Thursday, October 31, 2013

who needs yoga?

I often meet ladies who tell me that they cannot 'do yoga' because their bodies are not flexible enough.
Some of them tried yoga in the past and quickly became frustrated, others associated yoga with the most extreme contortions and concluded that it wasn't safe for them. They invariably felt that their lack of flexibility stood in the way of practicing yoga.

I think that they way yoga is taught in many studios and gyms contributes to this fallacy. Often the teacher seems solely interested in impressing students with his/her flexibility; many yoga classes are "multi-level" which means beginners are seldom catered for; sometimes competition among students is encouraged by teacher's comments rather than dissuaded.
The marketing of body-hugging yoga gear through the use of young, extremely flexible yoga models on glossy yoga magazines fuels this erroneous perception.
As a result too many people wrongly assume that you need to be young and flexible to practice yoga.

In fact, anyone can practice Yoga, and the less flexible you are the more there is for you to gain!

Actually, if you were naturally hyper-mobile, that is very flexible, you should be strengthening the muscles that support individual joints, rather than over-stretching them. The teacher should choose a sequence of  poses that target core stability, poses that engage stomach and pelvic floor muscles to help stabilise the lower back rather than doling out compliments.

As i often repeat in my blog,  yoga is best learned on a one-to-one basis, or in  a very small and homogeneous group of people. Everybody can benefit from yoga as long as poses are carefully selected to suit their level of flexibility and fitness, emotional and physical needs, desired outcome.

Nobody should be intimidated by advanced poses when alternative poses can be selected. There are hundreds of yoga poses to choose from, and in my experience the more challenging the pose, the more tense the student. Which defeats the purpose of yoga!

If a student feels intimidated by a pose, it means she is not ready for it. It also means that the teacher hasn't been able to gauge the student's mental and physical readiness for that pose.

For some of my students addressing insomnia or depression is far more important than lifting a leg up to their shoulder. Quietening the mind, stimulating the endocrine system, or learning  how to cope with stress through gentle, restorative poses, breathing exercises and meditation techniques is a far more desirable outcome than learning how to do a Scorpion pose. Scorpion is a beautiful pose, and many experienced yoga practitioners can perform it safely and derive many benefits from it. But it's also out of reach for the majority of people who take up yoga in their middle age. So, should we aim for poses that are 'beautiful" or poses that make and keep us healthier and more balanced?

You may enjoy swimming but certainly you wouldn't feel frustrated if you couldn't break an olympic record.
So, approach yoga in the same way.

Being able to rest your forehead on your shins is not a requirement and shouldn't stop you from practicing yoga. The best practice is the one YOU benefit from.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On a long sabbatical

As some of you may have noticed, lately i haven't been very active on this blog: the last post dates back to May!
The reason why i haven't written for such a long time has everything to do with my changed circumstances.
I have finally quit my teaching position and left Hong Kong. Some may call it a "sabbatical", but technically speaking it's not. I have no intention to resume teaching in my department (explaining my disillusion with institutionalised education  falls beyond the scope of this blog). When and if i return to Hong Kong, i  will look for other ways to support myself.

Leaving my job and the city where i had lived for 17 years wasn't an impulsive decision. For a long while i had been concerned about the health impact of living in such a fast-paced, crowded and polluted city. Some family matters that required travelling for a few months to another country provided the perfect spur to finally address those concerns. Leaving the comfort of home and the security of your job isn't so hard when the price you pay for it is poor health and stress.

My  "journey to the West" has already provided me with a treasure trove of enlightening experiences, insights and discoveries. Of course it hasn't all been plain sailing. Life never is. I am dealing with a different type of  challenges, obstacles and disappointments, but it would be naive to expect them to vanish the moment you set sail.
I have also taken a break from computers and mobile phones. Occasionally I still need to go online to book tickets and accommodation, but  Internet surfing, blogging, social networks and email have been curbed to a minimum. I have been to beautiful places where an Internet connection is not something one should rely on...and it feels good! Being offline frees up a lot of  time that one can devote to healthier pursuits. The lack  of distractions make it possible to establish a deeper connection with those who are physically present, and think of those who aren't. By default, the "here and now" takes precedence over the "there and then".  .
Some friends have questioned my decision to leave HK, others have expressed admiration for doing it.
They have invariably asked me "how did you manage to do it?"

Many factors have made it possible. Being perimenopausal and approaching 50 certainly strengthened my resolve to change my circumstances; having no dependants and leading a rather frugal life enabled me to save money; practicing yoga gave me the emotional force to take the leap. I really believe that both yoga and hormonal changes brought about by perimenopause played a positive role.

