Monday, February 6, 2012

Chairs, Coach-Class Seats, and Related Instruments of Torture

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had the freedom to roam about at will?

Perhaps you have a job that confines you to sitting in one spot, for hours at a time. Desktop tasks: typing, entering data, grading student work, writing, practicing an instrument, and otherwise physically constricting jobs play havor with the lumbar region of your back. Few of us "sit up straight" like our moms told us. Even with the best of ergonomically-designed furniture, we fatigue, slump our shoulders, imprint the lower spine against the chair, and then wonder why, after hours of work, we feel so exhausted when we had been doing such minimally physical "work."

Our backs weren't designed to sit for hours at a time. When we slouch into chairs, our spines are no longer aligned; the vertebrae are no longer stacked one on top of the other. Our erector spinae muscles weaken over time (along with the abs encircline our midsections). Over the years, poor posture leads to more than fatigue; "back problems" become more frequent and pressure on our backs' discs takes it toll.
If you have to sit for more than a few hours at a time, and sitting is part of your job description, it's not practical to stash your yoga mat in a desk drawer and hold a mini-session. But, it's possible to do modified cat/cow stretches while on the job. This technique could save your back by giving strengthening the muscles in your lower back (and moving your shoulder muscles around a bit as well). 

This technique has served me well during several long flights in cramped coach-class airline seats (domestic economy class is about 3 inches shorter than international), when getting up and moving was out of the question. This technique is helpful for anyone. It can be done cross-legged (remember to switch legs to limber up both sides of your body), sitting on the floor, sitting on a coach, a chair, or even on a stability ball.

Here's how:
As you sit, inhale, roll to the front of your sit bones as you arch your spine and lift your chest (the seated equivalent of the cow portion of cat/cow). To put it bluntly, your rectum needs to lift off the seat.

Drop your shoulders down and back. Expand your chest and feel the extension in your lumbar (lower) spine as your back bends. You are doing the "cow" portion of cat/cow, just while sitting down.

As you exhale, suck in your stomach (try to get your bellybutton to touch your spine), curl forward, rounding through the chest. Tuck in your chin. Feel your torso's weight shift backward off your sit bones toward your butt. (This is the cat portion of the technique).

Think of this technique as a modified Cat/Cow stretch, but with minimal neck and head movement, so you won't look too freaky while in your cubicle (or scare the passenger sitting next to you on the plane).

This technique, done every hour or so for only a few minutes, can keep desk fatique and back problems to a minimum. Try it. Your back will be so appreciative, and you'll have more energy when you leave work (always a good thing), or finally arrive at your destination.

Until next week, namaste


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If my mind wanders while I meditate, does the meditation "count"?

Meditation is a part of our practice. Usually, we begin with setting an intention for our practice, and an inspiration. While we ponder those things, we initiate our meditative process. While we practice the asanas, we do a "moving meditation." Using our bodies as the focus for our thoughts, centering our gaze on the drishtis, or focal point for each asana, our minds are occupied with not much else but the practice. Asanas are intented to shift our busy mind's attention from the distractions of everyday life, to the discipline of each pose. At the end of our practice, while we are in savasana, our minds return to our breath, to our intention, to our inspiration.

At least, that's the theory of how yoga provides opportunities for meditation. But the realities of life frequently intrude. Distractions shift our attention from our practice to other matters. Emotional concerns create turbulence and throw us off balance, mentally as well as physically. At times, it's difficult to keep our minds still during savasana, and we are itching to get off the mat and move on with the demands of the day.

Don't be so critical of yourself when these things happen. Meditation is next to impossible; no matter how hard you persevere, it's not an easy discipline. Ironically, the harder you try, the more difficult meditation may be. Relax. Breathe. Gently guide your busy brain back to the beginning of your inspiration, and begin again.

Much like balance poses, meditation requires your patience and focus. Accept that you will have days when your attention is distracted to follow visual interruptions, to seek the source of intruding sounds, and to be lead outside yourself by random thoughts. Complete quiet? Almost impossible! No distracting movements? Hardly attainable! A quiet mind? A goal that we are all seeking and rarely achieving.

It is reassuring to know one of the reasons why it's difficult to keep our minds from chattering away, even if we would like to silence them. Our brain looks for patterns and tries to sort out random thoughts into a coherent structure. Turning our brains off is next-to-impossible, so when even the tiniest idea penetrates our awareness, we quickly attempt to link that idea with another, to create a narrative, so to speak. Actors and public speakers use this aspect of brain function to their advantage, particularly when memorizing long sections of dialogue or a speech. They utilize the narrative-formation aspect of the human brain, creating an imaginary scenario filled with the objects and/or ideas that they must memorize in the sequence of the "story."

So, when your meditation is interrupted, from external or internal intrusions, recognize that this is just part of being human. Return to the beginning, refocus, rebalance, begin again.

And rest assured that meditation DOES count, even if your mind has been empty for just a few nanoseconds.

Want specific, step-by-step instruction? Look at this site:

Until next week, namaste.

Want to know more about meditation? Explore LA Yoga's article in the February issue online; the link is to the right of this post.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bare Root Season

Bare Root Bundles
It's January, and for me, that means "bare root" season. Every year, we scour local nurseries to purchase roses and fruit trees for the garden. In the past, we've bought plenty of varieties: apple, pear, almond, and roses. Stripped of their soil, various trees are sold with a single stem, with roots encased in plastic.

It's a leap of faith, to imagine that such a minimal plant could actually survive and bear fruit later in the year. (For the most part, that faith is rewarded; only one of our bare root attempts didn't take root and grow.)

Bare root planting is a process
This year, the bare root season disappointed us. Many of the trees were already planted in soil. The selection of bare root trees wasn't as varied as in years past. One prominent nursery, famous for its patented roses, had no bare root trees at all: they were all planted.

Fuji apple 
Which leads me to wonder: Have the retail nurseries found that "bare root" plants sell better when the plants are already potted? Do consumers lack confidence with the bare root planting process--soaking, trimming, then planting? We finally found some promising bare root trees and planted them, hoping that in a year or two, there will be Fuji apples from our own mini-orchard.

The entire bare root phenomenon is a metaphor for our yoga process. It's as minimal as possible--a flat surface, bare feet, and time. No fancy or expensive equipment is necessary (of course, you can bring all the equipment you think you need to the practice, and you can spend lots of money on equipment). Our practice is ideally done in bare feet, directly making contact with the earth. And our practice takes time and patience, much as is needed for a plant to take root, grow, and finally produce fruit. Some knowledge is necessary for the success, as is needed for taking a bare root to a productive plant.

Knowing the process ensures success.
Again, much like the "helpful" retailers who have already planted the bare root trees in soil, our practice might need some extra help from an instructor, or from supportive friends. It can be difficult to take that leap of faith and have confidence that all that we need to grow are contact with the earth, bare feet, and time. Nevertheless, that's what our practice is--slow, incremental growth.

Whether we are planting ourselves in an orchard among like-minded people, or we practice in isolation, we will grow.

Imagine yourself in the asana known as "tree pose" with your roots firmly grounded, your arms as main branches, and your fingers actively reaching toward the sun. Breathe. With time and patience, your practice will bear fruit.

Until next week, namaste,