Friday, December 15, 2006

Beginner's Mind

Recently I started looking around for a new physical discipline. My body is very accustomed to the rhythms and flow of yoga, and although I am far from any mastery of yoga I was feeling the loss of my "Beginner's Mind."
"Beginner's Mind" is a really important phrase in both my and Gwen's life. Like most people, we came across it from Shunryu Suzuki's book "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.""Beginner's Mind" on the surface has a simple meaning. Try to do things with the spirit of an absolute beginner. When a beginner approaches a task they don't have any assumptions about how it should be done. They look at everything with fresh eyes.

When I was a kid I used to hang out at the arcade. This was the early 90's; the golden age of the fighting game. Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat, and Samurai Showdown were the games we all came to see and be seen on. I was pretty good, and could beat most people who challenged me, but I remember that the hardest people to fight were those who had never played the game before. They just went crazy, smashing all the buttons and waving the joystick in all directions. None of my attacks worked because the new person wasn't playing right, there was no sense of timing, no special attacks, it was just random button pushing. In fact, when we veterans would get beat like that, we'd console ourselves by saying "don't worry about it man, that guy was just a button pusher."But you know, those button pushers had the most fun of any of us. They were just happy to see their character move around the screen and do cool stuff. That's beginner's mind. But in time they would learn about the special moves and combos and then they became really easy to beat, because suddenly they were trying to win.

So I asked around and researched and decided, in tribute to my youth as a video game brawler, to try a martial art. Originally my plan was a soft art to complement yoga, such as judo, aikido or even tai chi, which is based on martial arts. But I couldn't find a style that fit my schedule and location. I was asking my friend Kaz about it one day and he mentioned that he had seen a new karate dojo just down the street from the yoga studio. I checked out their poster and it was like "full contact!" all over the place in exploding font. With some reservations, I climbed up to the 3rd floor to check the place out.

Well, they were really nice, and after a few kicks and punches I was really into it. It was such a change from yoga, but not jarring. Instead of using the muscles for pinpoint control, I was using them for explosive power. But it's the same muscles, and the balance and breath are all similiar to yoga.

But a few things bothered me, especially "sanchin dachi." This is the basic stance in karate and looks like this:At first I just couldn't see how this could be a helpful way to stand. The knees and ankles are torqued like crazy, the joints are all out of line, and the spine is forced into an awkward compact curve. I kept widening my stance, and the sensei kept correcting me. After half an hour I realized that I was carrying over a lot of ideas about how the body should be positioned from my yoga experience, and that, even in my first lesson, I had lost my beginner's mind. So I relaxed, listened to the teacher, and didn't worry about why, just enjoyed the how.

Well, I've been practicing karate hard for a month now, and I can say the sanchin dachi continually surprises me. What I felt as unnatural torque in the joints is actually more like a wound up spring, and when you throw a punch (combined with a twist of the hips) you can powerfully release that energy. In addition, having your legs closed allows for easy blocks of low kicks.

That's just one small example of how letting go and not thinking so much has taught me more than forcing my preconceptions onto things. But the true meaning of beginner's mind is not about how to be good at any physical activity, but how to approach yourself. Beginner's mind ultimately means looking at everything, including your thoughts, without judgment, without endless commentary, without an overlay of the ego. It means to be in the moment, truly alive.

Hai Ya!

Yoga Garden

Monday, November 27, 2006

Clock Time vs. Real Time

Hi all, sorry it's been so long since the last update. We have been busy with new teachers, new projects, and big changes.

One of the projects that kept me busy this month was my presentation at Yokohama International School's annual conference, "Bridging the Gap." You may remember (and you can check the blog archives) that we gave a yoga presentation at the same conference last year. This time, I thought it would be good to change things up a little bit, and decided to focus on Buddhist ideas rather than Yogic ones.

I'd like to outline here the first part of my lecture that day. It has to do with the way we perceive time. I started by asking the attendees what images came to mind when they thought of the word time. The first answer was, of course a "clock."

Clocks are very useful machines, but they have a way of distorting our perception of time. When you look at a clock, the present moment is just the smallest sliver of a line, and you get the feeling that the present is getting away from you, especially with the clocks that have a ticking second hand. "Tick-tick-tick-tick...." just the thought of it makes me feel stressed out, like time is running out. Stand in Shinjuku station and watch people running madly to catch a train on the Yamanote line. In a full sprint, they will sometimes knock people over to catch that train. The thing is, the Yamanote line has trains coming every two minutes. This is the end result of a culture that obsesses about time getting away from it. Always running, never feeling like there is enough time.

In the modern world it can sometimes seem that we are walking the tightrope of time, the past a huge, yawning space behind us, the future an immense fog ahead, and we are stuck on the smallest bit of now, marooned between two chasms. You can get this feeling by looking at one of the oldest ways to measure time, the hourglass...

Do you see how "now" is squeezed between the two larger sections of past and future? What a stressful way to think about the world! It's also completely wrong. This is the good news of buddhism. The present moment is the only moment that anything has ever or will ever happen in. For example, I am thinking now about the time I got my wisdom teeth pulled. That was about 5 years ago. But 5 years ago is an imaginary place. In reality, my brain is going through a electrochemical process to bring up that memory in the present moment. Similiarly, I am now thinking about my plans for the New Year holiday which happens in a month. But that New Year's Holiday is an imaginary place. The thoughts about it are happening now. All we have is now. And when you stop investing so much energy into the imaginary past and future, and instead focus on the very real present moment, you are practicing what buddhists call mindfullness. Accepting the moment for what it is without extra layers of judgement and comparison.

This is all kind of heavy stuff, so I find it helpful to use illustrations to make it more vivid. Let's revisit the hourglass from before, except this time we'll try to make an hourglass that reflects the true nature of the world...

The past and future are the parts that should be squeezed out, not the now, in fact if you keep squeezing them smaller and smaller you'll get something like this...
look familiar?

And how about that clock that was chopping up the present moment into impossibly small chunks? Well, I'm happy to announce you can now buy this clock from this online store.

Something special happens when you let go of the past and future, or more accurately, of the way things were and the way you want them to be. Instead of "I hope this rain clears up so I can go out" you arrive at "Look at the rain. It's so nice to be warm and dry inside right now." The first is a thought pattern of frustration, the second a pattern of thankfulness and compassion. Which would you rather spend your short time on earth experiencing?

The thing is, our world practically forces us into the past/future way of thinking. Every advertisement you see is selling you a future you, where you are happier and more complete (with the help of their product). To break out of this thinking requires a lot of effort. You can feel it in sports, where you focus completely on the task at hand, or in a hobby where your attention is completely absorbed. But there is a much more accesible way to gain access to the present moment. Just sit down, and stop doing so much. Stop doing anything at all. Sit and let your thoughts come and go, without grabbing on to them and chasing them around. Just be.
Welcome to the world of meditation.

