Category: Just a thought


Recharging

Hand drawing of a rechargeable battery labeled me, a battery charger labeled yoga, and a plug point enabling access to the energy grid

 

My drawing classes are paying off 😛

I think music, a beautiful performance, nature, a good conversation with a friend are other ways to recharge… but what helps you plug into the Grid and recharge?

Advertisements

While I’m a technology lover, I do agree with the point of view that by using technology (especially cell phones) so much we miss out on or plain avoid the opportunity to be alone.

There is a lot of self-knowledge to be gained from being alone and free of incoming information. But it often hurts and is scary. So we avoid it by reaching for connection (aka cell phone). Sherry Turkle argues that the kind of connection we get this way is not always authentic and satisfying. It is a cheap replacement, like a cheap “nutritional” drink is a replacement for a healthy, nourishing meal.

Anyway, arguments like the one above are boring. But this comedian explains it much better on Conan:

Can you try to pay attention and notice when you are using your phone to avoid being alone? Can you try practicing being alone, just sitting there, without music or any other stimulus, for maybe 5 minutes every other day, and see what happens?

Why I’m vegetarian

Mutts Vegetarian

From Mutts Comics, my favorite comic strip EVER!

Note to a younger friend

I have a younger friend who, apparently, is in many ways a younger version of myself. She struggles with stress, impatience, and anger. So I’d like to share here my story just in case it can help.

Dear friend,

I was a very short-tempered and angry teenager and young adult. I would react very quickly and snap mean remarks to the people who were closest to me and I loved most. I felt very sorry, but by the time I realized I was sorry, it had already shot out of my mouth. It all happened so quickly and I just couldn’t control or stop it. I was high-strung, frantic, probably stressed and scared, and not very happy – obviously – nor very pleasant to be around. I found I was putting barriers of irritation and snarkiness between me and the people I loved and needed most.

Then I started practicing yoga in Greenville, SC. It was not just any kind of yoga. In this yoga, deep breathing was the most important element. I learned to slow down and deepen my breath (ujjayi breathing). This type of breathing alone calms the nervous system. Soon after learning it, I found that just the sound of a few breaths while driving to work calmed and soothed me. The yoga classes themselves aligned breathing, movement, and attention. I learned how to observe myself (body, mind, moods) very closely. How to scan my body in each pose and see what I can relax. To relax my face and keep the breathing slow and smooth even when my leg muscles were getting uncomfortable and shaky after holding a pose for a while. This taught me a number of important things:

  1. That I can make myself feel better. I was, and still am, amazed at the powerful mood changing properties of yoga. I would walk into class a stressed, frantic mess, and walk out floating on pink clouds. The difference was so big and sudden I would tell my teachers that “she sold happiness at $10 a shot; and it’s so good it should be illegal :)” I discovered a deep sense of peace and joy – that everything was already OK – that I am not sure I had ever felt in my life. I learned that I could improve my state of mind and soul without the help of friends or that glass of wine.
  2. To observe myself closely, and to pay attention to my body. As I started observing myself more closely, and scanning my body to feel how things were, time slowed down. I noticed that anger and irritation do not happen as quickly as I thought. They usually start with a tickle and a tensing of the area around the stomach or the heart. With a line of electricity that tenses my shoulders and lower back. I felt it coming long before thoughts and words formed in my head. It is a very unpleasant feeling. I had to breathe through it. But it gave me time to make a decision about whether I really wanted to say something, and if so, what – and how. Many times, I decided I would say something anyway – otherwise, I felt I would have a heart attack. Some times, I was able to at least rephrase things so they were not as abrasive. With time, I got better and better at that. With time, the intensity of the original feelings of irritation lessened. I just don’t get quite that angry anymore. Not that often. Not several times a day. 🙂
  3. I learned that I can keep calm, smooth and soft (just like the ujjayi breath) even if my heart is racing, even if things get painful and uncomfortable. I learned to bear through unpleasant sensations and moments without letting them freak me out. In yoga class, yes, my legs hurt, but it was OK. It was safe. My heart raced and I was dripping sweat. Yet my breath and mind were calm and smooth. I learned to carry that over outside the yoga room. I started with physical pain. I would just try to relax my muscles (tensing intensifies pain), not be scared of the pain, not fight it, and just breathe smoothly and deeply (btw – you cannot feel pain on a deep exhale – just try it. I use that trick when I get injections).

