Mindful awareness

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Practicing Non Violence

My theme this week has been peaceful non violence in an effort to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. His message was an important one, though certainly not easy to implement. Committing to peaceful non violence in an effort to seek civil rights equality for all seems exceedingly difficult. Passion for a cause often creates excess energy, making it difficult to ground oneself in mindful awareness while protesting. I admire what I imagine King’s level of self caring must have been. In an age when norms and even laws defined him as a second-class citizen, he refused to believe the overt messages. He honored what he knew himself – that he was as loved and special as anyone of the majority race and he deserved the same rights and respect. His own self respect fueled his protest. I imagine it would have been difficult to adhere to non-violent approaches to change living in the social environment he did.

Yoga provides opportunity to practice peaceful non violence to ourselves, thus helping to make the world around us a better place. The scale is not nearly as comprehensive as the Civil Rights Movement, but I acknowledge that adhering to peaceful non violence to oneself creates a better world for everyone around us. Practicing non violence is a way to make yoga practice serve ourselves and the world around us. Self speak, telling ourselves we aren’t good enough on or off the yoga mat, leads to violence and harmful actions. Many people in dysfunctional relationships might hear these messages from others in their lives as well. These messages can be played out on the mat in many different manifestations. It might be the superficial self put downs (I’m not good enough to get into pincha mayurasana – forearm stand pose) that are extensions of telling ourselves that overall we aren’t good enough even off the mat. It might manifest as impatience getting into a deep forward fold, leading to a lumbar spine injury as a yogi pulls into paschimottanasana (seated forward fold pose). In reality, our poses certainly do not reflect how “good” we are at anything. My hope for these practitioners is that their practice creates a sense of peace and ease, not struggle and failure.

Practicing non violence on the mat protects us from getting into expressions of poses that are not yet physically available to us. It keeps us from experiencing neck injuries sustained in sirsasana (head stand pose) when the shoulders are not strong enough to hold weight, causing the yogi to collapse and harm himself. Collapsing at the neck this way is a violent act. Yoga should never be violent. Yet it happens often. I hope for these practitioners to one day experience the same level of self respect King had, keeping them from pushing beyond their limitations. Dolphin pose is a perfect alternative inversion to help honor one’s body while developing strength to potentially go into advanced inversions another time.

Practicing non violence on the mat means practicing yoga in a comfortable environment. Yoga is most often a physical practice. This means that the body will generate heat during a yoga class. The body is designed to maintain a healthy core temperature by dissipating heat through sweating. The sweat cools the body when it evaporates from the skin. Practicing in a room set higher than body temperature is violent. The body is doing its job trying to dissipate heat but it cannot because the room is too hot for the sweat to evaporate from the skin. This is violent, harming the body rather than respecting it. I hope the hot yoga fad will go away tomorrow. In the meantime I hope that the practitioners seeking these classes come to love their bodies enough to appreciate the amazing thermoregulation process and to treat their bodies with loving kindness.

Practicing asanas (poses) too quickly to maintain correct alignment is another violent way to practice. Asana practice is intended to move with the breath, not so quickly that the motions get sloppy. Practicing without attention to alignment principles is violent to joints and soft tissues that are more likely to be injured with repetitive practice this way. But choosing this pose means dampening one’s passion to practice hard, suppressing that excess energy, and grounding in mindful, peaceful awareness.

Mistreating our bodies equates to practicing self violence. When we push too hard, eat too much, drink too much, and perform other self-destructive behaviors we end up cranky. And being cranky only makes life more difficult for people around us. Practicing peaceful non violence on and off the mat better serves us and the world around us. Martin Luther King was able to do this even in the most difficult of social situations. My hope is that all people everywhere can be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace and that in yogis this peace is manifested in mindful, non-violent practice on and off the mat.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surrender Experienced as Ease

I remind myself as I head into a few months of heavy travel of my ongoing lesson of learning to surrender. I’m a planner with every idea of how I expect my travel to be and my life to unfold. I expect airlines to transport me on schedule and on time so I can catch connecting flights. I expect menu items in foreign countries to be served the way I interpreted the menu. Of course none of these things happens often. More often than not travel goes awry and my plans get turned upside down. But travel is trivial. I’ve been fortunate to have only a couple of big life crises, way fewer than some people I know. Any of these events offer lessons to surrender.