So, what time is it right now? Remember, there is the imaginary answer...

and the real one...

Enjoy your now!

Yoga Garden

Saturday, October 21, 2006

True Forgiveness

Almost all western religions talk about the value of forgiveness, and almost all western cultures ignore it. I remember when I was a kid in Catholic school and I first heard the part of the Sermon on the Mount about "if someone smacks you on the right side of your face, show them the left side so that they can smack that one too." Ok, I'm paraphrasing, here's the real verse:

"You have heard that it was said, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."(Matthew 5:38-42, NIV)

I remember reading that and thinking "Jeeze, you'd be a real sissy if you did all those things." That kind of "forgiveness" made you a sucker... a rube... a doormat. In the movies of my childhood the hero always got the last laugh. I really liked the cartoon G.I. Joe, and you never saw those guys turning the other cheek when Cobra Commander attacked their secret base. This spilled over into my real life too. I used to have these vivid fantasies about learning kung fu from an old master and beating up the school bullies with my lighting fast spin kicks and hardened chi punch-blasts (I told you they were vivid!). Turning the other cheek meant that you... well, had lost. And who wants to be a loser?
Unfortunately it seems like grown-ups are just as succeptible to these revenge fantasies. After September 11 Noam Chomsky wrote a book detailing exactly what the US had been doing to make Muslims so angry and he was given a really rough time about being a terrorist sympathizer. People wanted to get even with those guys, not to understand them. Anyone who saw how angry Arabs were with us and actually wanted to know the reasons behind this anger (beyond "they are evil") was treated like a traitor. 9/11 is just the first example that popped into my head, there are so many smaller ones. Another one I can think of is whenever the US executes someone, the media always manages to find a relative of one of the victims who says "I hope he rots in hell." Not to forget how some people said AIDS was god's vengeance on homosexuals.

And in our own lives, how often do hear about something bad happening to someone we dislike, and think "well, he got what he deserved." The other day a taxi almost ran over me on my bicycle and as he sped away I thought to myself, "I hope he smashes up his taxi and has to pay for it." This kind of thinking for most of us is subconscious and automatic. Sure, it's nice to say "turn the other cheek," but come on people, this is the real world. You don't want to be a sucker, do you?

Well, this week we all had a chance to catch a glimpse of what the world would be like if we all lived up to the ideal of Jesus. A gunman went into an Amish school and executed 5 schoolgirls before he killed himself. The full, sad, story is here.

This is an interesting event to me because it is the most extreme example of injustice anyone could ever come up with. These people are Amish! They have never hurt anybody. Not only that, they were Amish schoolgirls! There wouldn't be a soul on earth who could blame these parents for hating the man that did this with all their hearts.

But that's not what the Amish did. They forgave the gunman. And they went beyond that, they really did turn the other cheek, they set up a fund for the killer's family at a local bank. The full, uplifting story is here. What's so wonderful is that both the Amish and the killer's family aren't getting stuck in a cycle of blame and recrimination. They are moving foward, and even creating new bonds in their community out of the ruin of this tragedy.

And do the Amish look like suckers? No way! They have shown the world that they are true Christians, (I am now a big fan of the Amish and will think highly of them for the rest of my life) If they could do that for a madman who killed their daughters, would it be so hard to imagine forgiving that taxi driver and wishing him the best, maybe even not try to cross the street in front of him even when my walk signal is green?

It's almost impossible to imagine a world where terrorists attack us and we say, "we forgive you. How can our government aid you in a way that your young people have more to live for than becoming human bombs?" But we can make small steps in our own lives, not only to forgive, but to take the extra step, give the theif our shirt and our cloak.

It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from G.I. Joe. When one of the good guys would have a risky plan, the team would always think it over and after much debate someone would say, "It's so crazy it just might work."


Yoga Garden

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mindfulness Is Hard!

I often speak about the importance of mindfulness, that is, being in the present moment, and last week I experienced a good example of it.

I was beginning my meditation practice at around 6:00 pm. I sat facing out onto the veranda at the studio. As I prepared to do zazen I happily noticed that the sun would be setting during my meditation time, and I would have a chance to really enjoy the changing colors of the clouds. I was relaxed and comfortable, it was going to be a great sit.
As you may know we have a small reed fence on the studio veranda, and as I sat with it in front of me I noticed that the strips that hold it to the rail really needed to be clipped. You could see the ends of them hanging out over the balcony and it just didn't look well put together. The only problem was that it would be really hard to reach them. Once before I tried standing on a footstool and leaning over the rail but it felt pretty dangerous with half my body hanging out over the edge. The other option would be to climb over the fence and stand on the little outside ledge, that way it would be easy to clip the strips, but I would have to keep one hand on the rail at all times. Perhaps I could tie myself to it in case I lost my grip?

That reminded me of a similiar situation when I was in boarding school in North Carolina. My freshman year I lived on the second floor next to my friend John, and during study hall we would open our windows and talk to pass the time. One day John had locked himself out of his room. I don't remember why now, but it was really important that he get back in there quickly. Fortunately, he had left his window open, and I proposed that I just hop out on to the ledge of my window, shimmy over to his window, jump into his room and open the door from the inside. We decided this was a good plan. Sure, it would have been a 20 foot fall, but the infirmary awning would catch most of my weight and I wouldn't break any bones (probably).

So, I clambered out onto the ledge, and just as I was about to make the tricky transition to John's ledge, I hear "Mr. Reynolds, get off of there this instant!" It was the headmaster. Of all the times in the day, he had chosen that instant to take his poodle for a walk around the back of the dorms where no one ever goes. "Stay in your room, I want to have a serious discussion with you! There will be consequences for this!"

Meanwhile, John was freaking out. He had never been in trouble in his life. He said he was going to get kicked out of school for "aiding and abetting." He actually used those words, and he was rolling around on the floor holding his stomach because he was so nervous.

Anyway, we got in a little trouble, but nothing too serious. And now we all laugh about this story. I was sitting there with a big grin on my face just thinking about it.

Oh, right... sitting. Suddenly I snapped back into the present. The room was the same, the fence needed to be clipped, and, it was almost dark outside. Almost dark! I had missed the sunset entirely. In one way I remembered seeing its golds and reds and purples, but instead of looking at it with mindfullness I had played this old memory over it.

My meditation was a perfect example of the two directions our minds spin out into. One was the future, where I made all those plans to clip the strips off. The other, the past, a home movie we watch over and over and somehow never get tired of. How easy it is to slip into these two imaginary places. All it took for me was looking at a ledge!

Now maybe you think what's the big deal? Plans are exciting to make, and memories, especially good ones like the one I had, are pleasant. The problem is not in the plans or memories, it's in what you miss while you are daydreaming. That sunset will never be repeated, and I missed my one shot at really appreciating it. Maybe one sunset is not such a major loss, but think of all the beautiful sights and wonderful people we miss everyday of our lives when we live without mindfulness.

