No Pain, No Gain? Part II

“There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.”

The point of this parable, of course, is that nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Things happen in life, but it is the story we attach to them that can bring us additional suffering, as was discussed in the previous entry. And emotional suffering (along with other factors, of course) can have an impact on the type and degree of pain we experience.

The idea that pain may have an in-organic cause is new to a lot of people. Sometimes the easiest way to understand it is that pain is often stress-related. Stress can be defined as wanting things to be different than they actually are. When we can’t be present with acceptance of what is, that creates a situation of stress which can lead to or exacerbate physical pain for many people.

David Morris concludes his article “Belief and Narrative” with this observation: “Knowledge of the complex ways in which cultural beliefs, values, and narratives shape pain is as important as the science of neurons and genetic markers. It constitutes a valuable resource for clinicians in a multicultural environment in which pain is the symptom that most often initiates the doctor-patient visit. It suggests that clinicians might help patients to enhance beneficial beliefs and to identify–and possibly alter–beliefs and narratives that seem to make their pain worse.”

What Morris seems to be suggesting is that the medical community’s current focus on the organic causes of pain, and attempts to quantify what is largely a subjective and emotional experience, limits what could be a more nuanced and holistic understanding of the experience of pain. Indeed, if the medical community has a focus on pain relief, it is most likely influenced by the fact that pain is what gets most people to the doctor. And, in addition, most people perceive the problem to be resolved when they are no longer in pain.

Of course, we can also add to that the prevailing belief that one must experience additional pain to resolve the earlier pain. But the reason the emotional factor is important is because to truly resolve an issue we must go to the root of the problem, to the source. Treating the surface symptoms doesn’t necessary resolve the core issue. Thus, problems are likely to recur, even with medical intervention, if the core issue as not been addressed.

I think what we’re really talking about here with pain is a paradigm shift with regard to how we approach pain…it’s not the pain that’s the problem, it’s our wanting to avoid the pain and get rid of it. If we can begin to view the experience of pain differently, as a message, we can begin a journey toward relating to our experiences in a new way. One of the keys is by shifting out of the dualistic mindset of either-or, good-bad, as the story teaches.

Read more online zen stories.

No Pain, No Gain?

As a massage therapist, I am amazed by how often I hear statements like this: “Don’t worry, I can take a lot of pain. I’m tough. Plus it’s gotta hurt in order to feel better, right?” Not necessarily! This myth seems to have originated in the fitness industry. It’s a persistent misconception, and it speaks volumes about social attitudes toward wellness.

I suppose the easy answer is that these people are simply closeted masochists, eager to suffer in a socially sanctioned way. But it’s not that simple. People are generally only willing to suffer if they think something good will come out of it. I think it’s more to the point that there’s some pervasive belief in our culture that through pain, success of some sort is achieved. Or that any success worth achieving is bound to be painful.

An interesting article by David B. Morris in The Scientist entitled “Belief and Narrative” discusses the cultural dimension of pain. Morris observes, “’No pain, no gain’ is an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only through hardship.”

If there’s some validity to those previous ideas, it also follows that those things that are good for us (or will lead to some increased “achievement” in some area of life) cannot be pleasant, or enjoyable. Nutritious food must be taste-less or unpleasant. Exercise must be onerous and painful. Massage, too, must be painful in order to be beneficial. So it sets up an expectation that anything that is in the name of health, healing, fitness, or general wellness is likely to be, in short, unpleasant.

Morris goes on to explain the importance of narrative related to pain, in terms of “the patient’s own story.” He notes that pain is largely a subjective experience and that a variety of social and emotional factors have an impact. For example, “Chronic lower back pain is often impossible to trace to an organic lesion, such as a prolapsed disk. The narrative that describes pain as a reliable alarm system justifies countless unnecessary surgeries. It cannot, however, begin to explain why the two strongest signs predicting that an American worker will develop chronic back pain are job dissatisfaction and unsatisfactory social relations in the workplace.” In other words, many times pain has a non-organic cause, and continually searching for an organic (ie medical, physical) cause of pain is an increasing source of frustration for a lot of people I see in my line of work. Often pain is related to other factors and it’s hard for people to understand that at first.

