Monday, February 5, 2018

Stuff I Learned - Week #2

The first lecture began with a disclaimer that Yoga is not 5000 years old. The professor then went on to explain that Yoga is a philosophy that is 2600 years old, at most, and that the yoga postures didn’t arise until even later. Having read Yoga Body and other books about Yoga’s history, this was not an entirely surprising revelation. New for me, though, was the careful and methodical unraveling of Yoga: Methods and Goals – the name of the graduate-level class that I am taking at the University of Wisconsin – Madison this semester.

I met this cat at a market in the south Indian city of Mysore.
I’m not sure why I first checked out the course offerings within the Religious Studies Department. Certainly, I had enough coursework to keep me occupied within my specialty, the neural control of movement.  Be that as it may, I found a surfeit of interesting courses within the Religious Studies department; courses on the history and philosophy of my long term interests, Yoga and Buddhism. Reading the descriptions of the various courses, I felt like a kid in a candy store, and I remember asking myself; can these courses really move me closer to my goal of earning a PhD in Kinesiology? Well, the answer may be a qualified yes – pursuing a PhD Minor in Religious Studies may not be the most direct path to earning a PhD in Kinesiology, though adding a Minor in Religious Studies certainly promises to add a lot of richness to my life and teaching!

I feel like a treasure hunter as I research the earliest
textual references to Sirsasana.
The semester is still young, though I’ve already learned a good deal about the earliest flickers of Yoga philosophy. I just read the Katha Upanishad, which is among the first texts that lays out the essence of Yoga philosophy (as opposed to the Vedic philosophy that predates Yoga). Written at about the time of the Buddha, the Katha Upanishad outlined three key concepts that are considered foundational to Yoga philosophy. What makes Yoga philosophy distinct from what precedes it? The three key concepts that help define Yoga are:

·      Our current life exists within an infinite cycle of births and deaths (samsara)
·      The accumulation of actions from previous lives (Karma) determines the fate of your birth
·      The possibility of liberation from the suffering of these cycles of birth & death (Moksha)

Next week’s readings come from the Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata. In particular, two sections of this classic poem are said to relate most directly to Yoga philosophy: the Moksadharma, and the Santiparvan. I’ll let you know what I learn in a forthcoming blog posting!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Mysore" Pilates

I feel fortunate that my first introduction to Yoga occurred within a culture of daily practice. At the Minneapolis Yoga Workshop, the very first classes introduced students to the power of personal practice, and provided the resources necessary to embody it. In hindsight, I realized that William Prottengeier's dedication to personal practice was unique, and I'm forever grateful that I was steeped in his Yoga-culture.

While my yogasana-orbit ultimately led me away from the Iyengar system, I landed in another system that emphasized personal practice - the Ashtanga Vinyasa community. While I did attend some guided Ashtanga classes, most of my training in Ashtanga Yoga occurred within the context of Mysore-classes.

Mysore is the city in South India where modern yoga sprang forth. In the Ashtanga culture of Mysore, students sequentially learned the series under the direct guidance of their teacher - what's called a Mysore class. When the teacher ascertained that the student was ready to move forward, they instructed the student in the next-step in the series that was being practiced. In the beginning, students may only have one or two poses they were working on, though were encouraged to show up at the yoga school every day to work on their handful of poses. Upon a degree of mastery of these poses, the teacher would guide the student onto the next rung of their proverbial ladder.

Mysore practice originated in Southern India.

I still love Ashtanga and the Mysore approach, though my older-shoulders aren't as keen on this system as they once were. Despite the changes in my physical body, I still love the focused intensity of a Mysore class; each student is individually working on their own practice, yet contributing to an environment that's simultaneously challenging & supportive.

Last Fall, I was thrilled when the subject of Open Studio was first broached at Pilates on Harrison. While we did not use the term Mysore-style, the similarity was noticed by several faculty members. As the idea of Open Studio gained traction, we dedicated more of our instruction time to the ordering and flow on the various pieces of equipment. Much like Ashtanga Yoga, each of the major pieces of Pilates equipment (Chair, Tower and Reformer) has its Level I-V workouts.