I cannot control everything and there are times that I need to let go of my expectation. One day I’ll remember that it is my response to the event that causes me more suffering than the event itself. My pattern is to struggle against the disappointing event and to make it right. I argue to make the other person see my perspective and change course. I argue with the airline ticket agent even though he has no authority to find another plane. But because I have no control over these circumstances my only real course of action is to surrender. Only after I finally surrender my struggle do I finally find ease and peace. The outcome might not be what I wanted but in the end what will happen will happen. I may as long go with it and accept the outcome.

I find hip openers to be a great way to work with surrender on my mat and I hope that practice there helps me to surrender to life circumstances out of my control. Of course my dear yoga students practiced lots of hip openers last week because that is what was on my mind. For most people eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) is an excellent example of surrendering into the pose. In this deep hip opener people often tense the muscles around the hip and pelvis rather than relaxing them. In fighting against the pose they feel the challenge of the hip external rotation opposing hip internal rotators that are tight from sitting much of the day. People often feel themselves further opposing the pose by tensing through the jaw, lips, shoulders, and other muscles nowhere near the hips. This week we practiced exhaling away that tension. We tried to stay with the pose by surrendering into it, feeling length in the hip muscles and ease with the result. If that is an easy lesson then try it in double pigeon pose (knee to ankle pose)!

Perhaps posting this blog will help me to surrender to travel snafus. Who knows how well I’ll implement my own recommendations to stay present and find ease by surrendering to the circumstances. I know I will try. May each of you find ease and peace as you let go and surrender to the challenges the holiday season brings.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Facts about the Common Cold

Winter on its way so marketing for various cold remedies is beginning to proliferate. Many products claim to prevent or cure the common cold and still more claim to reduce the length of time one might experience cold symptoms. It’s time to consider what the common cold is and what one can to do about it.

The common cold is caused by viruses, most frequently by rhinoviruses. Viruses are microbes composed of nucleic acid and protein.  Unlike most microbes, viruses replicate only in their host’s cells. The virus is transmitted from one infected person to the other by contact with mucous membranes. No one ever has caught a common cold by being exposed to the elements. Going skating without hats and gloves and getting wet feet traipsing through snow will not cause someone to get a cold. The virus infects a new host when it comes in contact with that person through the nose and mouth. We catch a cold by being in close contact with someone with a cold or with items (like door knobs) handled by someone with a cold.

Because a virus is not a bacterium, antibiotics and antibacterial agents do not kill viruses. Hand sanitizers will not kill viruses that cause the common cold. The best way to wash one’s hands to reduce the spread of the infection is with soap and water. Some vaccinations and antiviral drugs have been developed to kill some viruses (for instance herpes and hepatitis) but these agents are specific to certain viruses. None has yet been developed to cure common colds, in part because so many different viruses can cause the common cold and the viruses vary from one year to the next.

No remedy on the market has been shown to cure the common cold. None has been shown to reduce the length of time one has a cold once infected with the virus. No remedy has been shown to reduce likelihood of showing symptoms of the virus once infected. Products marketed for these purposes are no more effective than placebo. Their claims are not valid any more than a placebo effect.

The best way to reduce cold symptoms is to rest and take pain killers (aspirin or ibuprofen) to feel better. Reducing swollen mucous membranes by using saline sprays, drinking hot liquids, and taking hot baths will help to reduce congestion. Menthol lozenges and honey will help to soothe a scratchy throat.

