Spread Happiness

Have you ever smiled at someone who is not smiling and suddenly their face brightens to return your smile? It really happens. I saw a nice older lady at the grocery store yesterday and when I smiled at her, she just beamed from ear to ear back at me. Happiness is truly contagious.

We talked about the dynamics of a yoga class in teacher training. I had a day in Rocket Yoga not too long ago. I was very tired and sore from my workouts, but I tried to put on my best “teacher face”. But it wasn’t enough to overcome my lack of energy. I don’t know if it was me, the weather, the moon, or whatever, but everyone seemed to feel like I did. I offered a few challenging poses but nobody went for it. They all took a gentler version. We were all in an energy slump.

Then just a few days ago, I taught a Rocket class that was completely the other way. Even before class, I couldn’t get people to quiet down when I read the announcements. Everybody was talking together and giddy with excitement. And to top it off, one of our Ashtanga teachers who just glows with goodness came to class. I think everyone was feeling good, but especially my yoga teacher friend. Her energy and the effort she put into each pose brought everyone else’s levels up too. It got super hot in there with all the energy. It was one of the best classes ever. Again, happiness is contagious.

Unfortunately, you can’t fake happiness. There are people who are truly having hard times. There are people who’s demeanors are naturally depressed and tamasic. Biting words, sarcasm, dark thoughts, and frowing faces are the norm for them. Teacher training talked about these kinds of people. It only takes one person who can spread negativity to an entire class. While yoga teachers aren’t usually therapists, it is helpful to talk with them to make sure they are OK first. But you also have to set an expectation of living in the now. Forget your troubles of the past or agonizing about the future and live for now. Make it a happy now. You can always choose to be happy.

Recent generations have been burdened with feelings of unworthiness, self-loathing, and negativity in their view of the world. They are not comfortable with the color of their skin or the gender to which they were born. They’ve complicated all of life with lots of clutter and chaos. Most of it is completely unnecessary. Most of it is selfishness. When you think of someone truly in need, where water and warm clothes are lacking, they are only focused on what is real. The unecessary frivolities we worry about are obstacles to happiness. When we live in comfort and excess, we have the opportunity for burdensome worries.

My recommendation to them is this, come backpacking with me for a weekend. We’ll hike back a few miles into what is real. All you can have is what you can carry in your pack. You can’t burden it down with unncecessary things or it will drag you down, both physically and metaphorically. If you’ve ever carried a 100 pound pack, you know what I mean. You only take the essentials. You make your own fire to stay warm and cook food. You use a filter to clean your own water. You consider weather and wildlife when setting up your sleeping area. You don’t get cellphones, headphones, or anything that distracts you. All you get to think about are the leaves at your feet and the stars in the sky. You listen to the coyotes in the distance and squirrels rustling in the brush. All that clutter in your mind goes away when you are down to only a few ounces of water. When you are needy, you prioritize what is important to you. Believe me, all this social nonsense goes away. It really isn’t very important in the grand scheme of life.

Simplify life. Seek nature and the little things. Find love. Believe in something greater than you. You don’t always have to be in control. Find a beautiful animal that will always love you back. Go to the park and watch the kids run barefoot. You can choose to be happy. You don’t have to wallow in negativity and despair. And if you don’t know how, I’m always here to help you. Someone can help. Its not hard to do.

Find ways to not Overthink!

When I teach rocket yoga, there is a part where you do boat pose, Navasana, and then I say “cross your legs and roll up to a handstand….don’t think about it; just do it!”

Think of yourself standing at the edge of a tall cliff that overlooks a deep pool of water. You stand there watching others for hours as they gleefully jump into the water. Then you finally muster the courage to try it yourself. You stand on the edge and look down. You are afraid, but you aren’t even sure what you are afraid of. Multiple times you toe the line only to talk yourself out of it. You see some kids walking up the path and one guy just tears off his shirt and jumps in. He didn’t even think about it, he just did it.