Something for everyone to think about!

Yoga Garden

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Our Message of Peace

Check out the summer issue of Yogini, you might see some friendly faces somewhere in there!
Yep, that's us! The magazine asked us to design and make a T-shirt with our message of peace for the world. Gwen and I knew almost immediately what our message would be.

Be Peace

"Be Peace" is so simple and catchy that it runs the risk of just sounding like a new-age catchphrase, along the lines of "be here now" or "it's all one, dude." I had an English professor who said that the best poems are those that are bigger on the inside than on the outside, and I think this phrase is the same.

Before I go on, please go to this site and watch the video if your computer can play flash. It is a short feature with narration by Thich Nhat Hanh and his philosophy about being peace. Thich Nhat Hanh is the one who taught us this phrase and despite our efforts we couldn't give him a shout out in the Yogini article.

I think that almost anyone you ask will say that they want to change the world for the better. It's easy to get wrapped up in the activist parts of improving the world, things like signing peace treaties, building wells with clean water, destroying nuclear weapons, or protecting the environment. At my university it was almost impossible to walk across campus without getting a leaflet about how you could join a protest, sign a petition, or boycott a product. These things are certainly good, but from a buddhist perspective, not very important.

Buddhism is strange like that, things are always opposite of what you expect. All these things we try to do to bring peace into the world will not be much help unless we are peaceful within ourselves.

When I was an aid worker I noticed that the volunteers who enacted the most long lasting change in their communities were the ones who seemed to have themselves sorted out. Many people, including myself, tried to just push projects through, and the results were never pretty. Maybe I will go into it more in another blog, but basically a project that required a lot of doing by the volunteer ended up neglected, misunderstood, and ultimately unsuccesful. However, there were some volunteers, who had something that made their communities trust and respect them. It was something that translates across languages and cultures, and that is a solid, quiet, sense of inner peace. Volunteers who were really there in the community, not running around trying to fix everything, got so much more done! And it didn't require a lot of outward effort. They didn't make peace, they were peace.

We can't all go do aid work in Africa, nor do we need to. A peaceful person spreads peace to every person they encounter, just as an angry person spreads ill will. So if you are the kind of person that wants to make positive change in the world, forget all those protests and petitions for a while, and concentrate on really being ok with yourself. Yoga and meditation will help! But the most important thing is to appreciate the moment you are in and the people you are around, without striving to make things the way you think they should be. That's the definition of peace, and it's not something you can do, it's something you can BE!


Yoga Garden

Saturday, July 08, 2006

One Year On

This July 1st Yoga Garden turned one year old. We had a big "all you can stretch" event. I think some of the braver souls got more than 3 hours of yoga in! It was a lot of fun, and we want to send a big thanks out to everyone who came.

I've been thinking about what we learned in our first year of having the studio. Here are a few of the life lessons of 2005/2006. Some came naturally, some we learned the hard way, and some we're still figuring out. Here goes...

Don't give up! A lot of people will tell you something can't be done, until you do it. Then everyone acts like it was meant to be.

Listen to people. Usually 5 minutes of listening will help someone more than 25 minutes of you talking to them.

You are your community. Sometimes it's not enough to search for people who are on the same path as you. You have to carve that path out of the jungle and recruit a team to follow you in.

Keep it simple. Life is complicated enough. Whenever possible offer clear choices and real answers.

Knowledge is not a limited resource. Everyone loves to learn, if you have some knowledge that is useful for others, share it freely. The rewards will come back to you in one way or another.

Listen to Gandhi. He said, "Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." Find a job that gets you closer to that sentence. Happiness is much more valuable than a big salary.

Stop paying too much for a haircut. You can get a really good one for 1000 yen! Girls too!

Learn things by doing things. Put yourself in situations where you must grow or you will fail. Faced with this choice, you will almost never fail.

Listen to your body. If you're tired, sleep, if you're working too hard, relax. Not much is important enough to neglect your one and only body.

Calorie Mate is not a food group.

Listen to Mark Twain. "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." Don't devote your energies to all the "what if" scenarios. Most of them never happen. Stay in the present and react to life with a fresh, nimble mind.

To all of our customers, friends, and family.
Thank you for a great year!

Yoga Garden

Monday, June 26, 2006

How Stress Works

Don't ever ask Gwen or me about computers, we will sit you down and explain in great detail why you need a Mac. We might even walk you to the Apple store, pick out your computer, and hold your hand while you put the money on the counter. Macs are the best computers in the world.
We run things off a G4 powerbook, which is a sweet machine. We created our whole business with it. But sometimes we ask too much of it. I'll have a graphics program open, Gwen will have the website editor going, we'll be uploading to the website server, checking email, downloading a TV show, browsing the web, and streaming audio from the net. (Here's a typical screen from a day in the life of our G4.)
Even a Mac has trouble with all this. It gets grumpy. Things slow down, programs get stuck. So we've learned that if one of us wants to run a large program, we need to shut down any other big programs that are open to keep the computer running smoothly.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. Our bodies work in much the same way as our overworked computer. Our G4 might have a dozen programs running at any one time, from small ones like the clock in the corner of the screen to the really obvious ones like Microsoft Word. Well, at any one time your body is doing literally thousands of things. Think about it for a moment, your eyes are taking in the writing on the screen, your brain is giving meaning to the writing, your mouth is producing saliva, your inner ear is sending signals to keep you upright, your lungs are respiring, your heart is pumping, your stomach is digesting, your kidneys and liver are filtering, your intestines are moving material, your pancreas is, umm... pancreasing... you get my point.

So let's imagine a situation in which you need to run a "big program," something beyond the body's usual functions. The classic example here is encountering a wild animal, but when is that last time anyone did that? I prefer something we can all relate to, let's use as our example walking down a dark street at night, and noticing that you are being followed.
You know the feeling well... your hairs stand on end, your muscles tense, your breath gets short, your heart races, and you have a surge of energy and hyper-alertness. It's the much talked about "fight or flight" response.
But what's really happening here? Well, your body is doing exactly what we do when we need to run a big program on our computer. We open the programs we need for the task at hand and close the programs that we don't need for that job. (For example, if I need to open Adobe Illustrator and work with graphics, I will also open iPhoto to have easy access to our photos, but I will shut down our FTP uploading program, because there won't be anything to upload until the graphics are done, and I can use that RAM for other things.) Pretty obvious right? Turn on the stuff you need, shut down the stuff you don't need.
Now, back to that dark alley where you're being followed. For this situation, what do you need?

  • Alertness: the sight of the bad guy sets off the locus coeruleus region of your brain, which makes your senses hyper-fast, like in the Matrix.
  • Energy: Adrenaline cranks up the heart rate and blood flow.
  • Fuel: Norepinephrine is released by the brain into your involuntary nervous system, hiking up your blood pressure and breathing rates (giving you the fuel of fresh blood and fresh air.) At the same time Cortisol hits the liver and produces glucose, a sugar that can be used by the muscles and brain for short term bursts of energy.

