Needless Chatter

Do you find yourself jabbering on and on about nothing?  Do you exaggerate in order to entertain others?  Do you try to impress others with your “smarts” by talking about things you have limited knowledge, but wish you did?

Right Speech clocks in a No. 3 on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. There are 4 virtues of Right Speech(1) and the final one is refraining from frivolous talk or gossip. Notice the time between when a thought comes up and when it’s out the mouth. Pretty short, huh. A short distance between brain and mouth is OK if you’re explaining quantum physics to a class of students–no problem. But,when you’re with your buddies and you’re catching up on the latest gossip in Mayberry, then increasing the time between the unkind/unnecessary thought and the boca is a good thing in order to avoiding frivolous or unnecessary talk.

It all comes down to intention (as does everything). Sharon Salzberg, Insight Meditation teacher, suggests that we imagine a time when we’ve felt the need to gossip.  Initially, neither act on the desire nor push it away, but rather sit with the feeling, wait. Think “will saying what I have the urge to say right now really serve my goals in relationship with this person and in my life?” If the answer is “yes,” go ahead, but if the answer is “no,” you haven’t said anything to that point so there’s a gain to staying quiet. The key here, I think, is to take that moment (the gap) to evaluate your intention for what may be frivolous talk or gossip.

I’ve tried to notice when I’m just jabbering.  If I truly become aware of my speech and avoid useless chatter, I don’t talk very much.  And, for me that feels odd.  For extroverts, talking (with our hands) is what we do. It’s a bit uncomfortable to be quiet. It reminds me of the Pulp Fiction scene where Uma and John are in the diner sitting across from one another:

Uma says:  Don’t you hate that?
John: What?
Uma: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?
John: I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Uma: That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f*%@ up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

Writing this article brings me to my time at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center where we practiced 24-hours of silence. That means no talking, during class or meals or passing someone on a trail. I’ve done this before at a 6-day silent retreat at Spirit Rock. It can be uncomfortable and jarring at first, especially at mealtime.  But, as time goes by, it gets more comfortable and actually welcomed the silence. It’s important to take a periodic break from the oral chatter which is often just an extension of the inner chatter.

So try (and it’s not easy) to notice what’s arising in the mind before you speak, the intention of the thought and the ensuing value in speaking. It may make you feel awkward at first and others may wonder what’s wrong with you, but check it out.  It’s a good practice to do to begin to be more mindful of your speech.  Let me know how it goes.

When Instructions Collide

Shoulders up or down?  Tuck or don’t tuck?  Feet together or apart?  Knees bent?  Fingers apart or together?  You will hear different instructions from different teachers.  Which instruction is correct and specifically what are you supposed to do?  

Yoga is relatively new in the west. The first yoga studio was opened by Indra Devi in Los Angeles in 1947.  Later arrived the major branches and styles of yoga that we know today, including Sivananda, Baptiste, Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga, plus many more. If you were to look at each of these practices, the poses and instructions would be basically the same but yet different. As yoga got modern- and Western-ized things changed.  Liberties were taken by the collection of newly minted yoga teachers. Poses were added, choreography became popular and heat, mirrors and music were added.  The practice was customized the wants of the teacher and fast growing student base. If you go to a yoga class today it might be close to the traditionally teachings or not at all. Also, there has been a rethinking of some poses as they translate from Indian bodies to Western bodies. The knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology are being integrated into the practice.

With these varying styles came different cues, emphasis and instruction.. Teachers that come from different lineages offer different perspectives on what is “correct”. The length of stance in triangle pose or downward dog varies. The Ashtangis want the fingers closed, the Anusara folks want the fingers open and expressive and Iyengar teachers want them closed and active. It can be confusing.  

What should a student do with contradictory cues?  I have two suggestions.  One, when you’re in a class, respect the tradition/style and instruction being offered. Of course, is anything is painful or obviously not good for you, modify, modify.  Two, if you want to avoid confusion, stick with one style/lineage/teacher which will allow consistency.  No more cafeteria yoga. As my teacher, Larry Shutz, said, “Many teachers make a confused student”.  This can be true.

Here are some of those contradictory instructions that I hear in classes and my take on them.  

Shoulder up or down:  I have been taught and believe that the shoulder blades rise as the arms go overhead. Asking a student to keep his shoulders down and raise the arms goes against the natural movement of taking your arms overhead.  You have or will hear teachers making adjustment and verbally telling students to drop the shoulders. Explore both ways and see what works best for you.   

Tucking:  When backbending, flattening the lower back by tucking is in opposition to what you’re asking the body to do.  However, internationally respected yoga teacher and back specialist, Larry Payne, reminded me last week that blanket instruction do not work for everyone. Those with lower back issues where extension is contraindicated, they should tuck.  