I’m a type-A planner type of person. In fact, I love the act of planning. I love to overthink things a lot. Its my job as a scientist to overthink things. I analyze and evaluate efficiencies. I consider the work flow that creates the most productivity in a short amount of time. Its how my brain is wired to think. So creating a workout plan is something that I love to do. I’m thinking about body parts and energy systems. I’m thinking about progressions to a peak maneuver or building strength to a one-rep max! Its what I do. But every once in a while, I want to turn that part of me off. I just want to hear someone say, do this, and then I do it. Instead of doing my own personal yoga practice, sometimes I just want to go to a class and do what they tell me to do. Maybe it doesn’t always feel good in my body, but it makes me experience something different. It allows me to “feel” and just “be”.

I had a back injury recently and was doing bodybuilding to recover without putting powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting loads on my back. I actually heard a podcast this morning of the strongest pound per pound powerlifter in the world. She spoke about how years of bodybuilding, building muscle mass and tendons, and doing antagonistic work of push-pull muscles. She mentioned how bodybuilding creates balance and doesn’t have weaknesses. So when she turned to the strength performance realm of powerlifting, she had the mass and the machinery to do the job. So I was doing bodybuilding for several weeks until my back could handle a load again. But instead of transitioning into my same old workouts, I turned back to CrossFit. Not just CrossFit, but the Main Site daily workouts.

What is so nice about doing the CrossFit.com WOD (workout of the day) is that you don’t get to choose the workout, it chooses you. I absolutely scale it as much as I need for that day. Sometimes, I may only do 60% of the prescribed workout. But I still do the workout every day! It is 3 days on and 1 day off. And I do it around my yoga teaching. It looks like:

  • Mon – Teach yoga (rest day or active rest with light cardio)
  • Tue – CrossFit day 1 (I pick the last day one of the 3-day sequence)
  • Wed – CrossFit day 2
  • Thu – CrossFit day 3
  • Fri – active rest or go to a yoga class
  • Sat – Teach yoga at Noon – Then do CrossFit day 1 (the last one published)
  • Sun – a.m. CrossFit Day 2; p.m. CrossFit Day 3

It has really worked out nicely. And since I scale as needed, I haven’t been wiped out. I am only mildly sore most days. On my Day 3, I have been doing calf raises (from research I read on eccentric contraction improving mobility). I also do any other bodyparts that I feel I missed in the past 3 days. If I feel super motivated, I may do Olympic weightlifting along with the workout of the day.

Its fun to plan and deload and cycle through a progression that you’ve designed. But its also nice to take a break and let someone else decide the workouts too. Then you just get down to it and get work done. You don’t think about it, you just do it!

Sculpting Your Body

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A calorie is a measure in thermodynamics of the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories (kilocalorie) and often used to measure the energy value of foods. We burn these units of energy in our body by breaking the chemical bonds between molecules and converting them into usable forms. The resulting energy expenditure often produces heat as a by-product.

I’ve been dieting for a little while to get my weight down. I’m not really out of shape, but I know that a lower weight will allow me to function better in yoga teaching and other endeavors. And, I also know I’ll be in a better place to stave off diabetes and heart disease if I am at a lower weight.

I was just thinking the other day as I was watching the show Naked and Afraid. The couple that was on the show was in very good shape. I would have to commend their preparation for the show. However, for a survival challenge, it doesn’t help one bit to be anywhere below 10-15% bodyfat for a man or 20-25% for a woman. The “reserve” energy that is in fat is useful when surviving on very little food, hot day-time temperatures, and cold (for naked) night-time temperatures. If anything, I’d be cramming down the calories in preparation to give myself some reserve energy.

In the reverse situation, if a person who is very fit and active happens to have an injury or long-term illness, the transition to a sedentary life could result in unwanted weight gain. So the better starting point for this situation would be to have a lot of muscle and very low bodyfat. Then they have the potential to recover more quickly and get back to their functional body composition.

The problem I see is when we age. What should our body composition be as we get into our later years? And it may not even be as old as you think. Many active men can eat what they want into their 20’s, but by their 30’s, their metabolism slows down and they tend to gain weight. Women follow the same pattern, but it is accelerated if they go through pregnancy. Regardless, you want to set yourself up for success as you go into the next age.