The best way to protect oneself from getting a cold in the first place is to wash hands frequently with soap and water (antibacterial hand sanitizer will reduce bacterial transmission, not viral) and to keep one’s hands away from the face. General good health achieved by eating a balanced diet, reducing stress and exercising, will help support the immune system. Overloading on vitamin pills has not been shown to reduce risk of getting a cold. At best taking too many units of vitamins will just make one’s urine extra expensive (vitamins such as B complex and C are excreted through the urine). At worst, some vitamins are stored in the body and can lead to vitamin toxicity when taken in doses higher than recommended (vitamins A, D, E and K).

Of course not all symptoms are indicative of the cold. Although a cough, sore throat, sneezing and stuffy nose are common symptoms of a cold, it is unlikely that fever and chills are related to the common cold. These are more likely flu symptoms. Some antiviral agents and vaccinations are available for certain strains of the flu. Making an appointment with a physician is unnecessary for the common cold, however, you might consider making an appointment if you suspect you have bronchitis, sinusitis, an ear infection or pneumonia. These ailments are caused by bacterial infections that would respond to antibiotics. Generally you will want to seek medical attention if your symptoms worsen or don’t get any better after a week or so, if a fever won’t break, if you experience shortness of breath, or if your face is painful around the sinuses.

The common cold is annoying and it would be fantastic if there were a cure. But the best we can do is stay healthy, keep our germs to ourselves, and rest and stay home if we have a cold. Good luck for a healthy cold season!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sneaky Absolutely Do Not Eat Non-Food

Three categories of things (I won’t call them foods) found in grocery stores and restaurants posing as food are not food and have no role in any diet. The first of these categories of things can be tricky and difficult to spot. They can end up in your processed food without your realizing it unless you are diligent and know what to look for.
I’m speaking of trans fats. Trans fats are mostly manufactured. Small amounts do occur naturally in some animal products (meat and dairy), but the vast majority occurs in processed foods. Trans fats are created when liquid vegetable oils (such as safflower and sunflower) are processed by hydrogenation into solid fats (margarine and shortening). This means that food companies add hydrogen to the liquid oil. Food manufacturers prefer adding hydrogen to liquid oil to extend shelf life of their products. They are useful in fast food chains because trans fats withstand higher heating temperatures used in fryers.

Most types of fats occur naturally and are required for a healthy diet. The FDA recommends up to 30% of one’s calories be composed of fats (although other nutritional sources recommend smaller percentages, as little as 15%, of fats). But not all fats are the same. Monounsaturated fats are healthiest for one’s heart. They can be found in olive, canola, sunflower, safflower, avocado, almond, peanut, corn, sesame, rice bran, and soybean oils. Saturated fats are not as heart healthy and are found in animal products. The oils that provide saturated fats include coconut and palm oils.

Sunflower oil in its natural liquid form represents the healthier oil option. It’s when it is hydrogenated that it is trouble. The research is unequivocal: trans fats are not good for your health. Although as a monounsaturated fat, sunflower oil can reduce your risk for heart disease, once it is hydrogenated into trans fat it increases coronary artery disease. Trans fats increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Trans fats increase LDL (bad cholesterol) and reduce HDL (the good kind). They are even less healthy than saturated fats which increase LDL but don’t have a negative effect on HDL.

Current guidelines recommend limiting trans fats to less than 1% of one’s daily caloric intake (about 2 grams in a 2000 calorie diet). Unfortunately, a product can legally be labeled as having no trans fat if the product contains up to 0.5 gram of trans fat per serving. That means that even a cautious consumer may end up with trans fats in her diet. Eating four of such labeled products can result in one eating 2 grams of trans fat without realizing it.

So how does a health-minded consumer select foods that are unlikely to have trans fats? I recommend two methods of evaluating food for trans fats. First, know the kinds of foods that are likely to contain trans fats. They are likely in fried foods, baked goods, cookies, crackers, stick margarines, chips, and microwave popcorn. Avoiding processed foods such as these will limit the amount of trans fats in your diet. If you do want to consume a product from this list then look beyond the nutrition label. Remember that the nutrition label needs to list the percentage of trans fat but it could contain half a gram and still say 0% on the label. I recommend reading the ingredient list instead. Avoid products that list partially hydrogenated anything. Avoid products that list shortening in their ingredient list. In restaurants, avoid fried foods and pastries, pie crusts and biscuits. Opt for natural food sources rather than processed foods. Prepare meals and desserts in your own kitchen where you can control the contents. Just avoid trans fats completely to care for your health.