Now, during this life or death situation, what do you not need to do?

  • Digest dinner: That same Cortisol that spikes your glucose levels shuts down the digestive actions of the stomach.
  • Pass food: The rectum contracts.
  • Fight disease: We're worried about the next five minutes here, not the next 5 years! Shut off that immune system for now!
  • and many, many, more...
All of this happens in a matter of seconds. Your body is jerked from its natural chemical levels (homeostasis) into a revved up, ready to kill or be killed state. Heart racing, you stop, turn to face your attacker in the alley...and... see a tired businessman fumbling with his keys, getting into his car parked on the corner, and driving away.
Phew! Lucky, right? Maybe not. Let's take a look at the state of your body now. Your heart rate is high and will take a few minutes to get back to normal, you have lactin and glucose sloshing around in your body that was never burned up. Your stomach has to start the digestion process all over again, and your immune system is suppressed. And with all that extra adrenaline in your blood you probably won't be getting a good sleep tonight.

If this only happened on dark streets at night, it probably wouldn't be a big deal, but we modern humans have very little skill at separating what are real crises, and what is a manufactured stressor, like a report, an important meeting, a problem in the family, or a test. We respond to these everyday incidents with the same chemicals that we used to respond to wild animals with. There is an important difference however. Our ancestors actually did some fighting or flying, using the systems that the body developed. We don't. And the effects accumulate over time. Among them, muscle tension, headache, indigestion, ulcers, and disease. There are other side effects as well. If your body is constantly being told it needs to be ready to flee, it will want to stock up on short term energy boosting foods with high carbs and fat (McDonalds anyone?). And if you can't unwind after repeated "fight or flight" incidents, you will be tempted to "come down" using external depressors, alcohol, drugs, excess TV, etc... All of this leads scientists to state that 90% of all disease is caused by stress.

And this is where the analogy of our poor overworked laptop breaks down. If we push our Mac too hard and the screen goes black one day, we can get another computer. But your body, that's an irreplaceable, one of a kind model.
How can we take better care of it? Well, one way to deal with all those stress chemicals floating around in your body is to burn them off with exercise. This takes care of the worst side effects of over-stress and is definitely recommended. It took 50 years for people to really get the message that exercise is not just good, but necessary for a healthy life.
But there is more to the story! Are you satisfied with a life of simply being "not sick?" No way! You want to feel great right! Luckily for us life is not all about "fight or flight." There is a whole other nervous system in your body, one that we can call "rest and relax." (The technical terms for these two systems is the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but no one can ever keep straight which is which!) The rest and relax system does just the opposite of the fight or flight system. The heart rate slows, the bowels and musculature relax, the immune system is boosted, and calm, clear thinking is possible. Here is a helpful graphic from this great website that illustrates the difference between the two systems.
The trouble is that Westerners never became very good at actively engaging the rest and relax response. But it turns out that some wise people on the Indian subcontinent did, and passed on the gifts of yoga and meditation to the world.
I have tried to keep my facts all based in science up till now, but these investigations into how yoga and meditation affect the body are still in their infancy, and solid figures are hard to come by. But every single study I've read shows that doing these practices lowers stress, boosts the immune system, and helps you live longer. In 20 years this will probably be accepted as the most obvious fact, just as we accept that a balanced diet and daily exercise are key to good health now.

If you've read this far, you must be interested! So I beg you to take that extra step for yourself, find a yoga class and meditation program near you, and get started! And if you're already doing these things, trust that they are helping you not just today, but long into your future. You won't regret it.
Uh oh, my laptop is starting to make a funny noise, I better end it here!

Yoga Garden

If you're in business and want to know more about how stress affects you check this article out.

And how could I neglect to link to this site!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Interview with Kazuhiro Ono

This weekend, certified Rolfer Kazuhiro Ono gave his "Mechanics of Movement" workshop at the studio. We had a big turnout and everyone learned a lot about how to use their bodies more efficiently. The session began with a discussion of the diaphram and how to use it to get the most from each breath. Next we moved on to healthy walking by using the psoas muscle. Kaz gave us a lot of small exercises we can do to improve these fundamental functions. I'll write a blog in the near future that will illustrate these exercises for you!
After the workshop we went to a cafe and had an informal interview with Kaz. Here are some excerpts from it. He's a really interesting guy!

Yoga Garden: You used to be a manager for a home construction company. Why did you change to a career in health?
Kaz: I had a proffessor in university who told our class that we should go into one of three fields, clothing, food, or housing, because those are three things that people will always need. I went into housing with the construction company, but I started to think that there was an even more important thing for life, your health. Which is more important for you, a nice house, or your health? Also, I didn't like working for a company. I don't like to have a boss, and I don't like to be the boss.
YG: There are many kinds of health therapies, why did you choose Rolfing?
Kaz: Most forms of massage focus on the body one area at a time, the shoulders, or the feet, for example. I was interested in changing the whole structure of the body, for a long term effect. So I chose Rolfing.
YG: How exactly does Rolfing help people?
Kaz: All of our muscles are surrounded by a thin layer of tissue. This is the fascia. If you ever buy a piece of uncooked chicken, you can see the fascia, it is the thin white covering over the meat. Over time, the fascia becomes tight and locked up. Right now you are wearing a T-shirt. Imagine the muscle is your arm, and the sleeve of your T-shirt is the fascia. (Kaz sketches this picture on an envelope)
If I hold your sleeve very tightly around your arm, it's hard to move your arm isn't it? It is the same for fascia that is locked up. With strong pressure, the fascia can be loosened up, which allows your posture to improve, and your movements to become smoother, and more efficient.
YG: Can a person feel their own fascia?
Kaz: It takes a little practice, but you can feel your fascia. Someone told me that if you press on your skin with as much pressure as it would take to squish an ant, that's the point where you are making contact with the fascia, but I don't know if that's true, I never tried really squishing an ant!
YG: The pressure used in Rolfing can be painful, right?
Kaz: Sometimes, especially problem areas in the fascia, where there are a lot of nerve endings, can be painful. I do not enter the patient's boundary of too much pain, however. There is usually another way to work with that area that is less uncomfortable.
YG: Do you have some clients who are skeptical about the benefits of Rolfing?
Kaz: Yes, once that happened. A client said he couldn't feel any changes in his body after a session. That's ok. I didn't mind, because I could see the changes in him. But almost all of my clients feel a big difference after just one Rolfing session.
YG: How can Yoga and Rolfing work together?
Kaz: Since I started doing yoga with you guys, I have noticed that my movement has improved a lot. So maybe Rolfing can prepare the body structure for more efficient movement, and yoga can teach that efficient movement. I see some yoga students having trouble with balancing poses, like tree pose, and I think that if their structure was improved, they would have an easier time with that pose. There are many connections between Rolfing and yoga, I think. We have to discover them together!