Where a car’s engine is what burns the fuel that we put into the gas tank, so are the muscles to the human body. The more muscles we have, the faster we burn. On average, men have more muscle mass than women and tend to lose weight faster. However, a man who is without much muscle mass will suffer the same inability to lose weight. So the first step is to build muscle. And I’m not only talking about skeletal muscle. Your heart is a muscle too and it needs to get stronger as well. A stronger pump and stronger engine leads to a better ability to burn fuel. And this is entirely true for women too. Muscle-to-weight ratio is a relative game.

The uphill climb is testosterone and other growth factors. Both men and women have them, and they decline in both as we age. So as we get older, weaker, and vigor declines, reacting to conditions becomes much more difficult. That’s why we have to set ourselves up for success earlier in life. The earlier the better. It is much easier to maintain a functional weight than to try to fix the problem at a later date.

Here are a few steps to success:

  1. Build muscle first. Eat to perform. You can’t work out and build muscle if you are restricting your diet. Work on getting stronger first. And work your heart as well. Make the strongest engine you can before proceeding. Make strength goals for yourself.
  2. Burn your engine. Once you reach your strength goals and heart stamina, then start to burn more fuel than you take in. When you are in calorie deficit, you’ll start to lose weight (if the goal is weight loss). But don’t go so much into deficit that you can’t perform.
  3. Maintain your ideal weight. At first, this may mean tracking calorie intake and expenditure (I use the Fat Secret app). If you learn to hold your weight, then you’ll be in a better position to react to changes. This is key to longevity. It gets more difficult every year of life. So get there now and stay there.

Note: I am very against BMI (body mass index). For sedentary people, the BMI may be useful. But for anybody who lives an active life, the BMI goes out the window. This is especially true if you carry any appreciable amount of muscle mass. Muscle is much more dense and heavy than fat. So for a given height, the weight classification is erroneous. Most bodybuilders and strength athletes are considered obese or morbidly obese by BMI standards. Likewise, endurance athletes would be considered underweight by BMI standards. Whereas both groups are very healthy. A better measure is bodyfat percentage. You can get tested hydrostatically (most accurate) or there are fancy bioimpedance weight scales that gives you a rough estimate. Generally, men are considered very athletic if they fall somewhere at or below 10% bodyfat and women about 18%. To survive in most scenarios, it is best to not go too far below these standards for best health.

 

 

Make the Shapes

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When we get to a certain point in Rocket Yoga where we attempt Eka Pada Bakasana (one-legged crow pose), I give specific instructions. I tell them to place their front foot on the ground with the knee up. Place the knee on the same side upper arm. Plant your hands and start to raise your back leg straight off the ground. That’s the shape!! We don’t need to go further. But maybe, just maybe, we can begin to pull the front toes off the ground and balance fully on our hands.

To be honest, only a select few can do the pose in my classes. And even for those who CAN usually don’t hold it for the full 3 breaths. But none of that matters. What matters is making the shape. Then, the intention for the pose is fulfilled. You still engage the same muscles whether you are in the full variation or not.

Side note: One pet peeve of mine is when people call some other pose a boat pose (Navasana). You have to ask yourself, what is the intention of the pose? If I’m not mistaken, its to develop uddiyana bandha and the muscles of the psoas and frontal torso. Oh, and a side peeve, I don’t agree that yoga = fitness, so I don’t call it “core”. This isn’t a body pump class. The other poses that people call Navasana are Ubhaya Padanghustasana, Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, and Upavistha Kapotasana B. They are not intended to be boat pose. If they are not strong enough for the full, straight-legged variation, then have them bend their knees. They may even lightly rest or hover their toes off the floor. Regardless, their anterior chain is engaged and working. You disengage if you grab toes or legs.

