From Latin, moveō (“I move”).
I thought long and hard whether to continue efforts of encouraging practice or exercise without a live, in-person class. I read other trainers’ and teachers’ writings on this subject and reflected back on what it was in my life that got me to finally do it. To those of you who are practicing yoga or exercising- please set aside what is not of use and carry on knowing that I bow to your diligence. Others of you already know this story, but it’s the only one I’ve lived.
A long, long time ago, (well 1994-95-ish) I was having a really hard time getting through a 40 hour work week because my boyfriend at the time was having a hard time not getting caught drinking and driving. My co-worker kept reminding me that when his wife was having the same problem I did (in love with an active alcoholic), she found a lot of help by going to Al-Anon. He just wouldn’t stop, asking me, “did you go yet?”, for about 6 months. Finally, I did. Partly it was out of shear desperation, partly because I would finally be able to shut him up by saying “Yes, I went to a meeting.”
Fast forward to 2001. Going to those meetings created in me the understanding that I was not a victim of my circumstances and conditions. I could change, I could be different. I joined Weight Watchers. Over the months, the meeting leader and the program kept saying over and over and over, “You have to move, do exercise, be active.” Now I had tried exercise off and on. But I had never felt comfortable in a class or gym. Just walking 20 minutes straight was a huge deal for me. Then, only to finally be able to say I was doing it, I signed up for a yoga class at the local community center.
It was flippin hard! Downward dog my head would be yelling “This is too hard- I HATE THIS!” Warrior 2 my front thigh would be burning with seemingly unbearable fire. Yet, there was something in me that knew this was the kind of exercise I could do, just as I was at that moment. I didn’t have to be in better shape, I didn’t have to have a different body. I didn’t have to fit in with the normal people. I didn’t need to be liked by others. Yoga was a good fit for me.
At the end of every class the teacher would beg, “Please practice at home, just even for 20 minutes!” She would bring books of yoga poses to show us, always with the implied “there’s nothing preventing you from doing this but you”.
I finally gave in- just like the previous times. I borrowed one of her books for a week. And it worked. I had to put up baby gates to keep the dogs out from under me. I had to plan around and negotiate with the (different by then) boyfriend who found it inconvenient to him and inconsiderately pushed hard on my boundaries for a while. But it worked. I was doing it- practicing at home on my own. I was in a whole new kind of living I had absolutely no previous experience with. I was 36 years old.
“How do you define motivation? Think about that. Once you have a definition, can you write it down? Speak it out loud?” (Lisa Lewis, EdD, CADC-II)
I define motivation as that which puts me into motion.
“There are those who will gain awakening even if they don’t hear the teaching, those who will gain awakening only if they hear the teaching, and those who won’t gain awakening even if they do hear the teaching. It’s because the second group exists that he teaches everyone who comes to him.” Ajaan Geoff, Karma Q & A : A Study Guide, (pdf) pp. 23-24.
I don’t know which of you reading this will, like me, eventually be motivated by the incessant plea to practice yoga or exercise. Perhaps you are moved, inspired, by this story. Perhaps you are disturbed or concerned that you are not doing something. Perhaps you are tired of being tormented by your aches or thoughts or that I constantly write about it.
As I tell my (not one of those above mentioned boyfriends) husband, I will continue to bring it up until you report back that you are doing it. If you don’t know how or where to begin, I am more than happy to help you find a way.
Reader Alert: This post/email newsletter contains anatomical drawings of the male and female pelvises—male and female private parts. If you are averse to such images, please close this page and remove this email newsletter from your inbox. Thank you for understanding.
To paraphrase Richard Feynman, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” Yet, to then paraphrase Temple Grandin, I think in pictures.
This provides a bit of a challenge to write about what I have learned this month. I can start off with sometimes generalizations and colloquialisms are not useful. Take the term I have been using for years, “pelvic floor”.