Thanks Kaz, for a great workshop! If you're interested in learning more about Rolfing, check the Rolfing Institute homepage, or Kaz's homepage here. We had such a good time doing this workshop that we want to arrange "Mechanics of Movement, Part 2" in the coming months. The second workshop will focus on the two girdles, shoulders, and pelvis. Keep checking the workshop homepage for more information.


Yoga Garden

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Last week Gwen and I were sitting in a cafe, mapping out the summer and fall events at Yoga Garden. We had snagged one of the elusive window seats with the big chairs, looking out at an intersection near city hall. Gwen saw this first, and from what we pieced together after this is what happened.
A salaryman was waiting at the corner for the light to change, and another guy in a windbreaker on a bicycle clipped the salaryman. The salaryman started yelling at the windbreaker guy, and kicked the bicycle. The windbreaker guy cuffed the salaryman on the back of the head, and at that moment the salaryman sensed this guy was a loose cannon and walked away cursing. The windbreaker guy threw his bicycle to the ground and stalked after the salaryman with a murderous glint in his eye. At that point they had walked out of the sightline of the window to the sidewalk in front of the building.

Gwen and I had a choice then, although things happened so quickly we didn't really recognize it as that. The incident had happened outside, through a window, and the two men were now in the front of the building, where there were about 20 other cafe customers, a park, and a busy sidewalk. It was out of our hands, right?

If you've spent any time in a psychology class you'll have heard of the "bystander effect." The idea is that in an emergency situation where someone is in danger, the more people that are around, the less likely that anyone will help that person. There are many famous (and sad) cases, where someone is attacked in a very public place (an apartment buildings front steps, on a busy bridge) and no one stops to help or even call the police. I had a psychology teaching assistant, who once, in the middle of the lecture, was suddenly attacked by another teacher. The attacker threw him to the ground and they kicked and fought their way out into the hall. In our lecture room of about 100 people, no one moved a muscle, we were frozen in our seats. The teaching assistant came back in a few minutes later and revealed that it had all been an act, and that frozen, "what's going on?" feeling was the bystander effect. This effect happens to everyone, no matter how "good" or "brave" a person you are.

But what was interesting in this story is that Gwen and I didn't really think about it, and went into action. I went to the front of the building while Gwen got the staff to call the police. Out on the sidewalk, the windbreaker guy had just caught up to the salaryman, and all the cafe patrons were watching them swear and scream at each other. The windbreaker guy suddenly grabbed the salaryman by the throat, threw him into a bush, and was squeezing his windpipe with one hand and strangling the salaryman with his own tie with the other! I ran over to them and pulled the windbreaker guy off the salaryman, but his grip on the necktie was so tight that all three of us kind of lurched out of the bush. I told the attacker to relax, that it was a small problem, nothing to get upset about, and peeled his fingers off the necktie. The two men were eerily quiet, just staring at each other with hatred. I was afraid to let go of them, or they might start trying to kill each other again. The police arrived shortly and broke it up, took all of our statements, and that was that.

I was thinking about it later, about how it had been a perfect example of the bystander effect. There were a dozen people closer to the guys than we were, but no one else moved a muscle, just like that psychology class. What made Gwen and I act so decisively? Neither of us is particularly brave or eager to "save the day," and we don't even speak Japanese that well, especially all that emergency vocabulary that you should learn but never bother to. Like everyone else there, we just wanted to relax and enjoy our coffee. What I concluded is that the difference between us and the rest of the crowd there is that we do a lot of yoga and meditation.

One of the lessons of yoga is to relax and accept unfamiliar situations. In half-moon pose, for example, your body weight is one hand and one leg. Your body wants to come down and touch the floor with another limb for stability, and, if you are new to the pose, that is exactly what happens. But, after a few tries, you find that relaxing, breathing, and accepting the strange position makes it much easier. If you do poses like that a few times a week, maybe your brain structure starts to change, and instead of an instinct to run away or deny strange situations, you stay with them and see where they lead.

The other thing is meditation, which teaches you to be in the moment, not clinging to the past or future. When I saw those guys my only thought was that I had to stop them in that moment. It made doing the right thing very natural and easy. Again, I want to stress that I am not a particularly good person! My reaction was just different from the other people there.

Buddhism teaches the 8 fold path as a method to overcome suffering and make your way on your spiritual journey. The 4th limb of this path is "skillful action," that is, using the energy of your actions skillfully, to bring about understanding and to do no harm. One of the nice things about meditation and yoga is that they change you on a very deep level, slowly and over time. It doesn't require much rigour, just small, daily steps. And you'll see changes in yourself, sometimes very suddenly, as I did when I was pulling that oxygen deprived business man from the bushes. So keep practicing everyone! If you like, consider it training for the time when you will need to act decisively, skillfully, and for the good of someone else.


Yoga Garden

Monday, May 15, 2006

Making the Connection

This sign is something you can buy for your new Mustang on this web site. But it's also a sign of the times. Making physical contact with another human being is getting rarer and rarer as we wrap ourselves in layers of technology. Touching is out, unless you're talking about your Nintendo.

Which is why it was so refreshing to conduct and participate in the partner pose workshops we held at the studio last weekend. Partner poses use the power of two yoga practitioners to take poses deeper. But the nicest part of it for me was seeing students connect with each other.

In Japan, especially, touching someone else's body is kind of taboo. It can be hard at first to overcome the discomfort of being in close contact with someone. So one of the first exercises we did was back to back meditation, where the partners consciously try to breath together. Sitting with your back to someone's spine, feeling their back muscles and shoulders move with the breath, is a very surprising experience. Try it with someone, and you'll find yourself amazed at the sheer amount of life and vitality there can be in a single inhalation. It really drives the point home that there's another person there, with their own set of joys, fears and dreams.

Following this and a few other "connecting" exercises, we moved into some more complicated partner asana. Many people who do yoga go very deep within themselves during a lesson, but during a partner pose you have to constantly stay focused on the balance between you and your counterpart. It really keeps you in the moment.

After the full session, everyone was so happy! I think the yoga had only a small part to do with this. Mostly, people were joyful to have spent some time being human. We spend everyday surrounded by concrete, glass, and plastic. But if you think about it, we share none of the qualities of those materials, we are all soft, squishy, curvy messes! And yet, our elegance shines through. Thanks to everyone who came!


Yoga Garden

Monday, April 24, 2006

Getting to the Bottom of Sanskrit

When I was going to high school in England, I had a Japanese friend named Michiko. Michiko had a really nice host family and one weekend we went over to see them. A few weeks before our visit Michiko had given them some presents from Japan wrapped in beautiful gift boxes. The family was so taken with the boxes that they had made a kind of display of them high on a shelf in the sunroom. They asked Michiko what she thought of the display and she said "It's really nice, except that they're all upside down."To the family, the elegant kanji on the box was like a pretty abstract picture, not actual writing. (I also heard a story once from someone in my Japanese class at university whose friend had the kanji for fire tattooed on his arm... it looked pretty cool, except that it too was upside down.)