Feet together or feet apart?  Stability is greatest with the feet apart, usually the width of your helps, which is not as wide as you think.  So, if you’re looking for stability in a pose, that’s going to be the best stance. This goes for standing poses, like Warrior 1 and 2. A heel-to-heel stance is going to give you more stability than heel-to-arch. Body proportion and leg shape (bow or knock kneed) make a difference.

Twists: For many people it will be healthier for the lower back to allow that entire pelvis to follow the twist. This is especially indicated for those with any sacrum or “SI” issues.  For example, if you’re twisting to the right from chair pose, allow your left knee to slide forward.  In a seated twist to the right, like ardha matsyendrasana, it’s okay and encouraged to let  the left hip slide forward.

Yoga is not one-size-fits-all. It originated as one-on-one, teacher-to-student meeting. Instructions were individual.  However, today with the large class sizes the teacher does his/her best accommodate the bulk of the students.  Be kind, do your best to understand and accept the teachings, and modify to keep yourself safe. Perhaps you find that one practice/teacher that fits you best and you’ll avoid the confusion.  

Plank Pose

Plank pose is hard.  It requires muscular effort of the entire body and a good dose of balance and concentration.  It’s usually sandwiched between downward dog and chaturanga (pushup) and is also the preparatory pose for many arm balances. I wasn’t familiar with the Sanskrit name for plank, but a trusty google search found phalakasana, kumbhakasana, and utthita chaturanga dandasana.  Take your pick.

 

Think of plank as the total body strengthener that it is  It’s plenty challenging, although accessible most students, especially with a variety of modification , if necessary.  The pose is supported by just the toes and the hands, which is not much surface area of support for 140+ pound person with gravity pushing down the entire length of your body.  It’s a difficult pose and a great strength builder.

 

When in plank your torso is going to want to either sag or pike up and it’s most most difficult to stay perfectly straight, like a board plank. Your job is to counteract  the downward press of gravity.  Stay long by reaching the crown of your head forward and your heels back.  Work the legs like crazy (activate “both” the quadriceps and hamstrings).  The abdominal muscles must strongly work to resist the center of the plank sagging/collapsing toward the ground. Puff up the upper back making space between the shoulder blades to avoid the chest from dropping.  The back of the neck is long and your head is drawing forward. And, not that you need another “and”, you are having to skillfully balance on 4 small points of contact with the ground.  This is no easy task, so if you find it difficult, you’re not alone.

 

There are a lot of fun variations, fun being a relative term. While in plank, you can experiment with lifting a foot or walking both feet to the side (if you do this, try to keep the hips level).  Play with lifting each arm. These variations will all challenge not only your strength, but add more of balance component as well.

 

There are two other orientations of plank–side plank (vasisthasana) and upward facing plank (purvottanasana).  Basically, the instructions stay the same, but the force of gravity is being applied to different areas, causing a different set of muscles to engage. The need for strength and balance is still present.

 

Plank can be bothersome on the shoulders, lower back and wrists, especially if done without the proper alignment and the requisite strength. If your wrists are buggy, come down on your elbows on the mat or on a block. You can also walk your hand forward, just a bit, if that helps. If you feel this in your lower back, come down on the knees, and pull the belly to the back body to support the lower back and build abdominal strength. If the shoulders are sagging together, try taking your pose higher, like on a wall or chair.

 

There are times and situations where doing the full plank pose may not be beneficial.  Fortunately, there are lots of modifications and probably some you can make up. You can put both knees down or put one knee down.  Come onto your elbows or put your elbows on a block(s).  Do plank at a different angle by doing it against a wall or with your hands on a table, countertop or a chair.

 

To improve your strength, try increasing your time in plank and playing with some of the variations. It’s easy to set up, doesn’t take much space.  You can do it in your sweats or jammies and even while watching Handmade’s Tale.

As always, please let me know if  have any questions or comments about anything I’ve written or if you’d just like to email me to say “hi”.  I’m a big fan of interdependence, connection, friendship.

Sweat: Elimination (Pt 5)

