Caution: Contents Under Pressure

 

I’ve been thinking about this one all month. Which, I guess is only about 12 days so far, but, I have little notes all over my desk. Remember to mention this, bookmark that, etc. In other words, this post isn’t going to be under 500 words.

February has been declared heart health month by the American Heart Association (AHA). Earlier in the month, I got to go to our local elementary school and teach yoga to the fourth grades, so I emphasized poses that stretched and opened the heart space. At the end of class, the regular teacher made announcements about Jump Rope for Heart, which was the next special program they were participating in and an activity that is good for strengthening the heart. Here is a question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, stretching or strengthening?

Usually, when we think about heart health, we associate it with “cardio” something like jumping your heart out for an hour, or for those that go to gyms, it’s the tread mill, stair climber, aerobics class. Maybe you run outdoors. Or you might be a swimmer. But the idea of cardio is that your heart has to work hard, that it has to achieve a certain percentage of maximum output, which you check from a chart on the wall or an app on your phone. We like numbers: calories burned, VO2max, miles or laps completed. Maybe I should clarify what I mean by “we” here, because my grandmother, who had to raise a family of 5 during the Great Depression, liked other numbers: quarts of tomatoes put up, pounds of meat in the freezer, dozens of cookies in the oven. Her idea of heart health was to simply stay fed with whatever is at hand and your heart will keep ticking.

My grandmother’s diet,which included sugar, saturated fats, red meat, and processed vegetables (although the processing was done at home), would not be declared “heart healthy” by the AHA. I never saw my grandmother drink a green drink, nor did she even once consider vegetarianism, and yet she lived past 90. So did my great grandmother. Neither ever, ever did a cleanse. And I also never saw either of those two women run. Never. Not a scientific test group, I know. But still.

There are changes in how we perceive healthy eating. This morning, NPR had a report on whole fat milk, a real no-no to women of my generation. The naturopath that I work with recommends saturated fats. I have friends that are paleo eaters and those that swear by veganism. I once saw a Facebook post on paleoveganism…so here is the other question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, the diet of my grandmother or a specialty health diet determined by the latest nutritional advice?

And although I am going to ponder those two questions, I’m not going to answer them. Really, it is impossible. If you know about the scientific process, you know that there are just too many variables within humanity to say anything for sure about how to exercise or how to eat. But, this much I can say for sure, because the science is sound and the logic is pretty clear: nothing works well under pressure. (Not even pressure cookers. I remember my mom’s blowing its little spinning thingy off many times and put a hole right in our kitchen ceiling.)

If you really want to help your heart, take off the pressure. Whether that pressure comes from tight muscles surrounding it, overworking the heart muscle itself, poor circulation in the extremities, constant worry about diet, or unresolved stress in your life (watch this TED Talk for cool insight to stress). Any scientific experiment starts with a laboratory full of equipment. You need to understand how the basic set up works. Your body is your lab. Do you understand, really, how the equipment works? Although it far less complicated than understanding the role of cholesterol in your body (which a surprising number of people claim to know), the basic functioning of the human laboratory is pretty misunderstood.

I’m going to set up the experiment. I need the following items: blood, lymph, and electricity. I’ll put the blood in about a million test tubes and the lymph in the same amount test tubes. I need a way to get blood in and lymph out–the electricity will do nicely, trading one test tube of blood for one of lymph. I need to have good alignment of the test tubes, too. If I don’t set it up right, I’ll end up with too much of either blood or lymph in an area. The pressure in that area will increase. Test tubes will start to crash, maybe even break, spilling blood or lymph all over my lab. And then I’ll have to clean up the mess. The mess will resemble high blood pressure and inflammation. If there is breakage of the test tubes containing blood, the mess will be a problem of malnutrition, since the blood isn’t getting to where it needs to be. If a test tube containing lymph breaks, the mess will be more of a toxic problem, since lymph carries waste products. What matters in this experiment is how I moved the test tubes around. All of them, since any one of them can start to create havoc in my lab.

In yoga, we call the flow of blood, lymph, and electricity “prana.” In a human performance lab, the terms are more technical, but essentially the gist is this: you have to flow. All of you. No test tube is unnecessary and none are more important than the others.

