Does the mental/physical distinction make sense regarding health… or yoga?

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Lately “Mental Health” has been getting a lot of play. There’s a Mental Health Foundation page on facebook that promises to help you manage stress. I’ve been listening to some of the speakers on Recovery 2.0, an innovative conference on addiction and recovery organized and facilitated by Tommy Rosen. I even wrote a piece for Muse in the Valley during Canada’s “Bell Let’s Talk” week on how yoga helps me with PTSD. I recently had a Twitter convo with Ben King of Armor Down, discussing how he came to found this revolutionary organization for helping soldiers armor down after deployment.

So perhaps you’ll forgive me a moment of confused frustration with the term “Mental Health.” In Ancient Greece, there was no distinction between mental and physical health: activities benefitting and destroying your body were assumed to have corresponding effects for the person’s mental function and outlook, and visa versa. Sometime after the Enlightenment, when we stopped referring to “humors” to explain illness, we began to look at physical ailments as a class separate from purely “mental” ones. The shift was complete by the time Freud adopted the diagnosis of “hysteria” for his female patients suffering from a variety of symptoms. Though even he used physical images to describe what he surmised was causing his patients’ suffering, and much of it came down to disorders of the “nervous system,” these were used as a metaphorical correlates for the very distinctly physical system.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We currently prescribe drugs and investigate the impact of exercise, mindfulness and diet on depression, addiction and other “mental health” diagnoses, however it doesn’t seem that those suffering from these imbalances are accorded the same latitude as those affected by “cardiac health,” “metabolic health,” “musculo-skeletal health” or other health phenomenon. Which is strange. Because there’s an equal and growing recognition of the psychological effects of cardiac ill health, as well as all other forms of disease. Yet insurance coverage, work policies and social stigma persist regarding “mental” health.

Truth is, being sick can make you sad. Being sad can make you sick. Trauma sucks and has lasting results on the nervous, hormonal and cardiovascular systems, effects that can be mitigated and reversed through lifestyle choices like meditation, yoga, group therapy and, yes, medications. Depression is a physical illness, affecting  body chemistry in known ways. So, too with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The brain – hold on for the revelation – is part of the body. Whoa. I know, deep, huh?

No underestimating the profound effects of addiction, depression, PTSD, bipolar and schizophrenia here. Just questioning setting them aside as “mental.” There are two possible assumptions behind setting aside some illness as mental, so far as I can see:

  • A simple taxonomy of providers and research that allows specialists to group together for professional and training reasons. Emergency Professionals train together, as do Cardiology pros (surgeons, nurses, etc), as do Psych pros. 
  • A classification of some symptoms as originating from a different mechanism than physical ailments. Mental symptoms are caused by ideas, while physical ones are caused by electro-chemical reactions within the body on which we can have meaningful impact with diet, exercise, surgery and drugs. Symptoms caused by ideas skip this physical mechanism and are healed or helped by other ideas which similarly skip physical causation.

The first is really just practical. The second is really just false, as suggested by exercise and pharmacological suggestions for psychological symptoms and meditative help for cardiac ones. Clearly, if you’re having “the big one” or you’ve sawed your arm off, you have a certain range of therapy you must seek in a finite range of time. This speaks to acuity and profundity of the symptoms rather than their source, however. We know that surgical, pharmacological and electrical interventions are often nearly as  damaging as they are helpful: that’s why we approach, prescribe and consume with great caution. Only when the gain in quality strongly outweighs the loss in trauma and side effects is it wise to engage. In extreme and emergent situations, the gain of life over probable death or profound loss of function justifies using tools that operate rather immediately on a gross level instead of ones that cause change slowly while operating on processes that are less concentrated and longer range tests are required to detect.

As a yoga teacher (were you wondering what all this had to do with that? ;>), the basis of my practice is that breath, body and mind are different ways of referring to the same experience. The experience accessed through sensation, breath, feeling and thought is that of “me:” my identity, history, person, singularity or unity. In Western Philosophy, the fallacy represented by option two above (originating from a different mechanism) is called “The Mind-Body Problem.” It’s only a problem if you think they’re distinct. We can have useful discussions about whether one causes the other, or if one is created by but has no causative force on the other (epiphenomenalism), or if they are identical, but if you begin with an assumption that they’re different in kind, you land in a briar patch that no one in the history of philosophy – in East or West – has ever escaped.