Sweat: Elimination (pt 5) 
Okay, I promise.  This is the end of the elimination series(1), as I’m running out of eliminations, unless we want to explore vomit.  Along with excretions like feces and urine, the body also removes waste via the skin in the form of perspiration or sweat.  It’s a vital function and most of us don’t think about it unless it’s profuse, smells, or marks our new, overpriced, Anthropologie top.
Sweating has two major functions–regulating the body’s temperature and eliminating toxins.  It also fuels a bazillion dollar anti-odor industry hell bent on eliminating sweat and odor.  Have you checked the deodorant aisles of your local CVS!  That’s entirely different road to go down, so don’t get me started.
The skin is our largest organ and through its 2.6 million tiny pores it performs an important role in elimination. It removes 30% of the body’s waste products and is sometimes referred to as our “third kidney”. The most numerous pores are in the forehead, the armpits, the palms and the soles of the feet. The sweat is made up of water and saline but also has urea (a breakdown product of proteins the kidneys also discard), and trace metals and minerals.
Perspiration is something we cannot control and even when you don’t know it, the body is sweating a little. Sweat is handled by our body’s autonomic nervous system.  One half of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic side, is known for the flight/flight response and can bring on sweating when we’re spooked or excited, stressed or in pain.  Remember the scene in the movie Broadcast News where Albert Brooks gets the flop sweat on air.  Here’s the clip. Or what about Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly.  Still hilarious!
There’s a condition known as hyperhidrosis, or too much sweating, and is a serious medical condition. According to sweathelp.org, over 367 million people or 5% of the global population has it. This excessive sweating is not tied to the body’s normal functions of perspiration.  People with hyperhidrosis can sweat four or five times more than normal.  As you can imagine, it can not only be embarrassing but disruptive of a person’s life from career choices to relationships to self-confidence. There are many things that can be done, like super-strong antiperspirants, oral medication and even surgery.
What about body odor?  There are two different types of sweat glands, eccrine and apocrine.  Eccrine glands are found in large numbers on soles of the feet, palm, forehead, cheeks and armpits. They produce mainly watery, odorless sweat.  The apocrine glands are in the armpits and the genital areas and produce a thicker, viscous and more visible fluid. The apocrine sweat is also odorless, but when it comes into contact with the body’s bacteria the strong “body odor” is produced.  The larger volume of sweat from the eccrine glands can “wash away” bacteria and the stink producing apocrine sweat. When the apocrine sweat has an opportunity to dry on the skin and react with the body’s bacteria, odor is produced.
Sweat odor can also be caused by some foods and your body’s overall toxicity levels, among other factors. Even some medications, like Tylenol, can encourage excess perspiration and foul smelling bacterial growth as drugs are metabolized by the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.  The stink you’re smelling may not even be you.  The new breeds of synthetic clothing fabric is harboring bacteria and gets activated with your body heat.
Besides regulating temperature, perspiration has a body-cleansing function, It’s healthy to sweat often, especially through movement. When we exert ourselves, we also increase our blood flow which releases toxins. High intensity work-outs, especially in a heated room can bring on a healthy sweat. Most of you are familiar with Bikram yoga, which heats the room to 104 degrees with added humidity.  As compared to gyms which often keep their weight rooms cool, yoga classes are often purposely warmed. So, in addition to the vigorous asana practice you’re also being heated from the outside.  Sweating can also be encouraged by visiting your favorite sauna or steam room.
There you have it.  There’s lots more to be said about perspiring, but I’ll let you do the research if I’ve piqued your interest.  As always, I enjoy your feedback or just a quick “hello”.

Urine: Elimination (Pt 4)

Pacific Palisades, California, USA.

Elimination – Urine (pt 4) 