Oh, and the other two non-foods posing as foods in grocery stores and restaurants are easier to identify and to eliminate. They are: processed meats (anything cured, smoked, deli meats, jerky, hot dogs, sausages, etc) and sodas (full sugar and diet alike).

Monday, October 31, 2011

Take Nothing too Seriously

What better day than Halloween to remember to make time for play? We often get caught up with all the responsibilities we have with our many roles at home and work. Even on the yoga mat we tend to be serious as we are mindfully moving body with the breath. But we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems by holding a difficult pose for 10 breaths. The best we can do is to be present as we attempt every pose we practice. We need to laugh and be silly when it doesn’t quite turn out as we expected. So this week we are finding more playfulness in our practice. It’s difficult to move from ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) to parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon pose) and back again. It’s easy to fall out and it’s ok to laugh when we do! There is no reason to get upset about losing balance during the difficult transition. In today’s classes I’ve invited students to try to let the breath lead them through the transitions, but to be playful when they fall out.

Playfulness may also help us explore new expressions of poses we haven’t tried before. We may be more likely to try to grab our toe in vasisthasana (side plank pose) if we approach it with more silliness. A silly attitude gives us permission to not get it “right” whereas when we approach the pose with complete seriousness we may not even try to get into a pose. We have no way of knowing if we can even do the more advanced pose unless we take the risk and give it a try. Sometimes a little silliness helps lighten our mood and just give it a try.

If yoga isn’t about silliness, it is about the process without regard to the outcome. Vrschikasana (scorpion pose) is a difficult inversion. It isn’t a pose anyone will get into and hold the first time she tries. Approaching it with all seriousness might inhibit us to try the pose in the first place whereas accepting the practice as a process releases us to let go of the outcome and have fun trying.

I’ve used today’s yoga classes as examples, but anyone can substitute this week’s life challenges in place of parivritta ardha chandrasana, vasisthasana, or vrschikasana. The only way to develop personally and professionally is to try something new, slightly scary perhaps. And to take that first step often means letting go of expected outcome and just be playful!

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Living with Intention

Having been an academic forever, autumn is to me what New Year’s is to most people I know. Autumn is my time to reassess where I’ve been and where I’m going. With that comes reflection on what is my personal mission statement. I consider three values that I want to exude in my thoughts, words, and actions.

The yoga mat is a good place to consider intention. I invited students to set an intention for their practice and to find it there in every asana (pose) during the class. Then throughout the entire practice, I kept prompting them to return to their intention. The intention could be any value meaningful to them, perhaps strength, flexibility, balance, patience, acceptance, compassion, presence, generosity, awareness, mindfulness, the list is limitless.

Identifying the intention is often easy. The difficulty comes when we try to live that intention. It’s hard enough to remember to return to it during a 75-minute yoga class; remembering to live it each moment off the mat seems especially difficult.

Take one of my intentions, for instance: compassion. Sounds like a lovely intention to live by and I’d like to think that I do. But I’m human and from time to time I find myself forgetting to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be. On my mat it might be the day that I feel especially tired and worn out. I don’t feel up to par yet I push myself on my mat. On these days a slower practice of restorative poses or more folds and twists might be in order. But forgetting to have compassion for my body I push through a demanding practice of standing balances, arm balances, and inversions. Then I think – oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be emanating compassion. That probably should start with compassion for myself. Forgetting my intention to be compassionate can show up during any practice as boredom in a relatively easy pose like bhujangasana (cobra pose) or as ambition in a deeper pose such as urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose).