Open Studio does not start with this exercise.
Open Studio is nearly one month old, now, and I'm pleased to report that the vibe of rhythmic, deep breathing and focused awareness is fully expressed in our Open Studio. While I'm excited to be teaching one of our Open Studio classes, I inevitably feel a tinge of envy when I watch the students in my class settling into their personal practice!

If you're a Yoga practitioner that has yet to work on the Pilates equipment, you may find the Open Studio approach to your liking. While students generally require a handful of individual sessions to gain the requisite skills to practice independently, Open Studio allows the full power of Mysore-style practice to take form.

Monday, January 15, 2018


There is a part of me that feels a little sheepish talking about people that I look up to or am inspired by.  This self-consciousness is probably an artifact of my upbringing; my Dad grew up in the shadow of the Depression and WWII, and our home life was more driven by results than by feelings. Despite my hesitation in saying so, there are a handful of people that consistently inspire me to move out of my comfort zone and think big. One of my inspirations is the humanitarian-monk, Matthieu Ricard.

The Shechen clinic helps the poorest of Nepal's poor.
 I first spent time with Matthieu at his home base in Kathmandu, Nepal. Over a whirlwind couple of days, Matthieu guided our small group around his various humanitarian projects. We saw just a few of the clinics, schools and hospices that are run by his organization, Karuna-Shechen... and this handful of facilities benefitted a few thousand people each day. Knowing that there were dozens of these programs scattered all around Nepal, India and Tibet blew my mind! On any given day, Matthieu's activities touch the lives of tens of thousands of people. The scale and scope of his commitment to benefitting beings is humbling and inspiring, and to this day, whenever I feel overwhelmed by life or my various commitments, I recall the good in the world that flows in the wake of Matthieu's maroon robes. Almost immediately upon recalling the visage of Matthieu, I'm inspired to carry on.

I respect how the Shechen clinics employ local/traditional medicine
alongside Western modalities.
In addition to the daily inspiration to benefit others, I am also deeply moved by Matthieu's recently published book, A Plea for the Animals. While I was inching toward veganism prior to reading this book, A Plea for the Animals was just the push that I needed to take the plunge into a 100% plant-powered diet.

During Matthieu's recent visit to Madison, we had a chance to talk about his book and how it influenced my decision to change my diet. Almost immediately, Matthieu focused on the idea of mismatch; most of us like, if not love, some animals... while we then eat other animals. How did our feelings about animals become so utterly mismatched?

The Bamboo Schools provide education to the poorest of the poor,
with a particular focus on education girls (almost unheard of in this region!)
I recalled working on a couple farms over the years, and ending up becoming friends with many different animals. Of course, I was fond of hanging out with the barnyard cats, though I also enjoyed throwing sticks for the farm dog. After a few months on the farms, I also came to know and appreciate the personalities of the individual goats, pigs and cows. I came to believe that all the barnyard animals had likes, dislikes and personalities - though I chose to open my heart more to some animals than others.

Matthieu and I talked about this mismatch, and how it consumes a lot of energy. We also talked about a common rationale for this mismatch - well, it's always been done this way. To this assertion, Matthieu animatedly pointed out that human sacrifices and slavery, to name a couple odious examples, were also common practices in human history. And that humans have mercifully moved away from many cruel practices that were once commonplace. Matthieu then asked - can there be a better time to move away from raising baby animal in order to eat them?

The kids start the day with an aspiration to
be of benefit to others.
The day after our conversation, Matthieu presented a beautiful overview of his 50+ years in the Himalayas. Toward the end of a long and inspiring day, a participant asked Matthieu about animals and food. Matthieu's reply was like the unleashing of a force of nature! Despite a long and tiring day, Matthieu's passion for benefiting beings - all beings, shone forth. Matthieu invited us to live steeped in the aspiration to consider the welfare of all beings... and if not now, then when?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Diaphragm Fatigue

The Lead-In:
The Fall semester is rapidly winding down, and my final task is completing a project for Cardiorespiratory Adaptations to Exercise and Environment. Unfortunately, skiing daydreams are interrupting my progress on this project. I love to ski, and the recent cold snap has me thinking about ski trips past and future. Of my various skiing daydreams, I've been fondly remembering various backcountry trips in Colorado's 10th Mountain System.