There is a Buddhist aphorism that goes something like this: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” This is an homage to the idea that in life physical and emotional pain are unavoidable. They are part of the experience of being here, and being in a body. But the suffering part, that is the part within our control. We can directly impact the experience we have by the stories, the narratives, we create around our experiences. The Buddhists would say that when we try to avoid pain, that is when we suffer the most.

Kirtan: Music and Mantra

Kirtan is a devotional practice that includes call-and-response chanting of mantras set to music. It could also be defined as prayer or meditation in the form of the names of the divine. The musical aspect of kirtan is slightly different from “singing” in the sense that the goal is not to be on key so much as it is to participate in the group sacred energy.

Kirtan is very much a participatory experience. One goes to kirtan not just to be an audience member, but to take part in the creation of sacred space through raising one’s voice (don’t worry, no one’s listening). The purpose is to create a sacred sound vibration, and to be immersed in the experience, to be moved (sometimes literally, as you will see in the video clips). As discussed in Meditation and the Monkey Mind, a mantra can be a helpful focal point – a place to return to over and over when distracted by stray thoughts.

If you’ve ever been to a great concert, you’ve probably experienced how the music can take you somewhere, outside of yourself. Kirtan combines this musical experience with the meditation/mantra experience. Meditation has an impact on your brain waves; it changes your brain chemistry. The easiest way to understand that change is to experience it.

Check out these popular Kirtan artists in concert on YouTube (3 very different styles):

Now that you’ve had an introduction to kirtan at home, come experience live kirtan with The Sacred Waters Kirtan Group at Unity Church in South Bend on Friday, March 23, at 7pm.

The 40-day Sadhana Challenge

“The highest sadhana is that your presence should remind people of God. What bigger and more powerful miracle than that can there be, that by your very presence you can invoke Godhood in people?” – Yogi Bhajan

Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini Yoga to the United States in the 1960s, recommended that all practitioners do sadhana, or daily spiritual practice, as a way of connecting with the infinite on a regular basis. Since Kundalini Yoga meditations have impact in as little as 3 minutes, sadhana need not be long in order to be effective.

The key is consistency. Yogi Bhajan said it takes 40 days to change or break a habit. So then 40 consecutive days is the minimum time period for any sadhana. Sadhana requires a basic level of discipline, while building a higher level of commitment in the practitioner.

A lot of people think that they need to study with a famous teacher or attend a retreat in a far-off exotic location to grow their spiritual practice. This is simply not the case. Real growth comes from an individual’s daily commitment to engaging in the practice. The most popular teacher, the most amazing retreat, will not be useful without that firm and grounded commitment to the practice day after day, whether sick or well, busy or bored.

Doing sadhana means maintaining that spark of the divine within you. It will change how you feel, how you see yourself, and how others see you. But don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself. And if you need to see the evidence, check out How God Changes Your Brain, by Andrew Newberg, MD.

Photo of Yogi Bhajan © 2004 Gurumustuk Khalsa –

Innerspace: Yoga and Emotional Life

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012One of the topics discussed by William Broad in his recent interview on NPR was the impact that yoga has on emotional health, particularly for those who are suffering from depression (see Broad’s new book for the science). In this post, I’d like to share some observations from the perspective of a teacher and long-term practitioner about some of the practical benefits of yoga, in terms of one’s emotional life.

When I began practicing yoga on the recommendation of a counselor in 2003, I had been struggling with long-term depression and anxiety. I didn’t really think that yoga would help. But then again, I felt that I had nothing to lose, as the other things I had tried on my own hadn’t exactly helped either. (I don’t mind admitting I had quite a number of self-help books collecting dust on my bookshelf.) I was skeptical but willing to check it out.

I started going to yoga classes once or twice a week. I didn’t really notice too much at first. I had moments of feeling calm and relaxed. But otherwise, my life proceeded pretty much as usual, despite these blips on my emotional landscape. It was only over time, as I continued with the practice (and started spending a few minutes each day at home doing yoga as well) that I began to notice that these blips became more frequent. They also lasted longer. I grew my awareness of what I was experiencing, in the blips and outside of it. I became interested, curious about how I moved in and out of that mental space. I began to notice certain thoughts and the way they could trigger a certain mood or prevailing mindset. I began to unravel my own stories, about myself, about other people, about things that had happened in my life. All of this, over time, brought huge changes to my emotional landscape.

