Tag Archives: sports

How Making Things Easier Has Made Life Harder

  “Stira Sukham Asanam”.  The pose is steady and comfortable. These few words from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have been a large influencing factor in how yoga asana is experienced.  As a student and as a teacher we seek to find the balance of effort and ease in a pose, the balance of strength and softness.  Asana specifically means the seat, or seated postures, so the asanas as a whole can be thought of as a way to prepare for sitting in meditation.  I liked the way one teacher explained asana as to, “sit in the seat of the self”.

Being able to sit comfortably for meditation requires a certain steadiness in the body and openness in the hips.  When the body can sit in this way the spine naturally aligns and the ability to breathe deeply is enhanced.  The head gets to rest comfortably over the neck and spine.  The mind can feel clear and alive.

But for all of our efforts in the west to make sitting in chairs comfortable, we have totally lost the plot.  We haven’t made sitting comfortable, we have weakened the very muscles needed to support the body in order to sit.  We have stiffened the muscles and joints.  And thanks to computers (which I happen to be sitting in front of as I type), our heads are  craning forward and the neck is uncomfortable, the shoulders sloping, the chest collapsing.  ouch!

The "easy chair"

The easier we make sitting, the harder it actually becomes.

I think this phenomenon translates into many areas.  I recently read a great book called, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall.  He investigates the ultra runners who can run 100 mile races over trails and mountains.  His interest began with a simple question, “why does my foot hurt?”  he was experiencing, like so many people, countless injuries from running.  His intrigue led him to find tribes of people who run with hardly any injuries, and hardly any shoes.

His argument, which is highly compelling, is that running injuries began with the invention of the running shoe in the 70’s (thank you, Nike).  The over cushioned heel allows for a heel strike as you run, a completely new concept for running. Before that, the natural way to run would be a mid to forefoot strike.

Nike Shox Turmoil

If the name doesn’t just say it all.  This is the  over cushioned super heel of the Nike running shoe. It quite possibly spurned a whole generation of running injuries by teaching us all to heel strike. Not only that but these shoes weaken the muscles and the structures of the foot so that over time your foot has lost the ability to do what it was designed to do.  Run.

Stira Sukham Asanam.

The pose is firm and comfortable.  Not just comfortable.  A feeling of ease comes from strength and foundation.  It doesn’t really work the other way around.

When we experience discomfort we strengthen and grow.  That is how the body works.  We have to challenge the muscles, tissues, and bones to some extent to build their strength.  The mind has to be challenged to stay sharp as we age.

This was going around facebook earlier in the week and it really rings true:

I will leave you with a video for fun.  Cell phones: The prime example of making life “easier” gone wrong. Communication at your fingertips…blessing or curse?

Namaste!

Being Content with Burning Desire: Santosha and Tapas in Life

Photo courtesy Rene Carrillo

Lately I have been coming back to my study of yoga to fuel my yoga teaching with something more than asana and ujjayi (to this day I still can’t spell this word).  I am incorporating more varied types of pranayama to see their varied effects.  I am also interjecting the thoughts of the Yamas and Niyamas into class to see how they mingle through the flow. I admit that it does sound like I am doing a bit of an experiment.  But really, I think large concepts, or even simple ones,  are best to be offered for contemplation rather than preached.

This week, I have been ruminating on santosha and tapas.  These are two practices to be observed according to Patanjali’s eight-fold path.  Check out a cool depiction of it here by Alison Hinks.  Santosha, simply put, is contentment.  It is the non-striving, non-pushing, non-pulling, “it is what it is”- ness.  It is living with what you have, finding the simple things pleasurable, loving the one your with mentality.  Not always easy, but I can see the freedom in it.

Tapas, on the other hand, translates to “heat”.  It is the fire that burns inside each one of us.  It is the higher purpose, the spiritual desire, the deep zeal and zest we have for life, for yoga, for making the world and ourselves better.  It is the feeling of alive-ness.

Santosha…tapas.  Tapas…santosha.

I think for my entire adult life I have been swinging from one branch of this tree to another.  In western culture we are raised to desire and acquire.  And whether through nature or nurture, I have deep longings  and things that make me come alive, just like most of us.  I also find it ever so liberating to take the given situation and be content with it.  Not just accept it but genuinely find some simple joy in it.  To be content means your are in the present moment, neither looking forward nor back, and that is in fact the only moment in which anything actually happens. It is the here and now.

Perhaps it is impossible to achieve our desires without being contentedly lost in the present moment. The best athletes and artists are in “the zone” during peak performance.  And we all stand in amazement.  Their zone, their flow, is the present moment.  It is really being in it, so much so that time falls away, breath becomes deep and smooth, and the heart beats to a new rhythm.  Malcolm Gladwell talks about this phenomenon in his book, “Blink”.

The thing that makes you come alive will be the vehicle for contentment, not because it leads you to your destination but because it allows you to be lost in the present moment, and one experiences content in the present.  Conversely, being content, being present, will allow you to passionately create, work, live, and breathe.  And in this way I think these two ideas, santosha and tapas, are a positive feedback loop.

As for yoga…Iyengar has a lovely quote, “yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured, and endure what cannot be cured.” Yoga stokes the fire, and it also teaches us to sit, to find the comfortable seat in any situation.

Downward Facing Tree?

I have always wondered why handstand is referred to as Adho Mukha Vrksasana in yoga, or ‘downward facing tree’.  It certainly doesn’t look like tree pose turned upside down. It is more like upside down utthita tadasana, extended mountain pose.

I have been a real handstand junky as of late.  And it was through this handstand immersion that downward facing tree suddenly had meaning to me.

It is in the architecture of the pose that we mimic a tree.  Rooted down to earth with strength, the tree rises towards the sky.

Handstand is all about preparing the base of support and then building the pose from the ground up.

And they are fun to do anywhere.  Tara Stiles does them in the concrete jungle…where do you do down face tree?

Yoga and Hamstrings

Yoga helps you gain flexibility in your hamstrings which can aide sports performance, limit injury, and allow for healthy posture.  Because so much of yoga has to do with the orientation of the pelvis, the hamstrings are a key to going deeper in your asana practice.  They will give you access to the pelvic positioning required in most postures.  Your overall comfort and joy in yoga expands as these muscles loosen.  And for those who have never tried yoga, it is a great reason to get started.

Sports Performance

Your tight hamstrings not only keep you from touching your toes but could also be hurting your sports performance by limiting your range of motion and making you more prone to injuries such as tears, sprains, and strains.  Most sports will benefit from flexible and strong hamstrings because they require short powerful bursts of running and movement.

To stretch the hamstrings try Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward facing dog) aiming your heels back down onto the floor.

Posture

Hamstrings are related to the inability to have good posture while in a seated position, otherwise known as slouching.   Flexible hamstrings allow the bowl of your pelvis to sit upright, rather than tip backwards. The tightness of your hamstrings can tip your pelvis posteriorly.    This causes the natural curves in your spine to be compromised as flexion occurs.  So not only does it look bad, but it could be causing you damage and discomfort as well.

If you have tight hamstrings try Sukhasana (easy pose) with enough blankets under you to get your hips above your knees.  This will allow your spine to be erect and your head to sit comfortably above your shoulders.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of postures in yoga that will help you gain hamstring flexibility.  The ease developed from this flexibility will permeate through other areas of your life and inform day to day movements as well.