I see the same thing happening sometimes with Sanskrit and yoga. First, some history.
Yoga (not just poses, but the whole philosophical system) has been around for at least 5000 years. But the yoga we are most familiar with was codified by a guy named Patanjali about 200 CE. (by the way, CE means "common era" and is the hip way to say AD) Patanjali wrote his text "The Yoga Sutras" in the academic language of the day, Sanskrit. (To learn more about the history of yoga click here)

It would be misleading of me to say that Sanskrit was a common tongue 2000 years ago. But from what I understand, in south-east asia it was the language of learning and religion, much like Latin in Europe. So Patanjali and most of the great philosophers wrote stuff down, including the names of the yoga poses, in Sanskrit.

So let's take a pose with its sanskrit name, for example, Paripurna Navasana. There is something very alluring about the name in its original language, the double Ps and the silky way Navasana rolls off the tongue. It's exotic, it makes you feel like something big is happening.

But let's come back down to earth and look at the Sanskrit word for word.
paripurna means "complete" or "full"
nava means "boat" asana means "pose" or "form" (in Sanskrit, there is a complete liason between vowels, so nava asana becomes navasana)And there you have it in plain, practical, boring English... full boat pose. It's easy to get involved in the beauty of the ancient language, but we run the risk of being a little silly, like Michiko's family gazing at upside down boxes. Face it, this pose looks like a boat! And when you do it, having the image of a boat bobbing in the water really helps. (By the way, if you ask someone doing this pose what they would like to call it, they'll tell you call it whatever you want, just let it be over!)

So, teaching yoga in Japan, I try to use Japanese names for the poses as much as possible, based on the original Sanskrit. I want my students to know that nothing exotic is happening during the poses, and to really get the idea of the form. Bhujangasana sounds really cool, but it won't get a student to press their hips into the mat like "Cobra Pose" will.

The person who really brought me around to this way of thinking is Thich Nhat Hanh. When we went to his retreat a few years ago there wasn't a word of Vietnamese or Pali the entire time. All the chants, songs, and meditations, except for "Om" were in English. And a lot of people there were dissapointed at how "ordinary" everything was. At the end of the retreat, if you took the 5 Mindfullness Precepts, you were given a dharma name in English. (My name is "Silent Breath of the Heart" and Gwen's is "Lovely Teacher of the Heart") One of the women in our group asked the monk "Can't you tell me my name with the Vietnamese version? I bet it's beautiful!" The monk smiled and explained that he could, but that he would not, and gave the argument that I have outlined above, that these names are to help us, not distract us. Now, years later, I still remember most of the chants from that retreat, because they were in English.

So, in yoga, by all means study and learn the Sanskrit, but don't be fooled into thinking that these foreign words make the practice any more exotic. For Patanjali these names were nothing special, they were just a way of describing the shape of the body. Like zen, yoga is nothing special, and once you accept that you'll really start going places!

Namaste (namas=I bow, te= to you!)

Yoga Garden

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Tea and Antioxidants

While I was in America a few weeks ago I went to a health food store and stocked up on tea for the studio. I bought about 30 boxes. The girl at the check out counter beeped the boxes for two minutes, then looked up over her hipster eyeglasses and said "You got a cold or something?" It was pretty funny. This is a picture I took with my cell phone of my suitcase filled to the brim with tea. I felt like some kind of smuggler.

Tea has been an important part of our lives for a long time, and we have tried to incorporate it into our studio as much as possible. Sharing tea after the lessons brings the students together, gives a sense of community, and is healthy.

That health benefit is what I want to blog about today. Everyone has an idea that tea is good for you because it contains antioxidants. And everyone knows that antioxidants are good because they... um... antioxidize? This is where understanding breaks down and pseudo-scientific health claims start popping up like "Reverse Aging!"

So I'll try to explain what antioxidants do in plain English.

Inside your body there are lots of little molecules floating around that scientists call "free radicals." These little guys, for one reason or another, have lost some electrons and are unstable. So they bounce around ripping up your healthy cells and DNA, as they try to get the right number of electrons. These start chain reactions, because as an electron is taken from a normal atom, it becomes an unstable free radical too!

Having your cells and DNA ripped up is, of course, bad. It makes you age.

Along come the antioxidants, naturally occuring neutralizers. These guys float around, and when they meet one of the free radicals they stick to it and make it a happy, stable molecule! Yay!

You can get antioxidants from all plants, vegetables, and fruits. And one of the easiest ways to raise your antioxidant intake is with a cup of herbal or green tea.

There are hundreds of different free radicals, and each one is neutralized by a different antioxidant, so the key is to have a healthy, varied diet that covers a wide range of flavors and colors. That's one reason we change our tea every week.So come by, take a yoga class, and enjoy some of these teas from the US. Most aren't available in Japan and they are all delicious!


Yoga Garden

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Energy Exchange

Because she's too modest to tell anyone, I wanted to note that Gwen is featured in this season's copy of Yogini magazine, and the studio got a nice write up in the back as well. Yogini comes out every three months, so check it out if you see it on the newstands.

The story they did with Gwen was a perfect fit for Yoga Garden. Gwen and one of the magazine's editors went to Chiba earlier this month and met a group of people who are trying to live more simply. The Hayashi family in particular has endeavored to live in a natural community that reduces waste and reliance on modern amenities. They live on a hilltop overlooking rice fields in a 200 year old house without air conditioning, plumbing, or electronics. They were interested in trying yoga, but there were no teachers in the area, so the editor of Yogini contacted Gwen and together they drove to the community to give them a lesson.

What's most interesting about this community to me is that they have created their own currency called "awa." They use awa between themselves and 100 or so other spots around Chiba and Tokyo that have agreed to take part in the plan. Gwen was payed 2000 awa for her yoga lesson, and she used her awa to buy lunch and some organic vegetables from the farmer on her left in the photo. You can "pay" with awa at the barber, flower shops, bookstores, and many other stores. You could also use your awa to have snow cleared from your driveway, wood chopped, or your yard maintained.

What I love about the idea of "awa" money is that it's working on a principle of direct energy exchange. Our modern monetary systems remove us several steps from this basic and life affirming feeling. We have all agreed to see money as a thing unto itself, not just paper that represents the sum of our labors. Imagine how different the world would be if we truly appreciated the energy and effort that went into getting those little pieces of paper that we throw around carelessly.