I think one reason why yoga is so effective for people dealing with anxiety or depression (or a variety of other emotions, for that matter) is that a regular practice which includes meditation creates a “gap” that has the potential to bring one out of his/her experience. A lot of people tend to get flooded (overwhelmed) by their emotional experiences – their emotions are running them. Yoga can, over time, build emotional awareness and emotional intelligence. When you’re “down in it”, so to speak, it’s very hard to gain any sense of perspective. The meditation aspect of the yoga practice can give a little reprieve; a different vantage point, however briefly maintained, can be the beginning of long-term and far-reaching changes.

I didn’t expect any of this from the practice. No one told me it would happen, or that it could. I just wanted to relax. I wanted a bit of peace from myself, a rest from my own stories. And it turned out that what I found was so much more than that.

Photo by Virginia Olson © 2012

Understanding the Risks of Inversions

In yoga, inversions (which can be considered any posture in which the hips are higher than the head) are some of the most risky and most popular postures. Inversions, in theory, can be very good for the body. They improve core strength, stimulate the lymph system, and provide an energy reversal. Inversions, like spinal twists, are generally not part of very many other exercise programs outside of yoga, and that’s one of the reasons they are so popular among practitioners. But the problem with inversions is that they are so often practiced incorrectly.

One popular (and complete) inversion practiced in yoga is exactly what it sounds like: the headstand. Now, the problem with the headstand is that the head and neck were not meant to take the weight of the body. Headstand, when done properly, places very little weight on the crown of the head, and most of the weight in the forearms. It also includes the use of appropriate padding. When done improperly, headstand, shoulder stand, plow, bridge, and other inversions place too much pressure on the head or neck (and the cervical vertebrae). Over time, these postures can do serious damage if practiced incorrectly.

Even a partial inversion like downward dog must be practiced with care and attention. One of the problems identified by William Broad is that, with many hot yoga practices (and indeed outside of hot yoga as well) a hyper-mobility of the joints means that there is a lack of stability. Lots of people have the sense that yoga is about flexibility. But it’s actually about balancing strength and flexibility in order to maintain the integrity of the posture. The shoulder joint is one of the “complex joints” Broad mentions in his NPR interview which is easily compromised through incorrect practice of common yoga postures such as downward dog.

Now, I’m not saying that inversions shouldn’t be practiced at all, or that they can’t be practiced safely. When done properly, they are safe for most people without injuries or contraindications (such as un-medicated high blood pressure). The problem is that most of the time they aren’t done properly. It takes a lot of time, a lot of warm-up, and a lot of set-up (in terms of blankets and other props) to do these postures correctly. Thus, they are postures best suited for workshops or advanced classes.

The White Tantric Yoga Experience

In the Kundalini Yoga tradition there is a special all-day meditation experience called “White Tantric Yoga.” (WTY)  It’s a partner meditation where hundreds of pairs sit facing each other in rows. The day consists of a series of meditations of varying lengths, generally 62 minutes or less, with breaks in between. WTY is designed to release blocks in the subconscious. The meditations typically include hand/body positions (mudra), eye focus, and sacred sound (mantra). In between the meditations, video clips of Yoga Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga, are shown in which he discusses the purpose and benefits of each meditation in that day’s program.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that WTY is not a sexual practice. The word tantra has become almost synonymous with sex, but it’s important to realize there are different types of tantra, not all of them sexual. While the meditation is done with a partner, it need not be someone you are romantically involved with, or even someone you know. Many people just show up at WTY and see who else shows up that they’d like to partner with for the day.

In my first WTY experience, the element that struck me most was the eye gazing. Many of the meditations were performed with the eyes open, looking directly into the partner’s eyes for 30-60 minutes at a stretch. It was a completely new experience for me. I’d never sustained that kind of eye contact before, even in my long-term romantic relationships – and my partner for the day was a complete stranger I’d met when I arrived at the workshop! At first, I found it uncomfortable, then I started to notice changes. I found I could see aspects of myself reflected in the other person, and I found that, in time, I was looking through that person, rather than at her.

So far in my Kundalini practice, I’ve completed 10 days of WTY. Every experience is different. Sometimes the day is intensely physical; sometimes it’s intensely emotional. Sometimes I wished it wouldn’t end, and other times I was ready to run out the door 2 minutes after we started (but I didn’t). That often depends on whatever I’m working through at the time, and whatever is triggered by the meditations in that day’s program.

