It Is Well With My Soul

At the end of last year I almost died. It was in the news, but that’s not really the point. The short version of the story is that I took a trip in a friend’s small plane which ran out of fuel. We were fortunate to land successfully on the highway. It was, to be sure, a scary experience that would encourage anyone to re-evaluate his or her life goals and choices – or at the very least, make one leery of flying again anytime soon.

Those tense moments between realizing we were out of fuel and landing remarkably smoothly in the midst of traffic seemed to go on for a very long time. During them, I was surprised not by what did happen, but by what didn’t. I didn’t feel panicked or afraid of dying (though I thought we likely would all die). I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t think of all the things left unfinished, unsaid, or undone in my life. In short, I was ready. Don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t want to die. But I felt that my life was complete. I wasn’t thinking of all the things I had yet to experience, or all the changes I wanted to make.

Here’s what did happen: I remember breathing. I remember asking silently for help. I remember checking on the people I was with. I remember encouraging our pilot. I remember being surprised and grateful when we landed safely, as smoothly as we might have on a runway.

Later, my traveling companions commented on how calm I had been throughout the experience. It’s probably relevant for me to add here that I have not been, historically, a calm person. In fact, when I first began my own spiritual practice in 2003 it was to cope with anxiety and depression. After further reflection, I realized that my practice has benefited me in ways that were surprising, even to me.

In the last 8-9 years I’ve experienced my share of frustration, loss and disappointment. But fundamentally, it would seem that everything is in its right place, in divine order. While my life doesn’t look the way I thought it would, or the way I wanted it to, I’m living free from the tyranny of the past: free from intense regrets or incompletes that drain my energy. I have a history of authentic and varied relationships and life experiences. Most importantly, I’m living the choices that reflect my values. And these are the true benefits of a spiritual practice, examples of what it means to live a whole life.

I’m happy with who I have been, who I am now, and who I am becoming.

It was – and it is – well with my soul.

Forever Young Part II: Back to Basics

In this segment I want to talk a little bit about getting back to two very basic elements of health and well-being that many of us don’t spend enough time addressing. The simple truth is that drinking plenty of water and taking time to relax will tremendously affect the way you look and feel.

Drinking plenty of water is one of the easiest ways to keep looking and feeling young. I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before, right? 64+ ounces of water a day. It’s funny that some of the simplest things that you can do for yourself are also some of the most beneficial. Drinking plenty of water is like making sure you keep enough oil in your car. If you consistently run your car low on oil, your engine develops problems because of it. It would be easy and inexpensive to take preventive action.

Sometimes neglecting the little things has a high price. Take lack of hydration for instance. Not only can a lack of hydration contribute to headaches, muscle cramps and general malaise, but it will also negatively affect your skin. Your cells can literally shrivel up due to lack of hydration, increasing the appearance of wrinkles and making you look older. Of course, drinking more water may take a little getting used to. (Let’s face it, in the practical sense it means more trips to the bathroom! But taking a little down time, wherever you can get it, does a body good.) In the end it becomes a question of priorities: Some of it is what we choose to do, but it’s also how we choose to do what we do.

Breathing. We do it all the time. (In fact, I bet you’re doing it right now.) But we rarely pay attention to it. How could something so simple as breathing have such a huge impact on our well-being? Think of it – a gasp of surprise, or the short, quick breath of excitement. While these are temporary reactions, they are just small examples of the way our bodies are connected to our mental processes.

Taking slow, deep breaths has a calming effect on your nervous system. When you take short, quick, or incomplete breaths, you engage the “fight or flight” part of your nervous system, valuable in helping you escape from dangerous situations – for example, being trapped in a burning building. The potential problem here is that, once you’re safely out of harm’s way, your body doesn’t always respond as if the threat is gone.

Think of it another way. Many of us lead stress-filled lives, moving from one challenging situation to the next. In that sense, for some of us, the fire never gets put out. That’s why taking a personal time-out at the beginning and/or end of each day can be such a powerful step toward reclaiming mental clarity and facilitating physical relaxation. It takes just a few short minutes, but the results are long lasting and far-reaching. (Here’s where those extra trips to the bathroom can also come in handy – I’ve heard many people say that sometimes they feel it’s the only place where they can be alone and have a little peace! And while we may joke about that, I know that on some level, for many of us who lead busy lives with demanding schedules, it’s absolutely true.)

When the fight/flight part of your nervous system is engaged, your body releases certain chemicals, such as adrenaline, and this puts additional strain on all of your body’s organs and systems. This is why it is so important to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system, to give yourself time to rest and recharge, which will greatly contribute to both looking and feeling great.

Try this for as little as five minutes…

Take a deep breath; then exhale twice as long as you inhale. This calms the nervous system, engaging the “rest & digest” mechanism. Lie down in a comfortable position (try lying on your back, with a pillow under your knees). You could place a book on your abdomen. As you breathe, focus on moving the book up and down, breathing from deep within your belly.

While inhaling deeply through your nose, count slowly to 4 (one thousand one, one thousand two), expanding your belly.

Exhale even more slowly through your nose, counting to 8 (one thousand one, one thousand two).

There are many ways to experience your breath. Find your own rhythm, and don’t be attached to one particular method.

For detailed discussion of practical ways to keep your skin looking great, I recommend Do You Have the Guts to be Beautiful? By Jennifer Daniels MD and Mitra Ray PhD.

Forever Young

Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I notice many of my friends, co-workers, and acquaintances worrying about getting older. Or more specifically, worrying about what it means to get older. And about the fact that they are no longer part of the age category that is considered young and sexy (this goes for women especially). I think ultimately this preoccupation with aging comes from a fear of being old (often equated with being useless, unwanted or unloved). Or even the fear of dying – this in a culture which seems to virtually worship at the fountain of youth.

