It's Not Just a Body Thing

Starting last week, on Friday, I’ve been “off” of my yoga routine.  There were a variety of reasons.  Friday my schedule was busy and it didn’t seem like there was time for me to do something self-focused.  Saturday, I took my daughter shopping and by the time I got back, I was in too much pain to do a vigorous practice, and a calm practice seemed wasteful of time when there was so much to do.  Sunday, I was feeling quite ill and had a university function to attend.  So, it’s been days since I’ve done yoga, and boy do I know it.  At the moment, my shoulders are tight (and seem to be somewhere near my ears), my hamstrings are practically crying, my knees hurt, and I’m slouching.  But, even more disturbing is how it makes me feel.

If I manage to get in yoga every day, I’m able to stay quite calm and annoying or stressful issues wash over me much more easily.  If I miss a day here or there, I can feel my nerves start to bunch up a little, but the next day’s class takes care of it.  This many days in a row, however, is just not a good idea for my mental state.  I’ve noticed this summer that I rarely raise my voice to the kids, no matter how pesky they get.  By last night, that certainly was not the case.  My temper was just under the surface, and almost everything was bothering me.  I couldn’t get my mind in a good place.  Today, I don’t feel cranky, I just feel a little sad and tired and wound up.  I know this means that I need a good 60 minute  yoga session for sure.

It’s easy enough to put off exercise or meditation as something that is a luxury and not a necessity.  And, for people who don’t do these things regularly, I’m sure that it seems like exactly that.   But, for those who exercise regularly, it becomes a part of the mental health and fitness process as well.  If I attended weekly therapy sessions with a mental health professional, I would not consider that a luxury.  I would feel it was a necessity for my health.  So, why do I not grant myself that same status for yoga?  I think it’s a factor of my upbringing.

As a child, growing up in a household somewhere between working class and middle class, exercise wasn’t really something that I experienced as an adult priority.  Children and teens played sports, but adults got all the activity that they needed in the accomplishment of their daily activities.  With the exception of weekend yard jart games or some catch with the kids, exercise just was not something the adults around me were concerned with, and people who “worked out” got some rolled eyes.  A variety of studies (I won’t bore you with the cites here) have supported my experience, indicating that individuals from lower socio-economic groups are more likely to see exercise as a luxury engaged in by those who have too much spare time and too little to do. Because women are taught to additionally put spousal or child needs first, before self, that adds an extra dimension of complexity to exercise.  Women feel guilt when taking time “away from” family, and thus exercise or meditation become things that have to be done in whatever time remains after all relational partners are cared for and their needs satisfied.

So, what do we/I do about this?  First, for myself, I really have to get my head around the fact that it’s not optional.  It isn’t a trip to the spa, it’s eating and sleeping.  This is an important part of my daily mental and physical health and should be a priority item, not relegated to the leftover time in my schedule.   I need to stop feeling like a bad wife, bad mother, bad teacher, or bad administrator because I elect to spend this time for myself.  Ultimately, it is to the benefit of my family that I am happy and healthy, but even if it wasn’t, I am worth it as an individual.  If the kids have to have PBJ and apples for dinner instead of salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, so be it.  No one will be harmed; in fact, they will probably like it.  If a few emails have to go unanswered for a little while, they will still be there when I get back.

In the larger scheme of things, we need to create a culture where the value of bodily and mental health are prioritized.  We need to teach and show children that taking time to care for the physical self and the psychological self is not only *not* a luxury, but is a responsibility.  We need to show our daughters and nieces that they are important, not only in the context of relationships, but in their own beings.  If working our bodies in a pleasing, invigorating, and healthy way became as much a part of our cultural understanding of a normal life as eating, imagine what might change… think of how much healthier we would be!  This is the kind of national health plan we need (well, to go along with that other one).

Take some time for yourself today and move your body in a way that eases your mind!

Ruminations (Rheuminations?) on Chronic Pain, Yoga, and Raw Foodism

The last week has been more than a little challenging physically, and it has me thinking about the ways in which chronic pain, being a yogi, and attempting a raw food diet interact.  As with most thing (oh, that middle path), there are challenges and benefits to yoga and raw foodism for individuals with chronic pain.  In this post, I consider my own experiences and link to some research and information about these connections.