Once you’ve accepted that all well-being and dis-ease have both molecular and emotional (which also have molecular) effects, it’s easier to see that just like cardiac health, mental health is a continuum. And the lifestyle choices we make that increase our well-being on one continuum, are likely to have effects on the other – whether those lifestyle choices are pharmacological, exercise or nutrition choices.

Would we lose anything by ditching the “mental” distinction for psychological specialty symptoms? Nothing except a freakishly outdated notion that ideas are caused by ideas which somehow magically skip concourse with our bodies and directly change our emotions… which are, er… um… wow, this could be embarrassing to admit, huh? Embodied. It’s one thing. Your mind and your body are different ways of relating the one irreplaceable experience of you, and your health is singularly important. All of it. All of you.

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Practice, from piano to yoga: what’s it mean?

Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

I’ve recently begun reading Kara-Leah Grant’s The Yoga Lunchbox, a self-directing guide for committing to your own yoga practice. I’ve only just begun, but can say that hers is an enjoyable voice, self-disclosing and up front. The book isn’t a how-to for yoga per se, but rather a worksheeted, stop-and-think, dig in your heart kind of affair, in which she assumes you’ve been to yoga classes and know what DownDog is, but want to go deeper and make it personal. She also acknowledges the familiar struggles when coming to the mat and offers her book as a tutorial for successfully navigating them and getting your feet under you, or over you, as the case may be.

 

I love reading how other yogis guide themselves through their inner thickets, and I’m constantly reflecting on the question of  “What is a practice?” You might say it’s my own personal koan.

 

My first experiences with practice were piano, tap, jazz dance and ballet – and, yes, as I recall, all at once. I think the doctors had suggested I always be involved in dance of some kind after they were finished with my little but growing legs. The piano was a prelude to guitar, and my memories of it are tactile: the finish on the piano my mother

 

English: A split leap performed during an acro...

This was NOT me. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

bought for my practice, the pleasantly solitary “tock!” of the metronome, and the less pleasant buzz of a kitchen timer. I remember a great deal of discomfort with the dance classes: I didn’t care for the stretchy leotards and no one would ever guess my name was “Grace,” if you know what I mean. Looking back, though, the classes probably provided connection and strength that allowed me to forget for so long that my legs weren’t always so workable.

 

 

So I know a little from useful discipline. And I wonder how yoga practice differs from any of these other types of practice, for someone who feels completely at home doing them. Isn’t practice just practice, after all? Isn’t it really a way of meeting yourself over and over and over again in the same place so you can befriend yourself and study yourself in your natural habitat?

Is there a difference, for instance between yoga and meditation practice, beyond the lack of gross movement in the one and the focus in the other? Does yoga also contain meditation practice with the stillness at the end, or does it become the other when you sit up after corpse pose? Or is the common denominator of “practice” what really matters?

And if the rhythm of meeting yourself in circumstances that you control on  a regular basis for the purpose of observing, befriending and perhaps refining yourself is what really matters, is reading practice any different from yoga practice? Or language practice? Or dance? Or shooting?

I think there is a difference in the type of container you’re creating. That’s my hunch anyway. But I’m also certain that having some practice is better than none. And as I work on my own book about yoga, I’m reminded of the dictum that the map is not the territory. If reading a book about having a yoga practice is a practice that gets you to practice yoga, do you already have to be committed to the idea of practice to finish the book? In which case, why don’t we all just meet on the mat?

I suppose one reason is that we can do both, and there’s joy in reading about you love. Writing about it, too. Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Kapala-mula-bhati in the morning: breath + posture = happiness

Bhati

Bhati (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Or should that be “Kapala-mala-bhati”? You see, this morning I lingered over coffee with my Darling Hubs longer than I’d planned and so ended up with 20 minutes or so for practice. What’s a girl to do???