The air at Uncle Bud's Hut does not contain a lot of oxygen.
(11.380 feet above sea level)
One dozen years ago, my old friend Steve and I made a late-Winter trip to Uncle Bud's Hut, which is located at the wheezable altitude of 11,380 feet above sea level.  For some reason I was renewed in my interest in the supposed benefits of Yogic diaphragmatic breathing, and spent most of the 1600+ foot altitude gain focused on diaphragmatic breathing. By the time we arrived at the hut, I was not only hungry and tired, but nearly doubled over in pain. My entire midsection hurt, and the intense pain briefly convinced me there was something wrong with my spleen. While my spleen was OK, my diaphragm wasn't so happy.

Stuff I've Learned:
As it turns out, diaphragm fatigue is very real, and the diaphragm's central role in respiration means its response to fatigue has an outsized influence on performance. As many of you know, the diaphragm is a muscle, not dissimilar to the hundreds of other muscles in the human body. Muscles get tired, and when they do, they send predictable signals to the brain. Mechanoreceptors in the muscles more or less signal how hard the muscle is working, and metaboreceptors by and large signal how tired the muscle is. When you climb up the side of a mountain, mechanoreceptors and metaboreceptors in your leg muscles send signals to your brain that say "hey, I'm working hard and/or getting tired down here!"

My diaphragm hurt during most of this ski trip.
The diaphragm sends similar signals to the brain, though it seems as though the diaphragm talks louder than the other muscles. The diaphragm is richly innervated with metaboreceptors, and when it gets fatigued, the diaphragm loudly and clearly alerts the brain to the increasing work of breathing.

I'd never really considered the work of the muscles associated with breathing, though respiratory muscles may consume more than 10% of your aerobic capacity when you're climbing up the side of a mountain. That leaves less aerobic capacity for the hardworking legs, which would explain why my legs felt so tired on that trip to Uncle Bud's Hut. To ensure that I was breathing sufficiently to keep my blood oxygenated, my body automatically diverted blood from my leg muscles and sent this blood to my diaphragm muscle.

What have I learned on the side of the mountain and in the classroom? Don't spend too much time messing with your breathing! Unless you clearly have a pathological breathing habit and or patterning, your body already knows exactly how to breathe. There are many variables involved (I discussed this in a previous blog that introduces the concept of DFWI), and your clever body keeps track of all those variables automatically.

The human body is really amazing. Again and again I'm awed by its clever adaptations. Your body is an embodiment of this precious human life; I hope that you can all stay physically active, get plenty of rest, connect with community, eat whole foods, and spend some time in silence during this busy time of year!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Why Re-Invent a Wheel?

In what seems like a previous life, I worked as a racecar mechanic and fabricator. Under the tutelage of whiz/ace mechanic Daniel V. Campbell, I gained a working understanding of metallurgy, milling, welding and other metal crafting skills.

As I gained more confidence in the shop, I often found myself murmuring I can make that. Whether parts for my motorcycles, snowboard binding parts or exhaust parts for the Volkswagen Vanagon that I drove at the time, I took great delight in designing and fabricating the parts that I needed.

Despite my enthusiasm in applying my newfound skills, my wise mentor often cautioned me against willy-nilly making my own stuff. Among the more experienced fabricators, there was a common refrain; in the long run, it's usually cheaper and easier to buy what is commercially available than to build your own. At first I rejected this almost-mantra as heresy, though I soon came to appreciate its wisdom. It didn't take many dulled mill bits or measure-twice-wreck-once experiences with expensive raw materials to dim my enthusiasm on making the stuff that was readily available to buy.

Removing the transaxle required supporting the engine.
The Saab part was prohibitively expensive, so I welded my own.
I came to relish the opportunity to design parts that uniquely solved problems, and then enjoyed the opportunity to practice shop craft in turning a hunk of metal into something uniquely functional (and in the Bauhaus-ian view, often quite beautiful). Conversely, when a good solution or part was commercially available, I came to appreciate all the work that went into making a good product, and more cheerfully dug out my credit card to reward the small businesses that produced what I wanted/needed.

I have come to a similar view in working with the body. As many of us have found, a single-minded focus on Yoga may lead to a gradual loss of beneficial muscle-mass, and painfully unstable joints. I'm heartened to see how many formerly single-minded yogis and yoginis are embracing the fitness that can support and complement their love of yoga. What I find surprising, though, is how many yogis and yoginis seem to feel that they need to invent some new fitness form in order to meet their needs.