WTY is a fantastic opportunity to move through blocks in your life. It’s offered in major cities in the United States and around the world. Chicago’s WTY is Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Yoga and Better Sex

This post is in response to a reader who asked for more information about how yoga can improve your sex life. Now, I’m not a scientist, and indeed if you want the scientific evidence you may wish to check out William Broad’s new book, but I do have a few things to say on the topic as a teacher and long-time practitioner.

One of the reasons that yoga leads to better sex is it builds inner sensitivity and awareness. So, much like meditation turns up the volume on mental chatter, a serious yoga practice turns up the volume on body sensations. Because yoga builds body awareness and sensitivity, bodily experiences are more powerful. I would say that sex is one of the most physically intense experiences that one can have – and yoga can make it even more so.

So, yoga practice develops and stresses attentiveness to sensation, and sensations that one focuses on tend to grow and expand. Beyond these kinds of considerations, a regular long-term yoga/meditation practice can build your ability to be really present in any experience, including the experience of physical touch and arousal.

While yoga itself doesn’t guarantee physical health, those who practice on a regular basis tend to be more physically healthy and do more to take care of their bodies as part of an overall lifestyle focus. Specifically, it’s worth mentioning that some yogic energy locks utilize and strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, which can enhance your sex life by intensifying the physical aspect of orgasm.

On a more esoteric level, yoga balances the body’s energy system: your chakras, and the energy highway along the spinal column (sushmuna). One of the ways it does so is by changing overall breathing patterns. A change in breathing can influence the nervous system and overall energy flow. Yoga increases overall energetic health and opens the energy meridians (pathways) in the body. This in turn enhances the energetic aspect of orgasm.

So, as we’ve seen so far, a yoga practice can potentially increase both the physical and energetic aspects of arousal and orgasm. Emotionally speaking, in terms of sex drive or interest in sex, yoga (in the most generic sense) makes people feel good. When people feel good they are generally a bit happier, a bit more content, and a bit more engaged. They tend to be less tense and more physically relaxed. Which may make them a bit more focused – less scattered physically, energetically, and emotionally.

While a yoga practice may awaken amazing physical and energetic sensations and experiences in the body, it’s important to be thoughtful and grounded in what the Buddhists would call “right action,” as discussed in my last post. If we do whatever we feel like doing, without regard for the consequences, we’re ignoring the philosophical basis of the practice of yoga. Sexual energy is really powerful. But harnessing that power includes an obligation to consciously utilize that energy in an ethical way in daily life.

Yoga and Sex

On Feburary 27, 2012, William Broad’s article “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here”appeared in the New York Times. If you’re not part of the yoga community (or even if you are), you might not have heard about the recent scandal surrounding John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. Broad blames yoga’s origin as a “sex cult” and argues that, in many ways, such scandals are hardly a surprise.

While it’s true that there’s definitely a much stronger relationship between yoga and sex than most people within the practice will acknowledge or admit, it’s also worth mentioning that the core issue is not the link between yoga and sex, but rather personal responsibility, ethics, and leadership. It’s hardly surprising that people who lack discipline, maturity, and self-control will mis-use sexuality.

Sex scandals (and sexual violence in general) outside of yoga are just as common as within the yoga community. The mis-use of sexuality is rampant in our culture. Opportunities to learn how to responsibly use sexual energy are rare. And as a culture, we shy away from frank and open discussions of sexuality. Anything that isn’t openly acknowledged and talked about has the potential to “go underground,” to become something hidden and shameful.

It’s unfortunate this is the case, because it denies many people the opportunity to learn about themselves and their sexuality in an environment of open-ness and non-judgment. And it contributes to the kind of scandals we hear about all too often. Far too many leaders in the yoga community have been the subject of sex scandals. Broad’s article mentions a number of them, and Friend is by no means the first. Unfortunately these type of scandals cause people to distance themselves from the practice and give it a bad reputation.

Spiritual growth includes a period of spiritual adolescence. Sometimes people spend a long time in a place where they are “talking the talk” before actually “walking the walk.” There’s a lot of lip service paid to concepts of peace and love and oneness in yoga, and in spiritual community in general. But underneath that, there are a lot of people who are still angry, still hurting, and still have a lot to be healed.