I just saw a picture of someone doing triangle pose (Trikonasana). Only the student had her front leg very bent. The intent of the pose is to lengthen hamstrings, glutes, and side body. So if the leg is bent, it is not meeting the intention of the pose. The adjustment I would make is to bring the student back up. Then take a block with their front hand from the long end; straighten both legs and make them straight and strong (straight meaning not hyperextending); hinge forward at the hip with legs straight; then place the block on either side of the leg directly beneath their shoulder onto the floor. The student doesn’t meet the intention if they don’t do this correctly.

When making adjustments as teachers, it is imperative that we know the intention for every pose. And it may not be the pose at all. You may be focused on a drishti or chakra or body part. Whatever it is, meet the intention. Always ask yourself “why” you are doing a pose. If a yogi cannot do the full expression of a pose, then modify to meet the intention. Usually it means making the same shape even if they are not flying or binding or whatever it is. Every BODY can do every pose.

Body Shape Matters

condor wingspan

When I was in Yoga Teacher Training, my teacher did an illustration that I think is completely valid. In Ashtanga, we do this jump-back and jump through maneuver. For the jump-back, imagine being seated with legs crossed. You press your hands down and lift your body off the ground and then rotate shooting your legs back into chaturanga (like a half-pushup). Then for the jump-through, you bend your knees in downward facing dog and jump your legs through your arms coming to seated without touching feet to the ground. So to show that everyone can do it and we don’t have T-Rex arms, you sit, lift legs crossed and pull them close to your body, and then push your hands forward beyond your legs to show you that are actually long enough for your legs to fit through. Hmmm?

I think there is more to it than that. As much as we want to say bodies don’t matter, they do. It goes beyond strength and flexibility. In Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting, they study femur and humerus length and calculate ratios to evaluate bodies and the best variations for success. I attended a seminar by the former Olympic weightlifting team coach, Zygmunt Smalcerz. He was supposed to talk about how to get kids into Olympic weightlifting. But in former Communist Poland where he was raised, they did things differently. You measure kids proportions at an early age and then place them in the program where they would find the most success. Some kids started an intense career in Olympic weightlifting, while another kid started their career shoveling coal. He was very matter of fact about his ideas. We were there to hear about opportunities for kids, but ended up with measurement standards.

So, I’m sitting down watching mixed martial arts on TV. Fighters have to qualify at the same weight class, which are almost exactly the same. They may be very different in height. But what is weird is that height isn’t completely correlated with a fighter’s reach (how long his arms are). So I looked up how they measure reach. They extend arms wide like a condor from fingertip to fingertip. It is basically a measure of wingspan, which a condor’s is about 10 feet wide. Common measurements are 70-78 inches. If I did it correctly, mine is like 63 inches. What?!! I know when I buy suits, I sometimes buy a 44 short so that the sleeves don’t extend past my hands. There really is something to this wingspan thing in yoga.

I don’t want to make excuses for successes or failures in what we do. But bodies do matter. If a person is overweight, it can be much harder to do some twists and folds. If a person is very thin lacking muscle mass, poses like chaturanga and planks can be difficult. I wish I measured a colleague of mine in yoga teacher training. He had very long arms and legs. He could jump back & through like a BOSS! Whereas, I’m sure I could out bench press him easily, but I couldn’t do a jump back at the time one bit. Flexibility and strength in bandhas play a huge role too. But structure still matters.

So in all things yoga, we need to be happy where we are. There are some things we may never do. We may never bind in Marichyasana C, so that’s the furthest we’ll ever go in Ashtanga. We may never do jump throughs. And that’s completely OK. We walk our own journey and make it our own. We find contentment, santosha, with where we are. We live in the now and find our bliss wherever we are. Forget comparisons and judgments. We are where we are.

condor wingspan comparison

Yoga Teacher Education & Experience

The E-RYT is a designation under Yoga Alliance for Registered Yoga Teachers to give Educational credit to others for various training. It is a nice credential since it can be attractive for workshops and courses where credit can be given to teachers who want to gather education credits. It also alludes to the fact that this is a teacher with a good number of hours of teaching under their belt with worthwhile experiences to share to others.

