Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Just a little meditation

Every morning after asana practice, Richard would have us do sitting meditation for at least 10 minutes. I'd like to continue that now that I'm back home (here’s why), but it's HARD to create new habits and I find myself falling back into my old routines.

It’s already known that long-term meditation improves concentration, attention, mood, and stress levels. But what about those of us who just do it for a few days here and there? Does that help us focus our attention, limit mental chatter, or improve functioning? Or is it something we would have to keep up for months/years before it would be of any help?

Good news! This study just came out showing that short-term meditation (4 days for 20 minutes/day) has measurable benefits.

They looked at 65 people with no prior meditation experience, splitting them into two groups: one group did mindfulness meditation for four day (20 minutes/day), while the control group listened to The Hobbit on audiotape.

The meditation group had the following benefits when compared with controls:
  • Decreased fatigue
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved attention
  • Improved working memory
  • Improved executive functioning 
That’s after only 4 days! This makes me wonder about other changes might happen in the body after just four days of meditation: Blood flow in the brain? Cortisol? Inflammation? Oxidative stress levels? Telomeres/telomerase?

It's nice to know that even if I don't sit and meditate every day, at least a little is still helpful.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Practice... Practice all the time.

What a month!
Departing words from Richard: Practice... Practice all the time.

And now back home to Philly life!! My main projects, or "big rocks" as explained in this zen habits post:
  1. Finish research study (complete enrollment and analyze our data)
  2. Apply to residency programs (where do I want to be, what kind of program do I want?)
  3. Teach yoga in high school summer program

    Saturday, June 26, 2010

    "No coffee, no ashtanga yoga"

    Food/diet has not been discussed much at all, so I asked Richard about it. Yes, diet is important... diet is extremely important because it affects how you feel. 

    But the reason he doesn't bring it up much? People become fanatic about it and quickly go to extremes (as a teacher, you have to be careful not to encourage this). 

    Being vegetarian and eating “sattvic” foods feels good, but you also can’t tell people this - it’s something they have to come to on their own.

    I then asked him if he drinks coffee. He smiled and said, “Of course. It’s part of the lineage.” And he quoted Sharath saying, “No coffee, no ashtanga yoga.”

    Music to my ears!!! :)

    Friday, June 25, 2010

    The sign of a great teacher

    Richard today during his lecture on "spiritual materialism" and the "zero-experience" among other things:
    “Please don’t agree with what I say. I could be saying anything. You are all so gullible.
    To me, this is a sign of a great teacher... and I wish we heard doctors saying it more often!

    Teachers (doctors) should encourage their students (patients) to ask questions, to use their intelligence, to be curious, and to challenge what others state as truth.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Radiant tranquility

    One of my favorite Richard-isms of the day:

    In meditation, “you want the alertness of having just had a triple espresso, with the absolute calmness of deep sleep. A radiant tranquility.”

    I'm nowhere close to this but I think I can imagine it in theory! And I'm realizing that sitting meditation is a great place to practice this frame of mind so that we have it when we really need it (like during arguments with loved ones, being stuck in traffic, frantically working on a deadline for work, juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities, illness, etc).

    I've also been thinking about my friends from medical school who started their intern year in the hospital this week (which I’ll be doing a year from now). Being able to work with radiant tranquility would really come in handy.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Why I will do it again

    I made it through the meditation weekend! Nothing terrible happened (actually, absolutely nothing happened), but I did learn that I’m clearly not as advanced in my sitting practice as others. My roommate came home saying she felt fantastic with more mental clarity and more physical energy...  really?!! I think I felt the exact opposite.

    A few lessons learned:
    • I hold a lot of tension in my jaw. Every time I checked in on it, it was clenched! Smiling gently helped release it temporarily. (Sitting meditation may look relaxing from the outside, but it was definitely causing me stress...  wonder what my cortisol level was.)
    • Practicing asana before sitting definitely helps. I practiced in the early morning on day #2 and found sitting much easier and more comfortable than day #1.
    • My mind cannot relax if my body is not comfortable. If my foot is asleep or if I have an itch that wont go away, that is the only thing I can think about... so I would do whatever it took to be comfortable.
    Why I will do it again (but in shorter intervals... probably not for entire days at a time!):
    • Time and space with no distractions. It’s a rare thing these days to have time alone with only our mind. No other distractions whatsoever… no phone, no emails, and no responsibilities.
    • Reminder of impermanence. Sitting and watching our thoughts and emotions, we begin to see how impermanent they are. Fleeting desires. Fleeting anger. Annoyances that come and go. The temporary nature of pain and suffering. 
    • Reveals mental habits. We can observe and learn the habits of our mind: thoughts that repeat themselves, memories that re-play, worries or anxieties that surface, future events that we plan and envision. Once they are identified, they can be better controlled.
    • Practice practice practice. As our meditation teacher told us, this sitting practice is just like first learning the Sun Salutations in asana practice: first we emulate where we sit there and “pretend” to be meditating, and then with practice we eventually begin to discover it for ourselves (and sitting meditation eventually becomes enjoyable).
    • It's about the process. My struggles with this are all part of the process. Discomfort, frustration, anger... it's all part of it. Just like when we're working on a new challenging posture, it's about the process, and not, as Richard would say, "the hallucination of a goal." 