"Some sources do not consider "pelvic floor" and "pelvic diaphragm" to be identical, with the "diaphragm" consisting of only the levator ani and coccygeus, while the "floor" also includes the perineal membrane and deep perineal pouch. However, other sources include the fascia as part of the diaphragm. In practice, the two terms are often used interchangeably." - Wikipedia
I learned there is a difference between the pelvic floor and the pelvic diaphragm! I learned that what I had thought to be the skill of “pulling the blueberry up the straw, exhaling with the exertion” isn’t the whole story for most of us. I learned that frequently other muscles in the neighborhood are activating instead of the pelvic diaphragm and, in the process, preventing full range of motion of the body.
Why should you care about all this anatomy geek stuff? Because not a single one of you came to Aspiration Community Yoga for a playdate in the sandbox. To a person, you came with a complaint of something bugging you- usually physical body, a few emotional or mental processes that you heard yoga would help with, and some even recognizing the three are of one in your being.
Because with our current state of social distancing you need to practice on your own. As Denise Benitez once said during one of my teacher trainings, “in the privacy of your own pants”, this is a strength, breath and mental practice you can do LITERALLY anywhere, anytime. Well, maybe except when you’re asleep, unless you are really good at Yoga Nidra.
Although Kegel exercises themselves are simple, finding the right muscles to exercises isn't. One-third or more of women and men who do Kegels are actually working their abdominal, buttock, or inner thigh muscles. They don't reap the benefits of the exercises. – Health.Harvard.edu
In an effort to meet Feynman’s measure of understanding, I will use Grandin’s process with the intent of making corrections and refinements to what I’ve been teaching these past several years. Here are some pictures and specifics:
To paraphrase Anna B Hammond, PT and co-teacher of the course I am taking:
Do you feel like you bear down with that inhale? You want to make sure that only about 10% of your inhale is going down and the rest is going into your back and sides. If you feel too much breath going down into your pelvic diaphragm and not enough on your sides/back then you need to focus more on work to release sides/back to create a more balanced inhale. You can also feel the insides of your hip bones and try to direct the air out to the sides there rather than all down. If you don't feel your breath go down at all and have fear of breathing down, then it could be that you're actually constantly clenching your pelvic diaphragm to protect it which would put you in the tight but weak camp where you'll need to learn to let go first.
Even when we are breathing under a brace your belly will extend a little just like pelvic diaphragm will lengthen some but most of the breath going into back and sides. That’s when it’s fun to apply deep breathing to a plank and feel the quiver like you never have before.
Being able to breath under a brace which is our eventual goal. So, you will be eccentrically loading abs as they inhale to help make sure you don't let it all go and lose your support. Cueing to aim more breath into the back is great. If you don't get the 360 breath and send the breath down then, you will fall into a shallow breathing pattern which isn't sustainable or dynamic.
“The action of slowing or stopping the flow of urine may be used as a test of correct pelvic” floor exercise technique.”
For me what was most surprising and illuminating was the news that yes, this is nominally a Kegel exercise, whether you are male or female. I was surprised that done correctly allows the glutes to soften and lengthen, allows the hip flexors to soften and bend. Not surprising, is the activation does not happen in isolation. When the levator ani moves, the “abdominals” (ugh — using a general term here in the interest of not losing you in anatomy speak) also move, as do the shoulder blade stabilizers and the vertebral stabilizers. They, in turn…. You get the idea, I hope.
Under load– meaning when you are bent halfway over, lowering your body onto a chair or car seat, walking up or down stairs, lifting a heavy bag, placing a jar on the high shelf, being pulled by a critter at the other end of a line or leash, could you “stop the flow of urine” in all these activities?
You may sense that the pelvic diaphragm doesn’t move at all, or not much. It may be in a constant contraction– always tight. It may be super relaxed. It may even just be right in the middle, reluctant to either relax or tighten.
In the privacy of your own pants, get to know the sensation of activating those muscles with out any load, without needing to go pee. Then sense around the glutes, the hip flexors, the area below the belly button and above the pubic bone, from hip crests to the center, and from the lower front ribs to the hip crests. What else do you sense engaging and letting go? What doesn’t engage or let go?
There’s no magic yoga wand or fairy godmother that’s going to tap you and make your troubles go away. The something bugging you– whether the physical body, emotional or mental processes that you heard yoga would help with, will only get different by building awareness of what is currently happening in there. After that you can decide whether this offering was of benefit and to be pursued further or whether to set it aside. Let me know how it goes.