We can't all participate in an alternative currency like the Hayashis, but we can keep in mind the idea of energy exchange in our relationships. When you have a conversation with a friend, are both of you getting more of less equal energy from the dialouge? Are you giving too much energy, depleting your resources? Or taking too much, not seeing that your friend also needs to speak and share their opinions? Does your job give you as much energy (in terms of salary, free time, and happiness) as it takes from you? Anyway, something to think about and work on with small, mindful movements.

Take care!

For more information about the awa money movement, check this site.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Please See the Attachment Below...

Greetings from America! My trip here is halfway over, and I finally found some time to share an experience I had on the way here.

For this trip to America, one of my grandfather's friends generously let me use one of her "buddy passes" that she receives each year thanks to her husband's long years of work at the airline. If you've never heard of these, here's how they work. You don't get a ticket for the flight, you fly standby, meaning you show up after all the other passengers have checked in. And if there's a free seat, you get it for a great price. The beauty of the buddy pass is that if that free seat is in business class, you fly business class, no questions asked. In fact, the only way that you don't get business class is if it's full (which is rare) or someone else with higher priority uses a buddy pass and takes that seat.

Tokyo to Atlanta is a long flight, and for weeks I had been imagining myself living it up in business class like this:
Feet up, drinking champagne, and choosing from a wide variety of movies and menus offered to only the most valuable customers, people who deserved it. People like me.

The day of the flight came. All the regular passengers checked in, and there were 6 of us waiting for standby tickets. We were told that there were three seats in business class available, but that some of us would have to fly economy class. I looked at the others with pity, poor sods, having to sit in economy while I enjoyed my luxurious 12 hours in the front of the plane. The tickets were passed out... I glanced at the ticket, gate 94, seat G32, class... Coach.

The horror! How could this have happened? There must have been some mistake. Those two ladies with the paisley baggage must have cheated me, or maybe someone slipped the check-in person some cash in his passport... the check-in lady seemed to know one of the people, she probably bumped me so her little friend could ride. Someone will pay for this!!!

Seriously, these were the thoughts that went through my head as I trudged through security. I had fallen into a trap. The trap of human life... attachment.

Attachment is a very poor translation of the Pali word samudaya. Many people use the word clinging or grasping instead. None of these three words really captures the tone of samudaya, so I'll just use attachment as it has become kind of a standard in Buddhist texts. Attachment is simply giving energy to the idea that you own something, deserve something, or don't want to lose something. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is attachment that is the cause of all human suffering.

We all have ideas about how the world should be. We and our loved ones should have long, happy lives, we should have enough money, we should be rewarded for our work. If we have these things, we should be happy, if we accomplish our goals, we will feel satisfied at last. These are the biggest of our attachments.

Of course, everyone comes with their own set of personal attachments. Have you ever seen a picture of yourself and thought "that's not how I look!" That's the attachment to your projection of yourself speaking. In yoga people often get frustrated that they can't do certain poses... this too is attachment to the "right pose" or "good flexibility." Or maybe you have your eye on a shirt in a store, and you tuck it in the back of the rack so no one else can get "your" shirt. In reality, it wasn't "yours" until you formed the attachment to it.

Well, needless to say, I had been nurturing this attachment to my "dream flight" for a few weeks, and when the reality turned out to be different, it really hurt! And my first reaction was be angry, to blame, and to see enemies all around me. Even with a Buddhist background informing me of exactly why I felt like that, it took me an hour to get over it.

And here is the real danger of attachment. During that 60 minutes I lost all sense of gratitude for my chance to travel to America for a great price. I forgot that I would get to see my family soon, and that I have the opportunity to travel around the world and have adventures. And I'm sure during that hour I wasn't particularly kind to the security workers, the check-in people, the flight attendants, or the passengers next to me. Attachment spreads suffering liberally!

Anyway, I have the same chance to fly business class on the way home in a few days. But this time I will go to the ticket counter with a much more sane mindset. If I get business class, great! If I don't, then that's also great. Life is great. The present moment is always there, real and accesible, if we can just let go of things enough to see it!
See you soon!

This is only the surface of the four noble truths of buddhism. If you want to learn more this is a nice link.

The best way to get your head around these ideas is to meditate. Come by any Sunday at 6pm for free zazen!

**PS . I didn't get business class on the way home either, but I was lucky enough to have the seat next to me be unoccupied. Without the expectation of a great seat, this small fortune seemed even better.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New Mats!

Hi everyone!
I've seen it a dozen times, one of our students comes into the studio and excitedly tells me they've taken the plunge and bought their own mat. "That's great," I say, ".... is this the first time you've unrolled it?" If the answer is "yes," we're in trouble.

Why? Well, in the manufacturing process, most mat companies apply a thin veneer of oil to the surface of the mats. This is to keep the mat soft and supple during the months between its production and your purchase. Mix that layer of oil with a little sweat on your palms or feet, and "downward facing dog" becomes "sliding onto your face dog." Simply put, a brand new yoga mat unrolled for the first time is very, very slippery.

What to do? A lot of people recommend putting your new mat into the washing machine with a mild detergent before using it. That will take care of the problem very quickly, but personally, I think that it makes the mats too sticky, they lose some of their organic feel. I prefer a gentler breaking in period of a few weeks. I like to lay a mat out in the sun, and simply do a lot of yoga on it. Other ideas are putting your new mat under an old one for a few sessions, going over the mat with one of those green backed sponges (using the green scrubby part). Whatever method you use, do it before the lesson so you can enjoy your new mat!

Speaking of which, many people ask me which kind of mat they should buy. Prices range from 1000 yen to 10,000 yen. We have seen really poorly designed mats for 4000 yen, and some very durable, thick mats for 1000 yen, so don't let price alone decide the matter. There are a few factors you should consider.

1. Thickness. Mats come in all kinds of thicknesses, which you will be able to compare easily in the store. If you are a little bony, you should opt for a thicker mat. Gwen uses a double thick Gaiam mat at the studio, but I use a relatively thin mat, because I like to feel the floor more during poses. Another thing to consider is that a thick mat will be harder to fit into yoga bags and (in general) be a little more difficult to travel with.

2. "Grippiness" This is the amount of friction between you and the mat. Thicker mats will offer a much stickier feel because your hand or foot actually sinks into the material. It's difficult to tell how "grippy" a mat is in the store, but you can get an idea from how raised the bumps on the surface are. The higher the bumps, the better the grip. (I once saw a really cheap mat that just had bumps painted on it, and was actually a single, slick surface) Actually, the bumpy style is going out of fashion now, and lots of rubber mats are coming out that offer superior grip. They are usually covered in a grid or squiggles. (the downside to these is that they are heavy and expensive)

3. The "it" factor. This is simply choosing a mat that you connect with. You will be spending a lot of time with it, and having some fondness for the style and color is really important. These days the choices are amazing. You can get every color in the spectrum, funky patterns, or a dragon descending down the mat. So don't just say "this one will do," make it fun, shop around, until you see a mat and say "that's IT!"