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    Meditation lessons

    We are spending the weekend meditating. Both Saturday and Sunday... all day. I am nervous.

    Some meditation lessons that I'm trying to remember:
    • Take care of duties first (to your children, relationships, family, job, etc): Once your ducks are in order, then a contemplative practice becomes easy. Richard’s example: Don’t leave your baby with a stranger so that you can fly across the world to go to a yoga/meditation retreat! Duty first.
    • Be simple: Just sit and be comfortable (in whatever posture works for you... and yes, a chair is okay!).
    • Sit up straight: “Sit as if you were awake!” Richard says. “If sitting with a bad posture, you will become encrusted with old thoughts… It’s impossible to be depressed if you sit up straight.”
    • Avoid fidgeting: Fidgeting is the mind trying to distract itself.
    • Let thoughts come and go: Observe them.
    • Do not repress anger and desire (which will arise): These are extremely useful! But unfortunately, these emotions are usually attached to an object (i.e. a person), and then they become destructive. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Hold your anger.” Be mindful of these emotions/passions, and then they can be transformed (and detached from the object). 
    • Become a "residualist": Enjoy the “residue,” seeing perfection in the imperfections. Richard said, “What other people find ordinary and boring, we find fascinating and beautiful.”
    Hope these help get me through the weekend...

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Everyone is a student

    “Yoga is contagious. It creates a flame - a fire. If you hang out with people who are on fire, you will catch on fire.” ~Richard Freeman

    Yesterday, we started talking about teaching principles. The first principle: Do not think of yourself as a teacher. Everyone is a student.

    “In fact, if you think you are a teacher – very dangerous,” Richard said.

    This seems to apply to teachers of anything, and I think especially important for physicians to remember (where there can be a lot of ego). As Richard was explaining, a teacher should be saying: “Look with me at this cool thing” rather than “Look how cool I look doing this.”

    He went on to say that teachers are not transmitting knowledge so much as teaching a tool: the tool of an inquiring, open mind. They should be “lighting a flame” in students.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    The 5 categories of mental chatter

    “For most of us, our minds are a little bit dull. If only there were a mind-sharpener we could stick our heads into.” 
    ~Richard Freeman

    In my attempts to be more mindful, I’ve been thinking about the 5 categories of mental chatter (vrttis) discussed in the Yoga Sutras (chapter I, verse 6):
    1. Right knowledge: a mental image correctly based on facts (i.e. you see a car and make a mental image of a car)
    2. Wrong knowledge: a mental image incorrectly based on facts (i.e. you see a mirage in desert and think it's water)
    3. Imagination: a creation of the mind (i.e. reading a novel, making up a story, daydreams)
    4. Sleep: absence of content in the mind (your mind is working but you don’t remember it)
    5. Memory: mind re-experiencing previous experiences 
    These 5 categories are meant to describe all of the mental images we are ever going to have! 

    I’ve been trying to categorize my mental chatter as it comes up during practice... and yes, so far seems that each one can be classified under one of those 5 categories (most distracting thoughts are re-runs of imagination and memory). 

    The questions is: how do we quiet these down? According to the Sutras, the answer lies in this (chapter I, verse 12):

    Persistent practice and non-attachment... might be the closest we have to a "mind-sharpener." 

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    The art of action

    Rainy, cold Saturday in Boulder…. a day of coffee, quiet, books. I’m struggling with feelings of inertia as I start to work on my residency application. A long process is ahead which is both exciting and onerous... light and heavy... prana and apana.

    Richard often says during class that: “Yoga is the art of action.”

    The art of action
    ... action in what looks like stillness. The balancing of prana and apana. Getting us out of our inertial tendencies, breaking our habits.

    He described the yoga practice as a “container.” A container in which we create a burning and a fire within us as we begin to see the impermanence: the impermanence of our pain, suffering, moods, happiness, heat, cold, etc. The impermanence of our bodies.