 

 

This is the week of the mad scientist for me, evidently  so I decided the solution would be to combine. I usually begin seated Japanese style with breath observation and then mix in some technique, moving slowly to sacral pumps and up to full Sun Salutations through Malasan (Squat pose).

So I started in Malasan and moved quickly to Kapalabhati, one of my winter morning go-tos because it is warming and creates wakefulness. It was strange at first: the pelvic floor is stretched in Malasan and the transverse abdominus is released. Generally they work in concert during Skull shining breath, and this position privileges the transverse abdominus and restricts the interlocking muscles of the pelvic floor.

It took a few rounds to get the feel of it, but I liked the added stabilization of the torso created by my elbows pushing the insides of my shins and visa versa and it created a different level of connection to the structure of the pelvis. Kapalabhati in this position took more effort and my usual 3 rounds of 100 wasn’t as breezy as usual, but still steady. I think what I like the most is that it helps discriminate between perception of sensation in the pelvic floor and low belly.

Paired with Mula-lifts at the end of practice, this made for an excellent exploration of pelvic sensation and motion. “Mula-lifts” are what I call a version of leg lifts that I learned from Ally Hamilton of Yogis Anonymous (my current fave online source). Instead of lifting the entire sacrum off the ground and contracting the front of your belly, as you would in most fitness leg lifts, you’re really going for a very small – maybe 2 inch – lift of the tailbone from the floor, with the toes pointed straight up to the ceiling and your belly pressing down toward the floor. The focus is specifically on the pelvic floor and not the abdominals.

What do you do when you realize you have limited time for practice? Are you a combiner or a simplifier? Or are you tempted to do what I almost did: “Oh, I only have 20 minutes, better just leave it til later…” I’m so glad I didn’t! Just remember to get your Savasana in. That’s the best part!

 

 

Experimentation and Pranayam: what do you do with “prohibitions”?

My Very Last Breath

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

I started thinking about this last December when I was reading a lot about Brahmari, or “Bumble Bee Breath.” I read in several places to always practice Brahmari sitting upright, but never any reason for avoiding other postures. So I asked the writers and what I heard back was that they were simply repeating what they’d read or been taught.

 

I thought a lot about why practicing Brahmari supine or even prone or twisted or inverted might be cautioned against and wondered if it was because of the mid-forehead focus and pranic flow, or because of the deep, seemingly skeletal vibration, it creates in the torso – or some combination.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori (Photo credit: Reini68)

Many of my students use this technique to power down at night or even to encourage deep sleep and some have asked about doing it in bed. While I know that the ideal for all pranayam and meditation practices is to remain alert, when these techniques are used for what might be considered their “side” effects – calming, relaxing, stress release, anti-insomnia – it makes sense not to fight the very thing you’re courting, right?

 

After consulting the many and varied sources – primary and secondary, dog eared beloved books and websites – and finding no discussion of “Why not,” I decided that the only way to tell was to run the experiment. After all, I thought, I was taught Kapalabhati as a seated practice, but I’ve experienced power and kundalini classes in which we combined with Fierce (or chair) pose and even Ardha Navasana (or half-boat).

 

I practiced Brahmari in corpse (modified for hand position) and Viparita Karani primarily, in bed, on the mat, with a cat and in a hat. (Not really; I don’t have a cat.) Having my back on the floor dissipated and dampened the torso vibration more rapidly, so my guess is this is the source of prohibitions against doing so. However, it also released tension in my neck and shoulders (massive for me) and was the perfect pre-sleep ritual.

 

Going back to my students and reporting my findings after several weeks of practice and experimentation, they told me they’d been secretly doing it, too -and loving it – reporting the same findings.

 

Hence my question: what do you do when you hear a pose or technique is “contra-indicated” for you or a position or whatever? Inversions are verboten women menstruating, goes the common wisdom, but many report loving the practice.

 

I’m all for respecting the wisdom of the ages, it’s part of what led me to yoga after all. But the discipline of heeding instruction is balanced by the wisdom of listening to my body, in my experience. How do you maintain this balance? Is there a line you won’t cross?

 

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Shut your kombucha hole and I’ll shut my coffee hole.

