Yoga as Medicine

A recent issue of Oprah Magazine features an article by Laura Hilger entitled “The Yoga Prescription.” The message is something that I’ve been telling people for a while: that yoga is not just about stretching. The idea of yoga as medicine, or therapy, is a new one for a lot of people.

I came to my yoga practice as therapy, unlike most people, who begin yoga as a fitness-related practice. I wanted to find some calm amidst the chaos inside my head. I never really considered myself athletic, and I certainly didn’t think I was flexible.

People now tell me how fit and flexible I am on a regular basis. I’m not entirely sure it’s true, but these things are all relative. Almost anyone who commits to a regular yoga practice will gain muscle tone and increase flexibility. For me, those are secondary to yoga’s primary emotional benefit: feeling good.

You just can’t put a price on feeling good.

And when it comes down to it, how many safe and legal ways are there to feel good anyway? It’s a short list, for sure. If you add to that the physical benefits, yoga is a winning combination.

One of my spiritual teachers is fond of saying that meditation (which is part of the practice of yoga) gives you the same high as sex and drugs, only it’s sustainable. It’s a high you never come down from.

Find out for yourself.

Inquire within.

The Science of Yoga, Part II

(Read part I of this post.)

Broad concludes by saying that yoga is at a critical juncture in its development. While he recognizes the limits of science (as I pointed out earlier, not everything can be quantified), he feels that the way forward for the practice of yoga is to more closely align itself with science than with gurus. He advocates more rigorous training for instructors, so that yoga will become more mainstream, and thus more fully accepted as a form of medicine.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree that yoga is at a crossroads of sorts. It seems like there are new styles of yoga appearing daily. Gurus and leaders abound promising all sorts of transformations and miracles. Unfortunately, many lack integrity. More rigorous standards might help to curtail this sort of activity.

But on the other hand, if yoga aligns itself with medicine and science, something will be lost. Unfortunately, the probability is that, because science acknowledges only what is measurable, it may not be immediately clear what has been lost. Can we measure the value of beauty? Of hope and inspiration?

If we take the sacred out of yoga, we may be left with just the shell. A series of exercises. By sacred I don’t mean religion, but rather spirituality and self-awareness. The opportunity to tap into the fullness of our own experience, to know ourselves better, and to live our lives from a much deeper place. Yoga is a bridge to the immeasurable and unquantifiable inner world.

If we make yoga science, we lose all that. If we turn it into a series of physical therapy postures, if we disempower the practice by distilling it into a series of musculo-skeletal manipulations, we will have lost something precious indeed.

The Science of Yoga

I’ve been reading William Broad’s book The Science of Yoga, in which he discusses the history of yoga, as well as debunking certain myths and mis-conceptions surrounding the practice. The book also takes a detailed look at modern research on the benefits of yoga.

It’s interesting to me that there is such a strong cultural desire to quantify the benefits of what is basically a practice that enhances quality of life. Simply put, yoga makes people feel good. To find out if this is true, try it for yourself.

But, if you need more, if your left brain simply won’t go along without more information, this is the book for you.

Did you know…

  • Yoga actually lowers your metabolism (rather than raising it).
  • Deep breathing doesn’t mean you absorb more oxygen (though your body does handle carbon dioxide differently).
  • When it comes to aerobic exercise, yoga may not be your best bet.
  • Some inverted yoga postures are considered high risk poses for neck injuries and stroke.
  • Yoga improves your sex life (many studies have demonstrated this).

The short version? There’s much more to the practice of yoga than meets the eye. Even for experienced practitioners, there’s much in Broad’s book that will be of interest. And maybe even a few surprises along the way…

The Space Between

One of my first yoga teachers used to say that the space between breaths was the space of possibility. She encouraged us to focus on that space: rather than focusing on inhaling and exhaling, to focus on pausing after exhaling and before inhaling.

While many yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) focus on inhaling, exhaling, or breath suspension following the inhale, far fewer focus on this space between – after the exhale and before the next inhale. When one breath is complete, and the next not yet begun. The space of emptiness.

Being in the gap is challenging. As soon as a space appears in our lives (metaphorical or physical) many of us look to fill it (the sooner the better, and with whatever – or whoever – is handy).

One way to reshape this is to consider that emptiness is a space for possibility. And an empty space is an opportunity. To acknowledge the completion of one phase, and the beginning of a new one.

In order for something new to enter our lives, we must first create a space for it. Then we imagine filling that space with something that feeds us, that fosters growth and upliftment. Through our intention and our attention we shape the various possibilities.

And then, from what manifests, we choose…

The Summer Solstice Experience

Every summer Kundalini Yogis from around the world gather at Ram Das Puri in the Jemez Mountains near Espanola, New Mexico for a variety of intensive workshops and 3 days of White Tantric Yoga. They call this experience Summer Solstice.It is a transformative immersion opportunity. I have had the Summer Solstice experience twice since I began practicing Kundalini Yoga. Both times I described it afterward as one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Because Ram Das Puri is in the high desert, the weather covers some surprising extremes. It can be as warm as 90 degrees during the mid-day, and as cold as 40 degrees at night. Add to that the altitude of nearly 7,000 feet, the desert sun, the dust, the wind, and occasional torrential rains, and you have quite a climate experience! (Oh, and you will be camping, so don’t forget to bring your tent!)

A day at Summer Solstice begins at 3:45 with group sadhana (spiritual practice), followed by breakfast. Throughout the day, participants have a variety of yoga workshops to choose from. Meals are included in the registration fee and follow a special cleansing diet prescribed by Yogi Bhajan, the Master of Kundalini Yoga.

One of the most remarkable features of the Solstice experience is the intentional community. Everyone who attends participates by providing some special service as part of community-building. Being part of a group of up to 2000 like-minded people coming together to pursue a common intention is incredibly powerful. Add to that the sacred history of Ram Das Puri in the Native American tradition, and Summer Solstice is an incredible opportunity to deepen one’s spiritual practice and commitment.

I think that many times if we look back and are completely honest with ourselves, the times at which we were learning the most, and having the greatest chance of moving forward, of becoming most fully ourselves, are challenging times. Letting go of who we used to be can be difficult and painful. The degree to which we will experience pain and difficulty in that process depends upon the extent to which we cling to old ideas and beliefs which no longer serve the person we are becoming.

The dates for this year’s Summer Solstice are June 14-23, 2012. Service scholarships and financial aid are available.

Photos of Summer Solstice courtesy of Amarjot Singh.

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.