    During our yoga practice, we are closing the lid on ourselves – like closing the lid on a pot of hot water – and we squirm until we are soft. It is not a system of escape, but it is "a system of awakening."

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    The dullest state

    With a tired body and several nights of poor sleep, I’ve been trying to remember this:

    “In your dullest state, you can still meditate. Most of us have no choice. You are more than asleep. Your body is like a lead balloon filled with oil… If you see that mind arising, that is meditating. See a dull mind. Don’t pull or push it. Then it transforms. It’s when it’s not seen mindfully that it stays.” ~Richard Freeman

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Practicing death

    At the end of the practice today, as we were moving towards savasana, Mary talked about how Plato wrote that “We should all be practicing death more often.” So that we can be conscious of our last breath.

    I never thought about it in this way before, but this is what we are doing every day at the end of practice. As we take savasana (corpse pose), we are practicing death.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    "You should be experimenting"

    Today, we started a discussion of the Yoga Sutras (this is a great book by I.K. Taimni - very clear and helpful commentary):
    I like what it says about yoga being a living and practical science:

    “Yoga has always been a living Science in the East and it has had an unbroken succession of living experts who continually verify by their own experiments and experiences the basic truths of this Science… It is only when a Science is divorced completely from its practical application that it tends to lose itself in a morass of words which have lost their meaning and relation with the actual facts.”

    Several times in the past week Richard Freeman has mentioned the importance of experimentation, play, and avoiding orthodoxy (Ashtangis have a tendency towards orthodoxy!):

    "You should be experimenting. If you are too orthodox, you can’t experiment... Play in the pose."

    Monday, June 7, 2010

    The game of yoga

    We did a lot of work on adjustments today (much easier for me to grasp than our discussion of the Sankhya Karika dualistic philosophy, hah).

    My favorite was the “sacral boot” (easy for the adjuster to do, and feels great for the adjustee):

    During our lunch break a few of us went to a field for Acroyoga – WOW! A whole new way of moving, feeling, thinking… I LOVED it.

    While we were playing, a guy came up to us and told us about "Synergy” where they bring Acroyoga to communities that don’t have access to/can’t afford yoga. He said it works as a great community-building activity. I LOVE this idea! How about bringing THAT to high schools in Philly?! 

    And finally, wisdom from Richard today on the “game” of yoga:

    “Yoga is a game. You think ‘If I can just grab my toe, then I will be happy.’ So you work and work and finally grab your toe. But you’re still not happy. Then you think, “Ok, if I can get my elbow to my toe, then I’ll be happy.’ You work for 10 years and finally bring your elbow to your toe... but you're still not happy. (Your armpit to your toe, your ear to toe, etc… still not happy). Yoga simplifies the way our minds work. It reveals the emptiness. We see the games our minds play.”

    Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Practicing all the time

    Sunday night. The end of a wonderful weekend exploring Boulder, hiking, doing homework, drinking coffee, and practicing (all the time).

    I love this idea of the Chautauqua (where we hiked the flatirons):

    "A Chautauqua is an organized gathering intended to introduce people to great ideas, new ideas and issues of public interest. It often involves speeches, music and other types of performances, as well as discussions and classes. Chautauquas were prominent in towns across the United States at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, only three Chautauquas remain, including the one in Boulder." 

    And few thoughts from Richard that I were on my mind during the hike:

    “Mindfulness is the metaphorical giving of space for whatever is arising.”

    “If you don’t know what to do when you meditate, sit down and listen.”

    “The mind is like the sky -- it is a space that accommodates. Birds, lightening fill the sky...  and it is made beautiful by these theatrics happening in it.” 

    Friday, June 4, 2010

    Function better in society

    Today someone asked Richard how we are to balance a job/work with this yoga/mindfulness practice.

    Richard’s response was that yoga should not turn us into spaced-out hippies! “This practice should make us function better in society. You become grounded. You don’t space out.”

    And importantly, we need teachers to help keep us grounded. When students would go to Guruji and say things like, “Oooh Guruji, I feel the kundalini energy rising through my throat chakra blah blah blah,” Guruji would respond: “Go get me 6 pounds of carrots and a bucket of water.” Or if a student said, “Ooh Guruji, every time I close my eyes I see light,” Guruji would say, “Don’t worry, it will go away.” Hah!

    The point: Our yoga practice should increase our groundedness, increase our humility, and improve the functioning of our mind for living in this world.

    He ended today’s session with: “In addition to your homework, practice continuously. All day and all night. Whatever you are doing, practice. Practice mindfulness.”