So what is better, strength or stretching? Well, does all of your body move with ease while walking or standing? Do you have any tension in your body? That is an area of pressure. Blood is not going to flow well into a tight area or an underused one. Regarding diet, most likely in our society you are getting enough nutrition in your mouth, but your cells might still be starving. If you don’t move the nutrients around to all your parts, then the question of nutrition becomes moot. Can you move your little toe? No? Then even if you drank the best green drink this morning, your pinky toe is still starving. Besides your pinky toe, what else haven’t you moved lately? Anything that isn’t moving with ease is increasing the pressure gradient for your heart. And even if you do the hardest cardio workout ever, if you do it in the same position you spend the rest of your day in, you are just increasing the pressure on your heart muscle and not actually feeding the other muscles of your body. Crash.

What about clean diets? No matter how careful you are to remove toxins from your diet, cells are constantly metabolizing within your body and metabolism produces waste. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste and it works without a central beating heart, depending solely on the electricity of localized muscular movement. I repeat, no heart. The good news is that a large number of lymphatic drainage points are in your groin and armpit, so if you are extending your legs and arms regularly, there is no buildup of toxic waste. Oh. Wait. You sit a lot and then go to spinning classes, metabolizing a days worth of calories, but never fully extending your limbs behind you. The bad news is that a build up of lymph generally or locally (in the nodes) creates a toxic, acidic atmosphere which will alter cellular reproduction at that site. Crash and burn.

This is sort of a downer post. But I’m going to end it with happy news! To maintain heart health, cellular health, and overall functioning of your body, move in different ways throughout the day so that your test tubes are aligned and being moved in and out of each area of your lab, err, body. It really is easier than going to the gym for a kick-your-butt-training session. Or learning how to ferment your own ghee. Are you sitting? Stand up and stretch. Kneel for a while at your desk. Go out for a walk and focus on reaching back with your arms and legs–you are doing extensions and draining those lymph nodes of toxins! Want to improve your cardiovascular health? Move your toes. You can do that while you are sitting. You just need to take your shoes off. You don’t have to move harder, you just need to move more. In fact, moving harder might cause a crash in an area already under pressure.

All your test tubes are very important to your human lab. Notice if any areas are under pressure and avoid a crash simply by moving the blood in and lymph out. You provide the needed electricity just by moving your muscles. You don’t need a special app, an expensive gym membership, or the latest advice from the AHA. In fact, 1500 hundred words of this post could have been two: move more.

Everyday Poser-Hip Thrust

No–it’s not an anti-Rocky Horror’s Time Warp blog. I love takin’ a step to the right. And the title, Everyday Poser, is a new # for my blog (I don’t know what to call that number-thingy, but I know it works on Twitter and stuff). I will occasionally have a longer rant (if you know me, you know I like that old soap box!), but I’m going to up the frequency on blogging and start with a series of shorter blogs with a daily practice tip to put yoga into your life everywhere. These blogs will begin a long and exciting process of becoming a Restorative Exercise Specialist. I’m super-excited to start this learning adventure and share my experiences over the next year! Let’s go Everyday Poser Possey!

#1: Here is me thrusting my hips (thanks to Sigrid for the photobomb)

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#2: Here is me with my hips over my heels in proper alignment
IMG_1194The first “hip thruster” pose is something I find myself doing in the kitchen constantly. It seems as if I am taking a load off and freeing my arms to work harder. But if you compare it to the aligned hips over pelvis pose, you can see my mid back is straighter and my shoulders are more anchored into their sockets. Also my belly isn’t going to directly eat that apple–my ribs and stomach are stacked and supportive. Notice how you are standing next time you are in the kitchen!

Meditation Part Deux

Last week I listened to a podcast by my favorite blogger, Katy Bowman, regarding changing habits. She explained to REALLY master a new concept, you need to study 10,000 hours. Which sounds like a lot. Because it is. But wait, she parcels it out and if you study or practice 8 hours a day, that mastery will take about three years. Which still sounds hard, but doable. It takes 4 years to earn a college degree (or if you’re like me and don’t, umm, actually study 8 hours a day, it might take several years longer). Katy was talking about exercise, which I love to do for 8 hours a day. I am in total agreement with her that a body needs to be active most of the day to achieve optimum health. When you like something, and especially when you are already good at it, spending 3 years mastering it seems perfectly reasonable.