Being an individual with a chronic pain condition makes yoga more of a challenge, in some ways, but also provides immense opportunities for benefit.  When I do yoga on  a regular basis, I find that my pain levels are lower.  I believe this is due to multiple factors.  First, having stretched and warmed my body regularly, it seems like I am not fighting with my muscles along with other things (i.e. my hamstrings tend to get ridiculously tight in an effort to manage the surrounding joint issues).  Second, when we exercise in ways that release endorphins, it causes a reduction in pain.  Finally, yoga makes me feel more peaceful, overall.  When I’m peaceful, I am better able to just notice pain instead of becoming totally enmeshed in it.  That makes it much easier to cope with.  Though I do see these benefits for my pain level, and research supports them, I do find that sometimes it is hard to maintain my practice in the face of chronic pain.  For me, morning and late day are the worst times for pain.  Coincidentally, they are also the times I am most likely to be able to attend a yoga class or practice at home.  This means that sometimes I don’t go, because I hurt and I simply cannot make it.  Pain also prevents me from going as deeply into poses as I want.  I have previously admitted that I do have a competitive nature, even though I understand that I should not in yoga, and feeling that I’m “doing it poorly” can be enough to suck away some of my joy in the practice if I’m not careful.  Finally, when I am already in pain, I can’t always tell where my edge is.  If I’m not hurting much, I know exactly when to stop moving into a pose because of the level of discomfort.  But, in a flare, as this week, everything hurts and every position hurts.  So, it’s difficult to tell when it’s “too much” pain and I have sometimes overextended and then paid for it later.

The raw food diet, for me, similarly presents opportunities and challenges in relation to chronic pain issues.  I started this eating plan with the hopes that it would make a large difference in my inflammatory response and thus would significantly improve my health.  That has not yet happened (though my digestion is certainly better), but I’m still hoping that it will.  So, I’m “planning” on that benefit.  A second positive of the raw food diet for pain is that some foods are believed to reduce pain/inflammation (like leafy greens, pineapple, some spices) while others are thought to encourage it (like artificial sweeteners, nitrates).  While these benefits are not to be dismissed, I have also found it a challenge to manage pain and raw foodism.  When I’m having a difficult time, I have found that it has an impact on my metabolism, blood sugar, energy level, etc.  And, I tend to not want to eat large quantities.  With cooked food, it is relatively easy to increase or maintain adequate intake even when eating a lower quantity.  With raw food, I have found this more difficult.  Consequently, I am not only experiencing the weakness of the medical issue, but also feeling weak simply because I haven’t taken in sufficient calories to support my body.  I continue to hope that, as I become more accustomed to eating raw, this will decrease.

So, what is the upshot for me?  I know that I will continue to do yoga, and I think that I will continue with a high raw diet.  But, while doing so, I think I need to pay better attention to the pain that my body is experiencing, and not overwhelm the body with the plans of the mind, nor expect that a pain free life is the ultimate goal.  I think that both yoga and a mindful raw diet might help me do this, if I practice.  As B.K.S. Iyengar has said: Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.

For more reading about these issues, see: Continue reading

In Praise of Learning in Sanskrit

When I first started yoga, I carefully selected tapes and streams where the instructor used little to no Sanskrit terms.  My thought process here was: Why would I want to try learning another language when I’m already busy trying to put my heart on my shin? (still has not happened).  Over time, I learned many poses, in English, and a few poses and concepts in Sanskrit.  Now, here comes the complication.  As I’m a little more advanced – a little – and take a wider variety of classes now, I find that different instructors use different amounts of Sanskrit.  Some use it rarely, only noting things like what chakra is the focus and throwing in a namaste at the end.  Some instructors pair the english name of the pose and the Sanskrit name (“ok, Chaturanga, push-up”) – that’s nice for me, as I know what to do and hear the Sanskrit as well.  Others just use the Sanskrit (“feel free to move into Sarvangasana, if that’s in your practice). The catch for me there is that I find myself mentally attempting to translate (“Hmmmm… Sarvangasana… I think that’s shoulder stand”) and end up completely out of the moment and also behind.  It’s a dilemma.  I think if I would have learned the poses in Sanskrit from the start (because, what the heck did I know from Downward Facing Dog?  Adho Mukha Svanasana would have made just as much sense to me), like a child learns a language, then it would have become more natural to me instead of something that I struggle against.  So, if you have an option, take beginning classes with as much Sanskrit as possible; I think you’ll be glad!

I wonder if there is a Rosetta Stone for Sanskrit?