Much of the concern about getting older stems from people’s beliefs about aging. And in my line of work, I hear many people make statements about being in pain or having trouble moving around. And then they add, “Well that’s part of getting older, isn’t it?” And I’m not talking about people who are older. I’m talking about people my age, and younger. It surprises me that so many people I encounter fully believe that aging is a completely uncontrollable, external process, involving the increase of pain, the decrease of mobility, and the appearance of wrinkles and age spots.

While I’m not foolish enough to believe we can magically all remain forever young, part of the work that I do involves educating people about how much of the aging process is under their control. In other words, how old you feel, and even how old you look, has everything to do with how you take care of yourself, and very little to do with numbers. Now of course, I won’t deny that genetics play a role. We all know someone who smokes and lives to 100. Or someone who lays out in the sun all summer, yet still looks 20 years younger than his/her chronological age. But by and large, much of how you age is in your hands.

On of the ways that yoga and other similar practices can help you feel younger is by maintaining the health and flexibility of your spine. What’s really important is the health of the tissues between the vertebrae. Several key yogic warmups and postures such as spinal flexes (“cat-cow”) and spinal twists stimulate blood flow and circulation to these tissues and help keep your spine healthy. These exercises also stimulate the flow of your cerebral spinal fluid, thereby strengthening your nervous system.

Additionally, yoga can help you retain the range of motion in your joints. Exercises that regularly utilize your range of motion also help lubricate your joints by increasing the synovial fluid. Much the way that oil keeps your car’s engine running smoothly. If your joints are in good working order and you retain range of motion, as you get older you will move like a young person, regardless of your age. This will also mean that you will appear younger, as you will move more easily and fluidly than many other people in your age group.

A further key benefit from yoga is core strength and balance. Core muscles are deep abdominal muscles which run crosswise/horizontally (like a belt). They are located underneath your “six pack muscles” which run lengthwise or vertically. Core muscles help to stabilize you and protect your low back. Having a strong core can mean that you are less likely to strain or injure your low back. Also, strong core muscles, and “moving from your core” (rather than leading with your head in a head-forward or headfirst posture) means you will have a lower center of gravity and also a better sense of balance. This will allow you to more easily right yourself if you slip or trip.

Please look for additional discussion of this topic in my next post. In the meantime, if you want more food for thought, you may enjoy this inspiring article about a 91 year old yoga instructor who has been practicing for decades.

Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?

William Broad’s article from the January 5, 2012, New York Times Magazine, entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” has been met with a variety of responses from the yoga community. What I’ve personally heard is many people criticizing Broad, or more specifically, Glenn Black, the yoga teacher interviewed in the article, for badmouthing yoga.

The problem is not with yoga itself but with the limited understanding and application of this program of study, particularly here in the West. There is a common misconception that yoga is “good for what ails you” and that almost anyone can improve his/her physical health by taking a yoga class at the local gym, 60-90 minutes of sweating through a variety of intense physical postures. But yoga itself is not really a physical exercise program at all.

Yoga is a philosophy or way of living often called the “8 fold path” because of its eight aspects, of which only one involves physical postures, or asana. The vast majority of yoga taught in this country is hyper-focused on this one aspect of what yoga truly is, with a few oms thrown in. Yoga includes other essential elements, such as self-awareness, self-discipline, concentration, breathwork, and meditation. Without these, yoga becomes just another form of physical exercise. In fact, the asana are not the focus of the practice at all, merely a preliminary technique for preparing the body for meditation.

Another cause of the confusion about yoga is that any generic discussion of the practice of yoga often doesn’t take into account that there are dozens of different styles of yoga, many of which bear little resemblance to each other while still sharing the same underlying philosophical basis. In other words, telling someone you “do yoga” is almost meaningless without any explanation of the specifics of what is involved.

At one point in the article, Black tells people who have had major trauma, “Don’t do yoga.” I would say, “If you’re going to practice yoga, you must practice it differently. With a different mindset and a different goal.” Again, the problem is not doing yoga, it’s the HOW and WHY of doing yoga. Change your focus and motivation in the practice, and you will experience the practice differently. This speaks to the point that Black makes regarding the presence of “ego” in yoga. Unfortunately, there is a prevailing attitude and mindset that a “better” or more advanced practice involves more physically challenging postures, when in fact this is not the case.

I’ve been practicing yoga since 2003, and teaching since 2006. During that time, I’ve attended a variety of workshops around the country taught by well-known instructors and had the opportunity to observe hundreds of students during the practice as well. Sadly, I do know where Black is coming from. I have witnessed a number of unsafe practices in classes and workshops, students encouraged to push themselves beyond was they could safely do. I’ve also been encouraged to attempt postures I was uncomfortable with because I knew I didn’t have the particular physical strength or key flexibilities to do them correctly. Sadly, I’ve also been criticized by other practitioners and teachers for choosing not to practice (and not to teach) certain physically risky postures that are common to various asana sequences in popular yoga.

Yoga really is good medicine. But like any other therapeutic treatment, it must be applied skillfully and under the guidance of a professional. You wouldn’t just walk into a pharmacy, take a bottle of pills off the shelf, and assume they must be the right ones to lower your blood pressure. Take the wrong medication, in the wrong dosage, and it likely will cause harm. At the very least, it will not produce the desired results. Yoga is no different. Practicing yoga with a “weekend warrior” mentality after working 80 hours during the week and living off fast food is a risky proposition.

Like any other exercise program, yoga has its risks. If you have knee problems, you wouldn’t start a intense physical training program without first checking with your doctor and the instructor to discuss how the program of study might impact your physical condition. Likewise, you must take the same approach with yoga, if you choose to practice it as a physical form of exercise, as the majority of people in this country do.