At 50 one starts to contemplate her own mortality, there is little room left for compromise and procrastination. If one doesn't live her life to the fullest now, one may never do. If one doesn't try to know and understand her Self now, there may never be another chance.

I am not suggesting that traveling is the best way to follow the Delphic precept "know thyself". So many paths lead to self-discovery. Personally i felt that living in a natural environment was a necessary condition for living a more balanced life and reflect upon its essence. The horrible pollution in Hong Kong had started to take its toll on my body. I was constantly sick ...and tired of being sick. When the body is thrown out of balance by illness, what hope is there for the mind? What's the point of a daily pranayama sequence when the air that fills your lungs is toxic? When the food you eat is laced with pesticides?
I knew that going to work wearing a face mask was not the kind of life i wanted. No matter how financially rewarding that life could be. Don't we all deserve clean air and water? When has a blue sky become a luxury? 

This was the right time to leave. I can just about carry my heavy backpack, surely it would feel heavier in a few years time. I can still spend a sleepless night in some airport waiting for a 6:00 am flight, or embark on a 3-day long train journey where comfort is a cup of hot tea. But in 10 years would i be able to enjoy traveling on a shoestring (with all its discomforts) and socialising with backpackers who are half my age? Probably not.
Practicing yoga asanas while staying in a hostel dorm or in tiny room in a cheap guesthouse isn't easy. Luggage restrictions on budget airlines also mean i had to leave my yoga mat behind. But one can do many yoga poses without a mat! I spend a lot of time in lotus pose on trains and buses. And nothing beats tree pose in a forest!
Hiking for hours can do wonders for your mind and body. And so does lying on a deserted beach tuning your breath to the waves.
I have a feeling that my 'sabbatical' will be a very long one!


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Light my fire! Hot and flushed we stand (part 2)

Those who regularly use a sauna or a steam room are well-aware of its benefits: sweating profusely makes them feel a lot better. Saunas and steam rooms are found in many traditional cultures where they serve diverse purposes: from therapeutic, to hygienic, to ritual and even social.
Countless studies show the health promoting properties of sweating.  

Improves your immune system
Improves your strength and vitality
Strengthens the cardio-vascular system (heart and blood circulation)
Helps control your blood pressure
Detoxifies your body
Gives you more energy
Relieves joint pain, sore muscles, arthritis

Hot flushes that are accompanied by profuse sweating  may serve exactly the same purpose: improve our health.

Many yoga poses are designed to stoke our internal fire. As our metabolism slows down during the menopause, that internal fire becomes even more important.

Agni or fire is one of the 5 elements of creation according to Ayurveda. Fire is responsible for all transformation and thus all possibilities.
Agni, the pivotal element of creation is the capacity to digest and transform. As in the macrocosm (universe) so in the microcosm (us), says Ayurveda. Thus, as in the case of food it is what breaks it down into its essential components and then reconfigures them into the consciousness that permeates and nourishes us at the cellular level. Agni is the main source of life and both Yoga and Ayurveda have long recognised its  physiological functions.
Agni is the Fire that warms, nourishes, gives light, burns all impurities and purifies us.

If you want to make peace with your hot flushes i suggest a very simple meditation technique.

Candlelight meditation

Choose a quiet place where you can sit comfortably for 15 minutes without distractions, then light a candle.
As you sit comfortably with an erect spine and eyes focused on the flame, to settle your body first tense and then release the muscles from your toes to your head until  they become relaxed and still.

Follow your breath as you gaze into the candle flame. During meditation your business is simple awareness, nothing else. Distracting thoughts will arise but you will not “hook” to them and follow them. Instead you will gently direct your focus back to the candle flame and following your breath.

When your mediation comes to an end rest  for 3 or 4 minutes before rising.  This transition time is important so do not return to daily activity suddenly, after meditating.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Light my fire! Hot and flushed we stand.

Hot flushes are one of the most common complaints of menopausal women and one of the reasons some women choose HRT despite the risks involved.

Unsurprisingly, the menopausal women i teach yoga to often ask me what poses they should practice in order to rid themselves of hot flushes. My answer is just as surprising to them as their question is unsurprising to me: "Yoga doesn't suppress important physiological functions". They had never thought of hot flushes as anything other than an unpleasant symptom that should be 'cured'.

But they are open-minded about my unorthodox approach to the menopause.
So, you may ask, what can yoga do for women dealing with hot flushes? I  teach them Pranayama techniques that rebalance the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system and remove the anxiety that compounds hot flushes and makes them unbearable.
Once they are free of anxiety, they are ready to embrace their hot flushes. Yogic breathing helps women manage hot flushes, but thank goodness, doesn't suppress them.
The most important lesson we learn from yoga is to work with nature, not against it.