Gwen and I just got some traveling mats for the spring and summer. Bright, huh?. And thanks to Rika for getting us a good deal on them!


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Oryoki for Busy People

Oryoki is the name for the zen-monk's style of dining. A usual meal consists of three bowls. A small bowl for miso soup, a medium size for rice, and a large bowl for the main dish, which consists of light, in-season vegetables. (A small saucer of pickles is optional.) We bought this great book about it a few years ago which explains a lot more about the philosophy behind oriyoki.

While Gwen and I were on a zazen retreat last summer, we noticed how much healthier and lighter we felt on the 3 bowl diet. I don't know why, but the balance between carbs, protiens, hot, cold, plain and flavorful is just perfect for settling the mind down. After that, we determined to eat "monk food" a few times a week.

But, of course, life gets busy, and it's easy to wander into a restaurant or fast food place when you're hungry and the grocery shopping hasn't been done. So, it is in the spirit of compromise that I offer the modern, microwaveable, 3 bowl meal.

You can see in this picture 2 packages of microwave rice, two packages of instant miso, two bags of pre-cut microwaveable vegetables, and three varieties of pickles conveniently stored in plastic tubs. And seven minutes later...

a balanced, nutritious, and possibly radioactive, meal. Itadakimasu!

P.S. Recently I went on a Zen retreat and made this movie about the Oryoki tradition. Check it out!


Yoga Garden

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Yoga For All Seasons

The UN just released this report that says half of the world's population will be urban by 2007. Living in a city is a very disconnecting experience, especially when it comes to enjoying the change of the seasons. Moving from one climate controlled building to another (in a climate controlled car or train), hardly seeing a tree or grass, and having access to avacados and strawberries year-round, it can all make the seasons seem like a backdrop to our busy lives, nice to look at but unimportant.

But I think this is changing. This year I've heard so much in the mainstream media about Seasonal Affective Disorder. People are starting to get back to the idea that we constantly interact with and are changed by our environment.

Being sensitive to how your body is reacting to the changing seasons can also be brought into your yoga practice. During the winter, energy levels drop, muscles tighten, and circulation decreases. In yoga classes you can take notice of how your body feels at different times of the day and year. Your yoga practice can reflect the seasons, having a practice that allows the body to restore itself during the winter and burns off energy in the summer, for example, is one way to do this. Eating and resting habits, as explored in this article, should also reflect the seasons.

Relective, relaxing postures such as seated forward bends, legs up the wall, and reclining bound angle poses, all of which can be found on Yoga Journal's informative Pose Finder page, can be combined for a home practice that will allow your body to restore itself. These sorts of poses are also helpful in recovering from colds and flu.


Yoga Garden

Monday, January 23, 2006

Have You Downgraded Recently?

This week I was in the store. I needed some new razors. In case you're not up to speed on the latest razor technology, I'll tell you what's out there. There's the Mach 3, a 3 bladed razor, which is what I was using. And there's the Mach 3 Turbo, which has a lotion strip I think, and then there's the Mach 3 PowerMax or something like that, which I hadn't seen before. This one really freaked me out because it has a button on the top that makes it vibrate. I mean, this thing is vibrating hard. It almost hurt my hand to hold it! I guess the idea is that the vibe-motion gets the beard hair better. And next to all that was the Quattro, with 4 blades. Upon further research when I got home I discovered the Quattro not only promises a clean shave, but an entirely new lifestyle! And they were so expensive, about 1200 yen for 4 razor heads.

Now, for those of you who haven't met me, I am not exactly hairy. My best attempts at facial hair growth (while in the Peace Corps) resulted in a fine wispy halo of hair around my jaw, and an ugly moustache! I was standing there thinking, what do I need 3 razor blades on one razor for? Sure, I like a clean shave, but this is getting ridiculous. Next year they'll probably come out with something with 5 blades that also harvests wheat. That's when, out of the corner of my eye, down at ankle level, I saw the Gillette Sensor. That was the first razor I ever had, in high school. It had 2 blades and it worked great. Not much has changed about my facial hair since high school. And the Sensor came with more blades for half the price. And it looks cool. Kind of art deco design. I bought it, and threw out my old Mach 3.

It was a freeing experience, to actually downgrade something in a world that is always pushing the newest model. Try it this month, find some small thing that is complicating your life and choose a simpler option.

In Buddhism, there is a lot of talk of the "middle path." The Buddha is famous for rejecting a life of princely luxury, but he also rejected the overly austere life of the ascetic. The Buddhist prescription for happiness revolves around navigating between these extremes, and my little razor, with more than 1 blade, and less than 3 (or 4), is a reminder to me of that each time I see it in my bathroom.

Happy Simplifying!

Yoga Garden

***Update, February 7, 2006. I am not kidding, just three weeks after I wrote this blog Gillette started selling it's next-gen razor, the Fusion. Also, I ran across this Onion article from 2 years ago that predicted the whole thing. (May not be suitable for kids)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Reading Between the Lines of Yoga Studies

Just before Christmas this study started popping up all over the web. I'll break it down for you. They took 101 people with back pain and divided them into three groups. One group used books to learn about back care. Another did a gym style stretching and strengthening class. And the final group did a 75 minute yoga class once a week. The yoga group decreased their pain and increased their range of movement faster than the others. Eventually, the gym style stretching group caught up with the yoga group, and the book learners didn't show much improvement.

This study can teach us several things.

First, It has been publicized as a testament to the healing power of yoga, but there is an important caveat, the fact that the stretching group caught up to the yoga group. This tells me that the most important factor here wasn't the actual movements, but the breathing. The style they used in this study was vini yoga, a very soft, slow style that uses the breath even more than a regular hatha yoga form. Breathing properly has so many benefits, I would bet that alone accounted for much of the yoga group's improvement. The change in the just the lymphatic system shows how much better your health can get with proper breathing.

Second, you'll notice this study was done by "Seattle's Group Health Cooperative Center for Health Studies" with a test pool of only 101 people. This is not a major study in any way, and yet it was leading health headlines at BBC, CNN, and Yahoo News for almost a week. This shows that there is a public hungry for scientific news related to yoga. I can count on one hand the number of serious medical investigations involving yoga that I have read about in the last few years, and they were all done by non-profit organizations such as this Seattle group. (Many were led by Dr. Dean Ornish's Preventive Medicine Research Institute)

Why so few? Well, sadly, I think the answer is that yoga isn't going to make anyone rich. The pharmaceutical companies that sponsor the "real" studies that have 1000s or 10,000s of participants aren't very interested in telling us that significant health improvements can come from an investment in a yoga mat and a few hours a week.

But that's ok, people are smart, and they don't need a study to tell them that something is working! So we'll have to trust our instincts until science catches up and tells us exactly why yoga makes us feel so good.


Yoga Garden

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Happy New Year from Yoga Garden. See you on the mat!

Yoga Garden