Sometimes we are guilty of looking up to the wrong people, of looking to flash and charisma over substance. Who’s making the loudest noise or attracting the biggest crowd – in other words, that person who’s talking the talk. Sometimes we don’t exercise enough discernment. An impressive facade can make us gloss over inconsistencies. Sometimes those who appear to be the most impressive don’t have the qualities we would want real leaders to possess.

And sometimes those who do have those qualities, who are walking the walk, who truly possess leadership potential, want to live quiet lives removed from the world. I would have said, not long ago, that there’s nothing wrong with that. But the more I realize what a scarcity there is of true leaders, the more I realize that those people with substance, with integrity, with maturity, have an obligation to step forward, to build real leadership skills on that foundation, and provide an example that other people can truly look up to.

The Yoga Industrial Complex

On February 10, 2012, William Broad was interviewed on NPR  regarding his new book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. Broad is a somewhat controversial figure in the yoga community, as discussed in my earlier entry “Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?” in response to his January 2012 article in The New York Times Magazine. He has upset a lot of people by saying that yoga can, in fact, be dangerous – like any tool when used improperly.

Broad uses the term “yoga industrial complex” to describe a mindset within the yoga community that includes a reluctance to acknowledge the risks of practicing yoga. He has received a great deal of negative feedback from teachers and practitioners. Now, there’s something ironic about hate mail coming from yogis, but spiritual growth is a process. Some of us are still in our adolescence, and most of us aren’t yet enlightened (or we wouldn’t still be here).

Yoga is a practice which has slowly found more social acceptance over the past few decades, but isn’t necessarily mainstream. One of the reasons it’s finding acceptance is because people are learning it can do great things for the body. If the culture at large starts to perceive yoga as potentially dangerous, what does that do to yoga’s popularity? The popularity of yoga of course means that there is more money to be made in this field. To that end, there are more and more yoga classes, and more and more teachers. While this can be a good thing, it’s also problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, yoga teaching is an unregulated profession. While training program are available (basic certifications start at 200 hours), completion of such a program is not required to teach yoga. This means that it’s important to ask questions when you sign up to take a yoga class, to find out what type of training and experience the instructor has, and what style of yoga will be practiced in the class (as well as what level of physical activity to expect). The Yoga Alliance works to maintain standards within the profession by requiring that Registered Yoga Teachers complete a minimum of 200 hours of training from a certified program. But it’s unwise to assume that every yoga class is taught by a yoga teacher who has completed this training – it’s simply not the case.

Second, the popularity of yoga means increased class sizes. Even a highly qualified instructor has difficulty maintaining a safe practice environment when there are more than 20-30 students in the room. The other thing that happens, as yoga becomes more popular and classes get larger, is that yoga becomes competitive. Now competition is the antithesis of everything the practice truly stands for, but believe me when I tell you I have observed this phenomenon in a number of venues. People are looking around, seeing what everyone else is doing, who can more “fully” go into certain postures, or stay in them longer, etc. Any competitive aspect in the practice carries with it an increased risk because an outward focus, rather than an inward focus, in yoga, means that you are less likely to pay attention to signals within the body that may indicate a threshold. In other words, if you’re focused on trying to keep up with everyone else, you are more likely to injure yourself.

One of the areas of focus in the interview was the claims that practitioners and teachers make about yoga, and that included discussion of research conducted on the matter of the science of yoga. It’s funny to me the focus on science. Maybe it shouldn’t be. We are a culture of reason. People don’t want to just hear that something works, they want the evidence trotted out, compiled, and annotated. They want to know that science can demonstrate – can quantify – what practitioners of yoga already know: Yoga makes you feel good. It also improves your sex life.

Yes, you read that right. One of the lesser known benefits of yoga (and one that will probably have people signing up for classes in droves) is that it improves your sex life. In our hyper-sexual culture, there’s a lot of talk about the mechanics of sex, about the physical aspects of sexual function, but not a lot of discussion of sexual satisfaction. Yoga practice can not only boost your sex drive, but can give you “increased arousal, better orgasm, [and] more overall satisfaction.” In other words, not only more sex, but better sex. How’s that for incentive?

More on this topic in my next post.