For thousands of years  women accepted this very little understood symptom as a normal and natural occurrence during the menopause. Our ancestors took it in their stride the same way we accept menstruation in our reproductive years: messy, disruptive, often uncomfortable and yet natural, healthy and useful. If we didn't bleed once a month, we wouldn't be fertile. Though one may wish to do without auntie flow, the lack of menstruation would hardly be regarded as a sign of health, unless you are pregnant or post-menopausal. So, why is our attitude towards hot flushes so different that we want to get rid of them?
Could it be that we fail to grasp their function?

The medical establishment has always paid little attention to the important role played by hot flushes in women's health.
Luckily something is changing. A new study revealed that menopausal hot flushes may be very good for our heart: women who experience them have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and death.
The study – published in the journal "Menopause" – reviewed medical information from 60,000 women over a 10 year period to determine the relationship between menopause and cardiac events. The women were grouped into four categories – those who had hot flashes and night sweats at the onset of menopause, later in menopause, during both time periods and not at all.
“We found that women who experienced symptoms when they began menopause had fewer cardiovascular events than those who experienced hot flashes late in menopause or not at all,” said  lead author of the study, endocrinologist  Emily Szmuilowicz.

So, contrary to long-held beliefs, hot flushes are very good news!

If you keep a healthy body weight and follow a vegetarian diet, you won't soak your clothes and the smell of  your sweat won't be too pungent and noticeable.
My tip for odourless sweat is counter-intuitive and based on personal experience. I have completely abolished soap (both liquid and solid)  to re-establish a healthy bacterial flora on my skin. Water and a good skin brush is all i need to clean my skin. If you are a bit self-conscious about your body odour, you can rub some natural flower essence on your neck, armpits and cleavage.

Once we learn to manage hot flushes we will just experience an internal heat that may make us sweat a bit, just as we do during a gentle yoga class. That internal heat  is not totally unpleasant (especially in colder climates) and may have other potential health benefits  that science is still in the dark about.

If you start to sweat excessively, retreat to a quiet and shaded place, and start the cooling breathing exercise that your yoga teacher taught you. In a few minutes you will be able to resume your previous activity. Ride the wave, and enjoy it, don't try to stop it, because that can only increase your anxiety.

I actually like the moist glow on my face when i start takes years off my skin in a way that no moisturizer ever did :-)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Life is a balancing act

The ancient Indians viewed menopause as a movement into maturity, or the vata stage of life. This is a time of inner examination, vision and growth. Maturity brings poise, self-awareness, self-confidence, a sense of peace and contentment and yet the transition to maturity often wrecks havoc in women's life.

It takes time to change one's priorities, patience, courage and determination to embark in the long journey of self-discovery. As you move into maturity, you may feel thrown off balance at first, confused, anxious and even angry. Menopause and perimenopause symptoms are characteristically indicators of high vata dominance. Yoga and Ayurveda can help you grow into your new Self while limiting the discomforts that many women experience during this transition.

During a vata-dominated menopause, you will likely be experiencing any of the following symptoms:
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Mild hot flashes
  • Depression
  • Poor skin tone
  • Constipation
  • Vaginal dryness
There are numerous Ayurvedic herbs for treating vata imbalance. Some anti-vata herbs, such as cumin, cardamom, fennel and ginseng, can be used freely in cooking and teas but only a certified Ayurvedic doctor would be able to find  the best phytotherapeutic formulation to treat your vata imbalance.

Along with tridosha-balancing treatments and lifestyle changes suggested by Ayurveda, many women benefit from practices like meditation and yoga.

While teaching yoga to menopausal women i noticed that they invariably struggle with balancing poses, such as Vrkasana (Tree Pose). That is because a vata dominance exacerbates a sense of restlessness, both mentally and physically. In order to master, and get the most out of balancing poses, here are some useful tips:
  • Distribute weight evenly on your feet. This will help you plant your feet more securely on the floor. Additionally, spread your toes for a better contact with the floor. 
  • Maintain proper body alignment. Standing poses: hips, knees and ankles in one line. 
  • Keep your eyes focused. Look at any stationary object and don’t bring your gaze away. Keeping balance with eyes closed or focused on something moving is much harder.  
  • Engage your abs. Your abs play a crucial role in keeping yourself balanced during yoga. Strengthen your abs and you’ll find it easier to find the balance point within your body. 
  • Visualize! In order to maintain balance visualized yourself as a tree and imagine roots firmly anchoring you to the ground.

Don’t give up if you can’t master perfect balance at once. Try practicing next to a wall and gradually make your way away from it as you become more sure of your balance. If you suffer from high blood pressure don't raise your arms above your head. 
It's best to practice Vrkasana in the morning rather than at night.