 
Want more elimination?  Of course, you don’t. But here we go again.  It’s silly to be uber concerned with what goes in our bodies and entirely ignore what happens on the other end.  That would be like buying a bunch of plastic crap from China and when you’re done with it, after about 2 weeks when it breaks, it gets thrown in the trash. Where does it go then?  It’s all too easy to close our eyes to the “big” picture and only concern our self with consuming. This myopic thinking relates to EVERYthing.  So, why shouldn’t be be just as interested in the results of our “out” as with our “in”.
What about Yin/yang, plus/minus, reap what you sow, etc.   Granted, many folks do not give a hoot about what they eat or drink. I’m not judging unless I am.  If takes effort not to buy into the “consume” economy.  Just because they took the word “Sugar” off “Sugar Frosted Flakes” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have sugar.  It takes a lot of conscious effort to counteract the barrage of malicious advertising, especially to kids.  Companies spend copious amount of money on testing, reformulating, testing, tweeking, and more testing in order to come up with the advertisement that “makes us hungry/thirsty”.  The gaming industry does this too.  Using algorithms and metrics they develop their games to be addictive, in other words, eliciting the most screen time.
Yet, I digress.  Where was I?  The last 3 weeks I shared a welcomed or unwelcomed article on paying attention to what comes out far end of the alimentary canal or, in other words, poop.  Also important is urine or pee. The quantity, color, odor and ease of exiting are worth paying some attention. Urine is often used as a diagnostic tool for many diseases.
Output.  You pee out between 400 – 2,000 mL of urine with a normal fluid intake of about 2 liters per day or about 8 cups. The amount varies depending on water intake, sweating, and caffeine and alcohol intake. Most people urinate 6 to 8 times a day, but if you’re one of those with a fancy Hydroflask bottle at your desk, it’s not abnormal to go as many as 10 times per day.  Certain medications can cause more peeing, like diuretics for high blood pressure.
Observe the color. That’s right, take a look behind (or under) you. Hopefully you don’t have those inserts from the 1970s that make your toilet water blue. A dark color (apple juice shade or even darker) is an indication of dehydration. If it’s on the brown side, go directly to the closest water source and drink down some water already.  The color of light beer is good. (No, you don’t have to actually go out and drink more beer.)  Red or red-ish colored urine (unless it’s from menstruation or eating beets) is not good and you should see a doctor, fairly pronto. Same goes for urine that is orange or even green.  There’s a good chance something serious is going on.  I’m sure you’ve noticed, but vitamins give urine a bright, almost florescent color.
Give a sniff.  Urine has an odor, but should be indistinct, unless you’ve had the wonderful delicious green stalks of asparagus that are now in season.  Although urine is mainly water, it’s the concentration of waste products excreted by the kidneys that causes the odor. A high level of waste products can give urine a strong ammonia odor.  Unusual odor can indicate a medical condition like a bladder infection, cystitis, dehydration, high level of ketones and uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes (plus more).
Ease of peeing.  Although the healthy adult bladder can hold up to 2 cups of urine, you probably should go before it gets that full. The brain gets a signal to be thinking about a trip to the bathroom when your bladder is about half full. This varies, of course. The urine should exit without strain or pain and you should “void” completely.  Pain or stinging with urination can be the result a urinary tract infection (UTI), kidney stones, an obstruction or bladder infection, among many other reasons.  Any persistent pain should necessitate a phone call to your health care practitioner.
This is only a drop in the bucket of information to be had on urine.  I’m considering “one more” article on elimination, just when you thought it was over.  What about body odor?  It’s a type of bodily elimination and I think it might be fun, informative and mildly entertaining. Stay tuned.

As always, I appreciate any feedback, questions, or topic suggestions.  Really, you’re not bothering me.

Elimination (Pt 3) – Squatting

Elimination – Squatting (pt 3) 
 
Public bathrooms can be nasty.  Porta-potties as well.  I remember my mother carefully laying toilet paper on the rim of the seat in public bathrooms.  As I got older, I followed suit, trying to keep the paper on the rim without touching anything. I later found it was much more efficient to squat, if you weren’t going to be there long.  Squatting  was also necessary on long runs and other “got to go now” times. Fortunately many public restrooms have toilet covers. but you’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting it to stay on. [Does the long tab-thingy go on the front or back?]
According to the WHO, 1.1 billion people go without a toilet. You may have noticed on your foreign travels that some public toilets have a porcelain foot print on which to stand and squat.  Many people, although they have a toilet, choose to squat.  Really and why?  After some research and chatting with squatters I found it was the preferred position for elimination and it has positive health effects.
Slate’s article Don’t Just Sit There! has an entertaining and informative article on squatting, even relating the advice given to President Jimmy Carter’s by his proctologist to explain his hemorrhoids. “We were not meant to sit on toilets,” he said, “we were meant to squat in the field.”  Who knew that hemorrhoids affect half of all Americans and new research suggests that getting your butt off the toilet can help.The theory is that squatting makes defecation easier and eliminates the straining that can lead to hemorrhoids.
In order to mimic he squatting position without there’s a gizmo, Squatty Potty, that sits by your toilet and raises your feet, bringing the knees closer to your body.  It simulates the squatting position. You can see their SharkTank video here and their YouTube video animation of a unicorn pooping ice cream here (reminds me of the hilarious ad for Poo Pourri). As the videos suggest, improper toilet posture can affect your health and correct posture can help with straining issues such as hemorrhoids, pelvic organ prolapse and constipation.
Here the why behind squatting for bowel movements.  We have the sphincter muscle that keeps poop from coming out.  But, it doesn’t do all the work on it’s own. There’s a bend or angle between the rectum, where feces builds up, and the anus, where feces comes out.  This bend is called the anorecal angle and is about 90 degrees.  It keeps the feces inside. (It helped me to see an illustration.)  When we squat to defecate, it’s like a garden hose.  The angle flattens out and, voila, feces out. Toilets puts us at the improper angle.
Whether you suffer from elimination issues or not, try squatting.  You don’t need to buy a Squatty Potty, just put something, like yoga blocks, under your feet as you sit on the pot. You could try to climb on the toilet seat, but be careful, it’s slippery up there.(1). Happy squatting!
(1) While traveling in Spain, to squat, climbed onto a toilet seat with my socks on.  I lost my footing, my feet slipped into the bowl and I slammed my shins into the seat. Good thing no one was watching. I’m sure it was quite hilarious!