The fitness world is filled with some pretty dubious claims and outlandish systems - I fully acknowledge how crazy the gym-scene may look for recovering yogis and yoginis. That being said, there are also some wonderfully wise fitness systems in existence that have wholly thrived under the test of time.

Making the jigs to support the main shaft of the Saab 9000
transaxle allowed me to replace a mainshaft bearing at minimal cost.
The Pilates system, in my opinion, is one of these wise fitness systems. I have found that the Pilates system allows me to apply the mindfulness that I cultivated in my 30+ years of Yoga practice within a framework that is well developed and vetted. I currently practice Pilates 3-4 days/week, and with almost every session I experience OMG insights on the subtlety and power of the seemingly-simple exercises. Particularly with the Pilates equipment, I find the support and resistance provided by the springs to be nothing short of brilliant in developing greater awareness, strength and efficient neuromuscular recruitment patterns.

At some point, I may exhaust the reservoir of the Pilates system, and I'll probably feel inspired to build my own system. But after 12+ years of regular Pilates practice, I don't feel anywhere near outgrowing Pilates. I really appreciate the community of practitioners and accumulated wisdom that comes from being part of an existing system, and have come to delight in sharing what I'm learning about the mind and body through the lens of Pilates.

Of course, there are other wise systems besides Pilates. Free weights and Olympic lifting can be a mindful path, as can running, biking, etc. What systems/forms have you found that feed you?

Paraphrasing my old friend and mentor Daniel: if something doesn't exist, then build it. But if it already exists, think twice before darting off to reinvent the wheel.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Isometric Contraction

Perhaps you remember Hans and Franz of Saturday Night Live? They were keenly interested in pumping you up, and demonstrated the results of their workout regimen at the slightest provocation.

Hans and Franz want to pump you up. You can see the
results as they contract muscles isometrically.
Posing like Hans, Franz or California's former Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, involves isometric muscle contraction. When you make a muscle, you're contracting your muscles isometrically. While Yoga tends to de-emphasize bulking up with muscle mass, most yoga poses also involve isometric muscle contraction.

Isometric muscle contraction is different than dynamic muscle contraction in some significant ways. One key difference between dynamic muscle contraction (found in common activities like walking, running or biking) and static muscle contraction is the rate of blood flow to the working muscle. In dynamic muscle contraction, the blood flow to the working muscle increases. In static, or isometric, muscle contraction, the blood flow to the working muscle decreases.

When muscles are working, they need more nutrients in order to maintain their activity. With dynamic contraction, the blood flow to the muscle increases. In isometric contraction, on the other hand, blood flow actually decreases. Why does the blood flow decrease in isometric contraction at just the time that the muscles are needing more blood supply? Because the static contraction of the muscle presses so hard on the blood vessels that the blood supply is impeded. With sufficient isometric contraction (effort), the blood supply to the working muscle may actually be shut off.

When working muscles are not receiving the blood that they need to continue working, receptors in the working muscle send a signal to the brain - more blood, right now! The cardiovascular control centers of the brain then generate greater activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which both raises heart rate and blood pressure.

Put another way - holding isometric contraction may catalyze a fight, flight, freeze response. Now, don't worry - this is not to suggest that holding yoga poses is a stressor. Far from it - I think many of us have experienced the relaxing benefits of a satisfying yoga practice.

If isometric contraction (holding poses) may cause greater sympathetic activation, how does Yoga work? One theory is that the relaxation at the end of a session allows your central nervous system to overcorrect after having modestly upregulated due to the various Yoga techniques. It's thought that holding poses may cause sympathetic activation, and resting in Savasana at the end of class gives your system the time and space to overcorrect into a state of greater relaxation.

In the past few years, I've seen more teachers shorten or even eliminate the relaxation at the end of class. Even though many people are busy and it can seem like a waste of time to lie still, in many respects, I think Savasana may be the most important yoga pose. If you aren't getting a chance for your autonomic nervous system to reset at the end of your class or practice, I encourage you to take that extra 5-10 minutes to do so.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Stuff I Learned - Circulatory System

When I was a kid, my family drove a ginormous Ford van. True to the times, it was fully customized with the requisite shag carpeting, wood paneling and captain's chairs. Sweet.