On the other hand, some credentials just represent a badge that means you had a course or class or training, but haven’t really experienced much. In the Army, enlisted (non-commissioned officers) rip on 2nd Lieutenants (commissioned officers) who have Airborne jump wings on their chests. It means they went to a 2 week course and did their 5 parachute jumps and that’s it. It is an elective course in ROTC and OCS as part of their training. And I think it is a good thing to do and a worthy accomplishment. But it doesn’t mean they’ve spent time in an elite unit like the 82nd Airborne Division where they not only jump, but conduct missions upon deployment. And they definitely haven’t jumped into a real battlefield situation, which is an even more rare occurrence even for those who serve in Airborne units. I’ve had numerous courses in so many things. I am certified to teach Olympic Weightlifting through CrossFit. But to be honest, since then my style has completely changed and I would only teach half of what I learned there. In some ways, that credential has gone out the window. I am certified in Gymnastics Movement, but I was never a gymnast nor would I pretend to claim any expertise. Sometimes you have to weigh training and time on the mat with what you’ve actually experienced.

But what I have done is an accumulation of life events over my many years that adds to a wealth of knowledge. When I was a kid, there weren’t personal home computers. We found our information by doing. We experimented. We read magazines and watched what other people did. We did sports. I wrestled in high school along with any other sport I could do. But mostly I lifted weights and ran. I started running 10K races in the 2nd grade. I learned to stretch and to strengthen my body. Since then, I’ve been an Army Drill Instructor, certified Sports Diver, became a scientist having studied kinesiology, anatomy, and physiology, was deep into Ultra Marathon running (which is a science unto itself), long-distance backpacking & kayaking, and numerous martial arts. Human movement is something that I know a lot about. As a scientist, I study efficiency and productivity. We all have many experiences whether child birth, dealing with pain and disease, and life in general. All of this contributes to our personal bag of tricks.

In Sanskrit, the word is Santosha. It means contentment. I am very happy with where I am right now. I am focused on teaching Rocket (Ashtanga) Yoga and continue to develop my expertise. I came to realize the other night, there will be a time when I can’t demonstrate the poses anymore. If you look at Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga) and BKS Iyengar, many of these greats taught late in life even though they didn’t participate fully in classes. Football coaches were once players themselves, but they effectively teach and lead teams to victory without putting on the pads. The same is true of Yoga. We find ways to demonstrate and use talented pupils to show how its done. In my mind, I can see the energy of how bodies should move. I can see where we can eek a few more millimeters of length. I can efficiently adjust a body because of training in human anatomy. We are sometimes taught “Only Teach what you Practice”. I see the value in this, but I totally disagree. If you look at Béla Károlyi who coached numerous Olympians to Gold in gymnastics. He never did balance beam or uneven bars, yet he taught so many athletes. He never practiced what he teaches. But he has a thorough knowledge of what it takes to be successful.

Since I started traditional yoga late in life and became a teacher 4 years ago, I am only a little over half way to the 1,000 hours of teaching required for the E-RYT. But I am not at all disheartened. I feel Santosha. I teach on the side with only a few hours a week. But I don’t ever take any class for granted since I only get to teach infrequently. I know teachers who become completely burned out of teaching yoga. They did intense trainings abroad and went to all the conferences. They LIVED yoga full time and then just walked away. It is quite possible that there can be too much of a good thing. It is like my feelings about immersive teacher training. Yes, you can do it all in a month of intense training. I liken it to deep REM sleep. It is in deep sleep when, not only our bodies grow and recover, but our minds as well. We organize, categorize, and analyze our thoughts when we sleep. That is why people with PTSD, anxiety, and others who lack quality sleep fall down a very slippery slope. Things that should be inconsequential begin to seem astronomically important. I find the same with teacher training. We need time to process and live out what we learn. If you hear something in training, then you can evaluate how other teachers are doing it. It comes down to experience. I know that I can teach others from a standpoint of experience. I can totally relate to almost any situation since I’ve actually been there. It is the value in living a long life.