Together, all these things changed my life deeply. Yet, I still struggled with occasional sadness and depression. I was OK, but I wasn’t happy enough. And then, a couple of months ago, I started practicing a tiny bit of yoga (15 minutes) every day. It changed my life all over again. It feels like every day I turn on the joy. I am in awe of the deep mood altering effects of just 4 sun salutations. I do not understand what is happening. I just know that by the time I start the second one, my body and mind seem to light up like a string of Christmas lights. I feel awake. And by the time I’m done, there’s a deep calm and joy that lasts through the day. Here is my dear teacher Liz guiding you through 7 minutes of modified (easier) sun salutations:

I also practice a bit of mindfulness meditation. It is great, but honestly, much harder than yoga. Yoga gets me into that meditative state just by moving my body, which is easier for most of us to control than our minds. I explain that in a different post.

I think the most important thing is that I gained that sense of “everything is OK.” I am less scared. Less insecure. I don’t need to control things quite as much (though that is still a work in progress). I don’t have a strong sense that things must be MY way, otherwise my position (at work) or my sense of self or who knows what will suffer. Everything is OK. That feeling of “everything is OK” is inside. All the time. It just takes going through a few motions (in my case, sun salutations) to unlock the door and access it. What a miracle!

So, dear friend, I hope my story helps you. And if I can help you with some customized advice, I’d be happy to. But really, the best advice I can give you is this: go to a class. Community Yoga is wonderful. Start with Tammy or Debra.

With love,

MV

Your voice

I just finished reading a spiritual memoir, Red Hot and Holy – A Heretic’s Love Story. I will write more about this book, but for now, I am thinking at the huge difference between the author’s writing voice and speaking voice. In writing, she is irreverent, powerful, raw, naked, strong, awesome, potty-mouthed, strong. Her speaking voice is meek, shy, little, afraid. It barely comes out through the top of her throat and her nose, unlike her writing voice, which comes from the depths of her body.

I read a theater book about voice training a few years back. (Or maybe it was this one.) It explained how so many people, women especially, do not speak in their natural voices. They distort their voices and make them higher pitched, often nasal – very much infantilized. Many strong, great women sound like little girls. I won’t get into the politics of that. They are obvious. I observed that many more women’s voices seem to be distorted here in the U.S. than in Romania. I don’t know what that is about.

Anyway, that book recommends some exercises for helping you find your natural voice. It claims that your natural voice is the one that you use when you utter the sound mmmmmmmm in a speaking, not singing voice. Try it: breathe in, and then: mmmmmmmmmm. They use this as one of many exercises to warm up the voice, which apparently teachers should do, too. (If you use your voice correctly, they claim, you do not feel discomfort in your throat even after speaking for 3 hours.)

I think the sounds of our voices are not only that. I think infantilizing and censoring our real voices is much deeper than the manipulation of the vocal cords. We don’t speak our truths. We don’t speak from our hearts – let alone our bellies, or our (yes) vaginas.

Sera Beak’s awakening (or breakdown/through) was triggered by listening to Marion Woodman speak. Marion Woodman spoke from her belly. She embodied her soul and her voice cam from deep within.

I also know at least one strong, intelligent woman (much smarter than me) whose voice is barely audible. It barely comes through as a very weak stream. Her words and ideas are very smart and deep. Her belief in them isn’t. She speaks but without making sound. I want to get her to roar from her belly. Yes, we’ll do that someday. I notice this in many women from East Asia.

I was once recommended in an Ayurvedic consultation to practice Lion Pose – but instead of a “ha” exhale, to express a roar. This pose energizes the throat and the vocal chords and enables you to access your voice and express it – from the belly. I confess I don’t really practice it. It is awkward, even when I am home alone. But I should get over that.  See below video instructions on how to practice Lion Pose.

Personally, I think/feel my voice comes from my heart. I don’t know that my voice is distorted, but I know there’s some work I need to do there. How do you feel about your voice? Or about this topic in general? Have you noticed anything along those lines in you or the people around you? When do you express your full natural voice? What does it take to do so? Get angry? Drink wine? Laugh out loud?

Liz in Revolved Side Angle pose

Liz in Revolved Side Angle pose

I really liked the way Stephen Cope explained the difference between yoga asana and meditation. If the goal is to settle the mind (more about the theory related to that in a later post) – yoga asana does that bottom-up while meditation does it top-down.