    Thursday, June 3, 2010

    The dark side of yoga

    After each morning asana practice, we do chanting and philosophy. I really love the philosophy discussions and I’m trying so hard to love the chanting.

    I began to appreciate it more after Richard explained what it means when we say “Shanti shanti shanti” (these come at the end of many chants). Shanti is translated as “Peace” and we say it three times because each shanti represents one of the 3 causes of suffering:
    1. Suffering from the self (our bodies and minds): Itching, headache, muscle aches, pain, being too hot/ too cold, tired.
    2. Suffering from other beings: Spouse, girlfriend/boyfriend, mother/father, sister/brother, children, animals (i.e. mosquitos), germs, traffic.
    3. “Divine suffering” (meaning both things that we inherit in our genes and things in nature that are beyond our control): Deep tendencies such as pride, lust, greed, desire for power. Large weather patterns and catastrophes such as draught, wind, tornados, earthquakes. 
    Ok, suffering I can identify with! This explanation made me much more engaged in the whole chanting practice.

    Then we began a discussion of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (written between 1350-1550 AD - “hot off the press” as far as scriptures go):

    The purpose of this book is to teach the technology of Hatha yoga and to avoid the mistakes.

    The mistakes are very common. Richard talked about the “dark side” of yoga – when people use the practice of yoga in order to gain something material.

    The example he gave was a person is living a life of “normal mediocrity” who then begins practicing Ashtanga yoga. He gets really healthy and starts to feel strong. Then he walks down the street feeling strong, feeling superior, feeling powerful, and “knocking people over” just because they are not strong and they don’t do Ashtanga. This person then gets authorized to teach. His ego inflates and he makes the mistakes teenage boys make (like getting romantically entangled with students). He feels too powerful to follow yamas and niyamas (the ethical and moral disciplines), and things subtly begin to fall apart. Yoga takes a “sinister” turn without him even being aware of it.

    And this is why you need a guru/teacher. The practice of yoga can cause a dangerous inflation of the ego, which actually ends up increasing our own suffering.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Designed to be difficult

    We started the day again by slowly going through the first few standing postures. Richard joked: “My goal is to make yoga so boring, that sitting meditation becomes exciting.”

    And gosh, sitting meditation is definitely something I need to work on. We had our first session at the Boulder Shambhala Center today. 

    The whole point is to become more mindful of our thoughts. Unfortunately, my thoughts today were dominated by: This is uncomfortable. My left leg is completely numb. These might be the worst pins and needles I've ever had. I can't wiggle my toes. Please ring the bell soon. I think I might be having a panic attack. Why can't I just sit still. Do people seriously do this for days at a time...

    Ughhhh!! I hope I get better at this!

    Richard explained that this practice is designed to get us out of our habits and routines. It is designed to be difficult. It is the foundation for doing all other yoga correctly. And yes, it is humiliating! He said:

    “Yoga is the most embarrassing thing. It is the unfolding of your mental process. It is embarrassing because we see we have an infinitely big ego that is unlimitedly stupid.”

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010

    A good foundation

    “Forget asana, all of our bodies fall apart anyway. Pranayama is where it’s at!”
    ~Richard Freeman today

    This is my first time meeting Richard in person – wow! I was struck by how grounded, funny, knowledgeable, articulate, humble, self-deprecating, and patient he is.

    41 students packed into the shala here - literally mat to mat. A surprising number flew in from other countries (Sweden, Japan, England, Russia, Croatia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, Egypt)… amazing!

    We each got a notebook with the syllabus/readings, plus these five books:

    The day started with a two-hour asana practice but we only made it to the second standing pose – there is an incredible amount to say about the tiniest movements! Then we had chanting and philosophy talk.

    We are starting slowly and laying the foundations because as Richard says, “A good foundation will give you a sense of humor to your own folly” (and folly is inevitable because ego always eventually gets in the way).

    We have A LOT of reading to do. Tonight’s assignment includes:
    • Kena Upanisad (this is what Pattabhi Jois would tell people to read if they asked him what Ashtanga yoga is about)
    • Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, Ch 4, 5th Brahmana
    • Ch 1 and 2 of The Bhagavad Gita
    • Introductory essay to The Principle Upanisads (this is 140 pages, hah) 
    So excited to finally be reading these, but these texts are HARD and I’m struggling through slowly. Thinking about some things Richard said today:

    “Those who don’t understand understand. Those who understand don’t understand.”

    “Practice all day. All day every day, all night every night."

    “The questioning mind is the open mind. Only beginning students come up with answers.”

    “Intelligence is questioning.”

    “Keep the mind open, focus the mind through questioning. That is yoga.”