There are reports of teenagers teaching yoga. I’m all for this endeavor and the idea of starting anything at an early age. However, what they lack is life experience. They can’t possibly understand a 40 or 50 year old body. They can’t possibly realize what effects pregnancy has. They don’t know what its like to be a powerlifter who now sees merit in muscle length for their quality of life. Nobody who teaches yoga can close their minds to all that is around us. We can’t only focus on one style and expect to fill our basket with knowledge. We need to experience and feel what our students feel. Maybe go for a run and understand what it feels like the day after. Do a CrossFit workout with heavy weight and know what its like to have a week of soreness. Spend a day with your grandparents or go to a retirement home and realize what it means to have limitations on movement. Then you can accurately define yoga from a pool of compassion and empathy. Experience yoga!

Yoga Words

If you are a school teacher or remember being students yourselves, think back to writing essays for a class. Sometimes, you pull out a thesaurus and try to find a flowery, pretentious, over-the-top word for something simple. You use alliterations that attempt to make mountains out of molehills. If you say something too simple or direct, then you think people will think less of you.

As a yoga teacher, we try to communicate as best we can so a student can flow through class without confusion. However, there are times when that elementary school essay comes into play. We use imagery and allegory to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for these things. In meditation, it helps to guide the mind to a happy place. But for most of yoga, keeping simple cues and direct commands are so much more effective.

A pet peeve of mine that I am guilty of myself is the word “don’t”. Don’t turn your toes out; don’t rotate your shoulders inward; don’t look from side to side in shoulder stand. Instead, we should use  more positive, affirmative statements. Like, “Be sure to keep your head stable in shoulder stand”. Instead of “don’t let your arms sag in Warrior II”, say “engage your arms and feel energy through your fingertips”. OK, maybe that last part was a little flowery. But that’s ok, right?

Another key thing is either the student saying they are “tight”, like “I have tight hamstrings”, or, even worse, when a teacher says that about a student. Think of a marathon runner who is most efficient in a shorter range of motion. Think of a powerlifter who squats 800 pounds with thighs parallel to the floor. Yes, they may actually be tight in those muscles. But what they really are is very strong in those positions. So a more correct and positive statement is “you have strong hips”. Or, “if you have very strong hamstrings, it is OK to bend your knees”. We don’t have to denigrate shorter ranges of motion; instead we can celebrate their strength!

There is a time and a place for gushing words and phrases. But for the most part, we can do without them. There may be times and places where your words are totally accepted. But for a general vinyasa yoga class, it may be better to find more neutral words with direct meanings. Imagine you are at Fort Benning, the home of the Infantry, teaching a yoga class. Or maybe you are asked to teach a yoga class to weightlifters at the Olympic Training Center. Think of how your words come across. Do you sound like some fruity nut job or do you sound like a professional yoga teacher? Don’t be the stereotype. Be the teacher.

Lastly, as I just related, always know your audience. Make your words, intensity, and demeanor reflect the goal of the class. Give more energy to a Power class and be more soothing in a Restorative Yin class. If you teach to specialty groups, be aware of where your words may lead. If you are teaching at a women’s help center for those who have experienced trauma, make sure your words don’t exacerbate their feelings. Make it safe for them. Many of our ancient texts are written completely about battle scenes, hence Warrior poses and the like. While it is often appropriate to embrace this spirit in classes, be aware of when it should be refrained.

ADDENDUM: Since we are talking about communication with words, we can relay this to body language. When I was in Army Drill Instructor School, we were taught how to come across as strong leaders. You point with a full arm extension with fingers extended and closed. It looks weaker to point with a bent arm and a single finger. Stand with good posture without slouching. Demonstrate correct form, not modifications or dance interpretations of a pose. I know it looks good to point toes for aesthetics, but a flexed foot is usually the correct anatomical position. And drishti always counts. Always demonstrate and instruct where they should focus. Drishti changes where the energy should be focused and guides the pose. This is all a part of good communication and should be combined with positive, direct, simple verbal commands.