experience or flexibility is necessary. I started a group for men so that men, especially beginners to yoga, would have a place to meet where they could explore yoga together, and become comfortable enough to practice yoga at home or in a studio where they would likely be the only man. We explore basic yoga poses, breathing, chanting, focussing attention, and relaxation. Bring a mat if you have one. I always bring extras. Wear gym clothes. I have a channel on YouTube called "Sound Yoga" where I show brief practical things about yoga. This video is about chanting the OM.