I’ve been listening to the talk in the blog-net-o-sphere about “body” issues. Which is a euphemism for fat issues, because when we refer to “body” issues we are rarely talking about being short or tall, well muscled, paraplegic, in chronic pain, or even back pain, except insofar as how our favorite technique – yoga, massage, EFT, tapping, whatever – will “solve” your back/knee/shoulder pain and how you should live so you never have to face such ignominy.

I’ve learned a lot about what our “body” issues say about our practices. Whether or not we relate to fat or size or shape as a Shiva Dancinglimitation says a lot about what we think of our practice. All yogis, since we are all people, will face some limitation whether it’s big boobs falling in the face in shoulder-stand or inability to get into that super cool arm balance the teacher demos. I’ve learned that while techniques can effectively address limitation in many cases, the disciplines have far more to offer than fixes because our bodies are so much more than items in the world waiting to be fixed. They are living, breathing, self-writing and re-writing stories waiting to told, listened and added to.

I once heard a very well known teacher of yoga say to an assembled gathering of other yoga teachers that overweight people have “no business teaching yoga.” At the time this confused and hurt and enraged me. Where did I fit in all this? Where did I want to fit in all this? Was I to embark on a weight loss regimen outside my beloved practice to conform to this mandate more quickly? Or did I even want to be in the same business as this person? I’ve practiced in all my bodies. And I’ve taught in all of them, too.

I “unmuted” myself and asked a question on that webinar that was made into an example of disability. At the time I felt so embarrassed. I wish I would have told that teacher to shut her kombucha hole and stop getting her own disordered feelings all over other people’s experiences. “You got your judgement all over my question!” “No, you got your question all in the way of my judgement!” I guess I did, it was her call after all. Maybe keeping my own coffee-hole shut would have spared the experience for us both – how mortifying to have a fat yoga teacher ask a question right after she said that?!

The labels we use to distance ourselves from various forms of limitation are ways of keeping our essential nature at bay: we are impermanent, breakable, already disintegrating and re-integrating beings whose only hope is to unmute and share in stories and in silence. To bump up against one another and our attitudes, preferences and judgements and to just keep noticing, opening space, taking up space and sharing time and space. I’ve shared space from a fat body, a broken body, a fit body and a tired body. I’ve unmuted my shoulders, hips and heart after a night of answering 911 calls, thumping chests and tubing throats and I’ve listened to those same shoulders, hips and heart on long retreats and luxurious spa vacations.

Here’s the truth: live and you will face some kind of disability or incapacity. While yoga, my own favored discipline, will help you through whatever limitation you do or will face, the most important part of that help won’t be a solution. The way these disciplines, lifestyles and techniques help is not so much to dig out the root; the root is our very vitality which is also the source of dynamism, change, limitation and degradation. My experience with yoga is not that it takes away all pain or fat or incapacity, but allows a particularly present way of being with all these things. A way of being with and being in the world that undermines  the ideas we use to create distance and renders a very disarming, gritty, nearly indescribably intimate connection that when experienced, makes all the ideas obsolete. Sometimes this brings a kind of healing that makes the limitation disappear, but not always. Intimate connection, however, always eases, heals and vivifies.

The variety of our possibility and experience is the gift of our impermanence. Whether the variety is experienced through our communities or over a long and rich lifetime, it is our privilege to bear its witness.

Savasana Meditation: Gift from yourself, to yourself with Green Tara by Taos Winds

Recline in Savasana and allow your day to melt and your practice to dissolve the obstacles to your true gift while listening to this meditation on soundcloud.com.  Leave a comment andgift with ribbon let me know how you use these recordings. Do you play them during savasana, before bed, while falling asleep or save for a treat?

Safe Place Visualization mp3 (link to SoundCloud)

If you liked Tracy Weber’s Safe Place Visualization, try this narration with Taos Wind’s “Green TaraIMG_0099in the background. Find your spot, sitting or lying in Savasana, and melt into your safe place. You’ll find it nestled in your badlands. When you’re fully blissed, head on over to Taos Wind’s website and check out his newest Chakra recording – my newest favorite for practice. Leave a comment if you love it, too!