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My new goal is to explore deeper awareness. Meditation has never been my forte. I like to walk and there is such a thing as moving meditation, but I want to learn more disciplined meditation. Which, from what I understand, means not moving and not thinking. First off, I like to move, so the sitting in stillness part is hard for me. And then there is my mind. Occasionally I feel moments where something “deeper” is happening while I sit and quiet my mind and body. Soon however, I am thinking–about my last Facebook post and how many responses it got and whether I should be wittier or wondering what is for dinner and reminding myself to remember my mother’s birthday. Oh, and then there was the time two weeks ago when I absolutely could not exhale. What. was. that? I’m pretty sure that although moving and thinking are out, breathing is good for meditation.

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Yesterday I read in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika these words: “the yogi who meditates on the self, takes moderate and pure food and practices siddhasana (a yoga posture) for twelve years, attains siddhi (mastery).” TWELVE YEARS??? Of sitting? And thinking pure thoughts? AND eating well? It seemed extreme–even longer than getting a degree! But I am not doing this for hours every day. 10,000 hours divided by 30 minutes and minus some days is probably more like a gazillion years until mastery. Using all caps and expressing impatience when writing about *enlightenment* is probably a sign that I need a few thousand extra hours as well.

My last post made meditation seem easy. And really–certain aspects of living a meditative life is pretty straight forward. Breathe and think, right? Take action from a place of awareness and intention. And that is exactly right. And generally easy to do unless you live with a three-year old. But what about that enlightenment thingy? Is there a deeper dimension to be-ing?

More from Swami Muktibodhananda in the HYP: “Within us are planes of existence, areas of consciousness, which are in absolute darkness. These planes are much more beautiful and creative than the ones we live on now. However, how are we going to penetrate and illuminate them?”

Which is exactly what I was teaching last week in my yoga classes–but I was referring to the physical body rather than pure consciousness.We attempted to enliven our physical awareness–by engaging certain muscles and coming fully into poses, by breath work, by coordination, and by releasing energy and learning how to relax certain muscles. All of which helps us to become more embodied–more alive in the present moment. For anyone that has a reason NOT to illuminate all the darker areas of the body, this is difficult to achieve. After active asanas, there is a brief meditation done in savasana. That pose is generally not translated, because literally it is “corpse pose.” There is a certain yuckiness to doing corpse pose, but everybody loves *savasana*!

I like to think that by embracing our death, we become more alive and that savasana illuminates that darker dimension to our bodily presence. That it makes each moment more meaningful. But to really go there, to really embrace our full human essence, we must accept that we are not ultimately in control. That loss happens–and really, really, it will.

That is a really big, dark, and scary shadow across those other “beautiful and creative” planes of existence. And our beautiful, creative, and rational minds believe that it might be better to think about something else. Anything else. I don’t really have a problem achieving the fullness of embodiment, but appreciating the fullness of dis-embodiment sucks. And yet, there are those gurus and swamis and enlightened ones that make it sound worth the effort…

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So it will take time. Practice. Patience. Probably at least 12 years. But I do hope that I can illuminate all the planes of existence during my lifetime. I am pretty pleased to be here. I hope to be here a long time. And I would like to see all the beauty on every dimension possible. Because, beauty, is well, a beautiful thing. Pretty enlightening, huh?

A Better Way

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Okay–first a confession. This is a reposted blog. I have been taking my meditation practice to a deeper level and wanted to write about that. But. I am still working on what is an incredibly personal journey and not ready to put it out into the world. Next posting, I promise. In the meantime a better way to stress reduction than the above instructions:

Want to make some one who is stressed out really blow a fuse? Tell them they need to learn how to meditate and calm down. Yet, when stress begins to affect health, isn’t this exactly what should be done? If you want a fun challenge, become a health educator and try to “help” someone in this situation:

Meet Joe and Jane Stressmore. Both have a lot of excess weight around their midsections. Joe has high blood pressure and borderline diabetes. Jane has chronic low back pain, problems with urinary incontinence, and diabetes. Neither has been able to lose weight, no matter what program they try. It all comes back and then some. Their doctor has them on several medications, which has helped alleviate some of their symptoms, but the side effects are problematic. Neither sleeps well, both are working full time, and there is no way they can exercise, eat well, and certainly not “slow down.”