Observe the sensations that arise at each of the sense doors to see that they're just sensations happening, pure and simple. It's not the case that we're sensing these things. For instance, the eye sees forms. It's not us that's seeing them. There's simply the seeing of forms by means of eye-consciousness, pure and simple. At that point, there's not yet any labeling of the sight as good or bad. There's not yet any thought fabrication following on the sensation of contact. We simply watch the simple sensation and the stop right there, to see the characteristics of the sensation as it passes away or as it's replaced by a new sensation. We keep watching the passing away of sensations, keep watching until we see that this is simply the nature of the eyes and ears: to register sensations. That way we don't latch onto them to the point where we give rise to suffering and stress the way we used to.
I’ve written so much about the importance of community, and I’ve written on how I kind of suck at teaching yoga and Buddhist philosophy. But we are all assured repeatedly that without practice what we suck at will never improve. With that as my guide I am going to attempt to write about a timeless practice for well being: pratyahara of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, or indriya-samvara of the Noble Eight Fold Path of the Buddha. These are what has been translated as “sense-withdrawal” or “guarding the sense-doors”.
A quick refresher: the senses are what the body uses to perceive the world and itself. The senses are the eyes (perceive visible objects), ears (perceive sound), nose (smells), tongue (taste), skin, muscles & fascia (touch) and mind (perceives mental emotions & thoughts).
When the governor’s proclamation was made known to us and I sent out the class cancellations, I was very touched to hear from many of you that I take the teaching to an online platform. I’m so grateful what I have been sharing is resonating for you.
I didn’t for a moment consider doing it, though.
Why? Because there are already many, many highly qualified, extremely good teachers and platforms available out there. Some of those are even local, in my lineage and their only income is from teaching. Please pay them your dollars. My day job is “Essential Personnel”, I have a steady paycheck.
Because I thought, how about for a change, you take this opportunity to practice what I have already taught you. How about you take what I have taught and put in into your body and make it your own? Practice strengthening the body's (touch) sense of physical stimuli, such as pressure and vibration, as well as the sensation of position?
(No one has ever described me as a warm, soft and fuzzy person- more like a 2 X4 swinging around.)
I did offer to email written sequences to each of you, upon request. No one took me up on the offer.
I practice yoga and do my workouts inside. Inside my body and my senses. Just me and a piece of paper with a sequence written out, I am not focused on externals: following the instructions, keeping up, the person next to me, the clock, just to name a few. I can’t rely on a person outside of me to feed me information regarding where I am in space and time. Just me and a sequence, trying to activate what I have been learning. This requires all the interoception and proprioception I have. It is all autonomy and personal responsibility. It is personal emancipation.
It’s always hard to work with translations and certainly English translations of pratyahara in yoga and indriya samvara can elicit negative connotations. Consider this- well established science tells us how screen time is addictive, how the brain is stimulated into a form of agitated craving, how we are pulled out of self- sufficiency to seek more and more stimuli. Consider how our eyes, our vision and our mind, our thoughts and emotions dominate, even drown out input from the other senses. Can you stand on one foot? Can you stand on one foot with your eyes closed? Do you have to listen to music or have the TV or radio on to drown out the thoughts in your head?
“Pratyahara empowers one to stop being controlled by the external world, fetch one's attention to seek self-knowledge and experience the freedom innate in one's inner world.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratyahara
I love the internet and online learning maybe as much as the next. I pay for ad-free YouTube, take an online continuing ed class to learn more about how bodies work. I listen to podcasts, audio books and stream movies from the library. For about 10 years I used a high quality online yoga class service.
I hope you keep up your practice. I challenge to you this: Up Your Game and practice yoga with no screen, no other person or voice telling you what to do. Take note if it is hard to interocept- perceive conditions within the body, or do you believe you require exteroception- external stimuli acting on the body.
Yoga, and you all call what we are doing at Aspiration Community Yoga “yoga”, is a practice for quieting the domination of disturbance and agitation. Take advantage of this opportunity.