Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

Flame Mind [Common Meter]

His eyes take in the dancing flame
until his mind is flame.
He anticipates its flutter,
its flareups, just the same.

There's nothing in his mind or eye
that is not set ablaze.
He knows not whether it's been like
this for hours, weeks, or days.

Others think it will devour him,
leaving a pile of ash,
taking him from this world at once,
in one big, blinding flash.

BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

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POEM: Yoga for Giraffes

Surely, I have misunderstood,
“Put my head where, you say?”
“But I have bones, don’t you know?”
“I wish I could obey.”

“Now, you say, my feet are too wide?”
“Really, what the heck!”
“You said put my head ‘tween my feet,
have you seen my frickin’ neck?”

“I wasn’t built to stand on my head!”
“What do you mean, ‘We’ll see?'”
“I’m not sure that you’re acquainted
with a thing called gravity.”

POEM: Spine

Flex forward and a row of rounded, fleshy knobs form in that muscled valley — straight and evenly-spaced.

Chest up & shoulders back and the knobs shrink, enshrouded; while those low, rolling knolls become bounded by scapular cliffs.

Dance about and a million topographies form and disband: all without a sharp corner — nothing but smooth transitions, gracefully made.

Fronts get all the attention, but backs are masters of the beauty of subtle change.

My spine bends and flexes, and I’m alive.

Sparks run in riffles down that line, and I’m alive.

POEM: Yoga

The moment when you’re everything
and are, at once, nothing.
Time exists, but is lost to you —
no lagging, nor rushing.

Space is the world that expands and
collapses with each breath —
the infinity through which you
stretch beyond life and death.

And in quiet moments of mind,
when no voices call out,
it becomes still enough to feel
something within you sprout.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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Thoughts of a Traveler Traveling Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

I just returned from a week of traveling in Rajasthan and Punjab for Holi and Hola Mohalla, respectively. Because my trip involved only domestic travel within India, there were no formal disruptions, but evidence of concern about the virus was widespread.

The first thing one notices is that instead of a few East Asian tourists protecting themselves against the poor air quality of megalopolises, at least a third of those traveling were wearing masks. Some unknown percentage of these travelers presumably have sound, medically-directed reasons for donning the masks (e.g. they have some sort of infection, they have compromised immune systems, etc.) but for many they are merely a security blanket. I suspect the reason that “wear masks” isn’t a part of the advice of public health experts has to do with the two types of masks that one sees:

First, the type that are to keeping out virus as a chain-link fence is to keeping out mosquitos.

Second, the type that will keep out virus (if worn / changed as directed,) but which — because they are expensive and hard to come by — are worn far too long, such that they become a nice warm, moist petri-dish pressed up against one’s face.

I don’t begrudge anyone a security blanket. In fact, a lot of what I’m suggesting herein are ways to maintain a confident and positive attitude so your immune system can be its awesome self — whatever that takes. My worry about the mask phenomena is that some people seem to believe that if one little viral agent makes it inside their body they are doomed. That’s simply not the case. If a viral marauder gets into your body, its chances of being escorted right back out by your body’s mucosal bouncers, swallowed whole by a macrophage, dissolved in your stomach’s acid bath, or otherwise being discovered and destroyed by your body’s sentry force is quite good.

In short, a mask isn’t your last line of defense. It’s a first line of defense that’s followed by an immune response that is swift and deadly to foreign invaders. It should be noted that nose-breathers already have a kind of mask, in the form of the nose and nasal passages. When you breath through your nose, your natural filtration system is at work. If you tend to breath through your mouth (particularly during inhalation) you have a lessened defense.

If you have trouble maintaining nose-breathing under all circumstances, I’d recommend a pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice. I don’t know how well it’s established by study, but I’ve found that I breath much more effectively and consistently through my nose since I’ve regularly practiced pranayama. Another helpful yogic tool is kechari mudra, which has helped me to even run without mouth breathing. (Kechari mudra involves curling the tongue so that the bottom of the tongue rests against the soft palate at the back of the roof of one’s mouth. This seems to reduce turbulence that would be created by air swirling in one’s oral cavity, and makes more of a direct line of travel for the breath in and out through the nasal passageways. At a minimum, it focuses one’s attention on the area the breath is passing through, and makes one aware of the breath.)

All this talk about one’s immune system keeping one safe may seem a bit pollyannaish or over-optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I follow and would recommend others follow all the basic precautions regarding washing one’s hands and minimizing hanging out in high density environments — particularly high density environments with high-risk individuals. (i.e. for the asymptomatic [or alternatively-symptomatic individuals, i.e. those who have something but probably not COVID-19] who think they absolutely must be tested to have peace of mind, realize that you are likely walking into a high-risk environment and increasing your chance of self-fulfilling prophecy. Just sayin’. If you are able to rest comfortably, you might want to consider doing so.)

Back to the issue of being irrationally optimistic or a Pollyanna. My response is: fair enough. But there is an upside to being overly optimistic (if cautious) but none-whatsoever to being a worrier. Again, by being “a worrier” I’m not talking about taking precautions, I’m talking about obsessing or being needlessly pessimistic about the bodily systems (e.g. your immune system, your lymphatic system, your digestive system, etc.) that are keeping you safe all day and everyday.

I’d say if there is an upside to the pandemic, it was in reminding me to practice gratitude toward my body, my immune system, my gut bacteria, etc. — all of which keep me feeling excellent 99.9% percent of the time. Does that mean I think I can’t catch infection? No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that if I catch one my body will be much more effective at defending itself.

So when people ask me why I’m not worried about traveling, it’s because my immune system is awesome and I’m thankful for it every day.

A couple of post-scripts:

– I’ve been seeing the swarm of memes about toilet paper shortage in the US. Having moved to a part of the world that recognizes that wiping one’s backside with dry paper isn’t the height of sanitary practice, all I can say is: “You might want to look into what most of the world does most of the time.”

– I understand that there is a desire to curtail a wider spread of the virus, but this easily tips into a form of xenophobia — “a your COVID-19 is worse than our COVID-19.”  If a person is without symptoms, being Chinese (or from any other country with many cases) doesn’t mean that they are Typhoid Mary.

BOOK REVIEW: Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches by NCCIH

Pain: Considering Complementary ApproachesPain: Considering Complementary Approaches by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Online here

 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.

Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.

Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.

On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.

On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]

This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.

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