Metabolic Syndrome is associated with chronic stress and the release of a the hormone cortisol. Stress hormones are helpful when the stress is physical and short lived, but when it is not, these hormones have a detrimental effect on our bodies, resulting in more imbalance, more stress, and more problems including disease symptoms like Joe and Jane are experiencing. Medicine doesn’t fix the underlying problem–although it does help keep it from becoming life threatening (hopefully).

Meditation is often recommended as an alternative approach to reduce chronic stress and the symptoms associated with it. Numerous scientific studies utilizing biofeedback techniques have tracked its effectiveness and the body/mind connection. Everyone enjoys the feeling of being rested and relaxed. Wellness and health practitioners (even doctors!) know that Joe and Jane would actually begin to FIX their health problems by reducing the release of cortisol through relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes.

Most yoga classes end by teaching a bit of deep relaxation and meditation. Many of my students like this part of class best. Aside from any reflection on my teaching abilities, I am always a bit taken aback by the fact that their favorite part of class is when we are doing nothing at all. Why go through an hour and a half of class when the best part is the last five minutes? Couldn’t we just do nothing at home? Why don’t we?

I think the answer is that we have no idea how. Life in the twenty first century doesn’t exactly encourage stillness. In today’s families, both parents usually work, children have full schedules with school and after-school activities, even our dogs have “play dates” so they can socialize, at least with other dogs, since the humans are too busy to play. Generally, any “down time” becomes an escape, via television or other distraction, rather than true meditation. Taking a moment to stop, breath, and be fully present just isn’t in the cards. And it will take something far more compelling than a doctor’s recommendation or a scientific study to convince us to even try.

Matthieu Ricard’s book, The Quantum and the Lotus compares the realities of physics and the mind. Just as subatomic particles exist between the spaces, our truest sense of ourselves is found between the spaces of our thoughts. If we never stop and find space, we don’t fully know who we are and what we might become. Joe and Jane are good people. Their health struggle is not who they are; and it is most likely not how they want their lives to be defined.

Here is the cool thing: in quantum physics, particles are not bound by constraints like time and space. Those little buggers break all the rules. That’s science, folks. If you think it’s bogus, get a PhD in physics (like Ricard) and test it yourself.

Here’s the other cool thing: we aren’t really bound by time and space, either. If you think that is bogus, become a Buddhist monk (like Ricard) and spend a few years experiencing it.

When we take–even a tiny bit–of time to be present “between the spaces” we step out of time and space. We learn to let go–even at tiny bit–of that which binds us. You probably know someone who defies what we think of as “rules:” the skinny coworker who eats like a horse, the neighbor with a sick wife who still helps his elderly parents mow their lawn, the couple who always participates in fundraisers for good causes and don’t seem to have that much money…I KNOW you know someone that fits into at least one of those categories.

Letting go of our expectations of the future and our delusions of our past creates the opportunity for breaking the rules that bind us and stress us out. Ricard calls it living in the freshness of this present moment. To me, that single phrase is more compelling than any stack of medical studies or advice from my doctor. I want to rewrite the rules that have brought me down and find my true destiny in this life. So do my yoga students, and I feel sure that Joe and Jane want it, too. Meditation begins with that desire. The next step is to breathe. Simple enough so far, right? The great news is that is the whole process. Be present and breathe. You can do it no matter where you are.

So rather than doing meditation because it is good for you, maybe do it because you are secretly the kind of person that likes to break the rules. See what happens! Put your mind to doing nothing at all and notice what gets accomplished! And remember, don’t do it ‘cause I told you to. Do it because your destiny should be defined not by what limits you, but rather by what liberates you.