In addition to feeling like a rolling living room, it had two huge fuel tanks. Each tank was probably about as big as my entire Smart Car, and the range of the Econoline was remarkably long. It felt like refueling took the better part of the day, though I scarcely remember ever stopping for gas in that van. I have fond late-70's memories of road trips to my family's cabin, track meets, and ski trips in that van - mostly accomplished without having to stop to refuel.

Pedestrians - get out of the way!
Small window made it hard to see
out of groovy vans.
Why am I reminiscing about the van that caused global warming? I'm mentioning this van because it had a large capacity to carry fluid, and it did so by having more than one reservoir to handle all its capacity. The human body similarly has a lot of fluid to carry around - in the body's case, the fluid I'm referencing is blood.

Circulating blood is necessary for life, and the body is engineered with lots of blood capacity. Copious blood capacity is a good thing, as having just enough blood to get by would mean that even a small wound and blood loss would be fatal. Evolutionary pressures favored the creatures that had extra blood carrying capacity, and we now walk around with reservoirs of blood that are carried in different tanks in our bodies.

One of the tanks carrying our extra blood capacity are the abdominal organs (splanchnic region). As you're reading this blog, there are likely at least a few pints of blood sloshing around in your body that are not actively involved in maintaining your life. They're in reserve, waiting to perfuse tissues, as needed.

This blood capacity isn't just for protecting against blood loss. When you exercise, this extra blood capacity is also very useful. Exercising muscles require lots of nutrients and oxygen, and it's the blood that carries these substances to the muscles. In addition, exercising muscles release lots of waste by-products that need to be carried away from from the action. While the body has a lot of blood capacity, the working muscles have a huge appetite for blood, and there is not enough blood to supply every tissue all at once.

The body's response is clever - during exercise, blood supply is directed to the working muscles, and away from areas that are less important in supporting the activity. Your body automatically reapportions blood away from lower-priority tasks and toward higher-priority tasks.

After I finish writing this blog, for example, I'm planning to head out to Blue Mound State Park for an ~8-mile trail run. During that run, my legs will require a lot of blood - some of the major muscles will require to the tune of 3-5 liters of blood flow per minute. That's a lot of blood, and that rate of consumption would even exhaust the volumetric carrying capacity of the 1977 Econoline van!

My body will make some interesting adaptations to accommodate this activity. Once I decide to begin running, my brain stem will signal my sympathetic nervous system to initiate a modest fight/flight/freeze response. This sympathetic activation will increase my heart rate and constrict the blood vessels throughout my body. In the first minutes of my run, my rest and digest response will diminish, and my heart rate will rapidly increase due to this parasympathetic withdrawal.

This blog isn't really about vans, though I now have vans on my mind.
From ages 16 - 35, I primarily drove VW vans.
As the exercise continues, metaboreceptors in my muscles will sense accumulating waste byproducts, and will send signals to my brainstem requesting greater blood flow. My body will respond by opening up the floodgates of blood flow to the working muscles, while further restricting blood flow to any muscles that aren't working. In addition to redirecting blood flow away from non-working muscles and toward working muscles, my body will more or less shut down my GI tract, and divert the huge amount of blood in the splanchnic reservoir toward my working muscles.

In the 1977 Econoline van, a switch on the dashboard shifted fuel supply from one tank to the other tank. In the human body, the shifting of blood flow occurs automatically. During this morning's run, I will not need to focus on or visualize redirecting blood flow  - it happens organically thanks to the vast intelligence that infuses the human body.

When I run, I try to reduce the degree to which I control my movements. Most of my conscious awareness of running is just that - awareness. I practice feeling my feet contacting the ground, sensing the movement of prana/breath, and enjoying the unfolding scenery that surrounds me. Particularly for those of us who have embraced movement practices, it can be tempting to micromanage movement experiences.

This micromanaging can take various forms, though the most common forms are holding the body in the right way, and/or controlling breathing.  As I've mentioned in previous blog entries, I encourage you to resist the temptation to use movement practices as a means to reinforce controlling tendencies, and use movement and movement practices to connect with the vast intelligence that pervades the human body.

Have a great week!