I find even more opportunities and challenges to live as the compassionate being I aspire to be when I’m off the mat. That seemingly stupid and inconsiderate motorist driving in the bicycle lane deserves the compassion I intend to convey. But I forget. I’m not mindful of my intent and I resort to my automatic reactions emanating from my anger.( You can guess what those words and actions are; I don’t think I need to be explicit here!) Some days it takes me hours to reflect on my emotions. Other days my practice serves me and I am more aware that the words, thoughts, and actions I had in immediate response to the driver are not representing the way I intend to live. I am able to imagine the driver being distracted by illness or tragedy or just being late for an appointment. I become more aware of the driver’s need for love, acceptance, and respect just as any person desires. I become mindful of all the other perspectives that may contribute to the driver’s actions. I find the opportunity to thank the driver for helping me to live my intention.

Living with intention requires mindfulness and it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding and certainly worth returning to each and every moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Few Absolutes

True confession – I, the vegan of nearly 30 years, ate a marshmallow the other night. I didn’t plan to. I’d thought I’d just eat a graham cracker as my treat when everyone else ate s’mores. But I actually ate a marshmallow inside the graham cracker for the first time in decades. Marshmallows have more sugar and corn syrup than anything I ever eat, and gelatin which I “never” eat. It tasted ok; it tasted like nostalgia for childhood. It isn’t something I’ll do again for decades, but it was a fun evening and the marshmallow was part of the fun. Following up on my last blog, my choice wasn’t too much or too little, it was just right for the time.

Few food choices should be absolute. Most people know how they should eat but when they eat without being mindful of their choices their diets don’t reflect what they know. A little extra sugar at a party is fine as long as one makes the choice to eat that cake and ice cream mindfully, enjoying each bite, because it isn’t a daily indulgence. Less healthy options can be part of a healthy lifestyle and treats should be included in one’s diet as special, not regular food items.

Healthy diets need balance and moderation. It isn’t accurate to classify foods as either “good” or “bad” with two exceptions. No person should ever consume trans fats or processed meats. The former is indisputably related to heart disease and the latter to cancers of the pancreas, stomach, colon, breast and prostate. Those are two absolutes that should undeniably be avoided. But other food products are not as absolute, certainly not the way fad diets suggest. (Tobacco products are a third absolute as they are irrefutably related to oral and lung cancers and heart disease but it they aren’t food products.)

If it were easy to select healthy foods to maintain a healthy diet, then diet programs and products wouldn’t be a billion-dollar business. Still, informed consumers can make choices and will know to be skeptical about any diet plan that relies completely on absolutes. A program that requires “only” eating their packaged foods is as much a red flag as a program that requires completely cutting out an entire food group such as carbohydrates or eating only raw foods.

A diet that cuts out carbohydrates cannot be sustained so these dieters regain the weight they may have lost when they begin the program. Carbohydrates do not make people fat, in fact, they are necessary for a healthy diet. People gain weight by eating too many calories. People that are overweight tend to eat more carbohydrate calories than are necessary mostly because they are prominent in prepared foods and chain and fast food restaurants because they are inexpensive and easy to produce. Carbs are not bad! They just need to be eaten in moderation as a part of a balanced diet.

Non-fat diets are a fallacy. It is impossible to completely cut fats. Nor should one want to. Fats are necessary to metabolize vitamins. In fact, vitamins in tomatoes are unavailable without added fat. Although trans fats are not good choices, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in the forms of canola and olive oils, nuts, and fish are healthy and even reduce risk for cardio vascular disease. Saturated fats in the form of beef and dairy are no more caloric than the healthier fat options but are less healthful and increase cardiovascular risk so should be eaten more sparingly.  

Raw diets are not all good! Many vegetables need to be cooked for the nutrients to be available to humans. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage are among the vegetables that offer little nutrition when eaten raw. Raw diets aren’t necessarily all bad, but the diets need to be considered part of an overall nutritious diet, including healthy foods that are cooked to make them nutritious.

With few exceptions, foods aren’t all good or all bad. Most are just right and even less healthful options can be part of a healthy diet when eaten sparingly as treats. Consider a few of your indulgences and plan on fitting them into a healthy lifestyle without remorse.