Meditation involves a concentrated effort to bring the mind back to a focus object (e.g. breath), whereas yoga, by facilitating the alignment of movement, breath, and attention, achieves that mind settling more effortlessly (even if with more sweat!).

That explains why I fell in love with yoga asana – and why I think I prefer it over meditation, even though I really hate to sweat.

My practice at Greenville Yoga lead me through beautiful states of mind and emotion that were achieved without me really trying to alter my emotional state. They were an unexpected side-effect of asana practice. They were powerful experiences of mood altering, that happened without much outside intervention (such as alcohol, or a conversation with a good friend). It was the first time ever for me that I discovered that I can do something relatively simple (move the body with the breath, pay attention to the body as I do so) and make myself feel 1000% better in 1 hour. I discovered self-soothing (better late than never). I used to tell dear Liz that she sells happiness at $10 a pop. That it’s so good it shouldn’t be legal. 🙂 I should not, however, underestimate the importance of the asana teacher. As I found later, even though practice is mine (my body, my breath, my attention), the beautiful, mood altering experience doesn’t happen every time, in every class. Liz has the gift of orchestrating a flow that takes you there, and, in my opinion, offering her energy as a ladder you can climb on to get to the floaty pink clouds easier, faster.

It is said that asana prepares the mind for meditation. It makes a lot more sense to me now, after comparing asana practice with a lot of time (for me) spent cross-legged on a meditation cushion this past weekend. The latter is so much harder. You have to expend much more volitional control, whereas asana kidnaps you and takes you to that beautiful place without you having to try that hard.

There is something about the effort of the body, having to pay attention in order to balance, or to integrate the opposing directions of many yoga postures (the sideways, length, and downward bending of triangle, for example – you can’t hold your body in all these seemingly opposing directions without paying attention. The same with a simple forward fold where your shoulders and upper back are open and not collapsing down. Everything goes down, but shoulders go up, away from the ears.) Asana really kidnaps attention, and a practice of continuous body scanning during asana (paying attention to every finger and toe, scanning the body to relax unnecessary tension, remembering to release the jaw) really helps focus the mind, and integrate it with breath and body movement.

While I want to further develop my meditation practice, it has become clearer to me than ever before how powerful asana is, and that, if I am ever to share any of these practices with other people, I would like to share yoga asana. I think it is an effective entry point in this beautiful realm of alleviating suffering – one that, in spite of its physical nature, is much more accessible to people in Western societies.

Practice, and good things do happen.

Oh, shit

20130504-212000.jpg
I’m at Kripalu on a weekend retreat with Stephen Cope. Stephen gave a (Dharma) talk tonight that combined beautifully, in his characteristic style, insights from Easter and Western psychology.

He quoted this psychiatrist from Harvard, whose last name I didn’t catch – Dan Boey (?), who, after a long career of practice, declared that humans need the following 5 self-maintenance functions:

The capacity to:
1) self-soothe
2) experience a stable sense of identity
3) feel the realness of experience
4) esteem the self
5) warmly love the self

Of these, the capacity to self soothe is the foundation upon which equanimity is built.

So, how does one self soothe? The obvious and popular answers are alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, Internet, etc. But, no, really, what are constructive, effective ways to self soothe?

Here Stephen cited another psychologist, Heinz Kohut (whose book, Self Psychology, I’d love to read).

According to Kohut, the capacity to self soothe arises from

being safely held and soothed by a non-abandoning love object.

This is similar to what Buddhist call “true refuge.” What can this “non-abandoning love object” be? Family, a parent, but also in Buddhism it is said that practice begins with refuge in Buddha (a teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community).

Stephen talked about lineages as safe havens. They are long lasting webs of relationships and knowledge that one can take refuge in without relying on one teacher who might disappoint. So, one way to lay the foundation for self soothing is to take refuge in a lineage. Here, lineage means a religious or spiritual tradition. But Stephen explained one can (and should) also create one’s own lineage: an enduring web of relationships. In Kohut’s terms:

The self is created out of this ‘surround of relationships’ that are evoking, sustaining, and affirming.

We create our own surround of relationships which in turn creates us. This is not unlike Mead’s symbolic interactionism, a theory I’m familiar with.

This surround of relationships can be made of individuals (friends, family, animals) and institutions, or “churches.” Stephen pointed out how most institutions, wether lay or spiritual, usually display their lineage with photos on their walls.

One needs many churches.

Don’t hang out only with you and your mind; that’s a dangerous neighborhood to be.

This explains… Well, everything:
– why I didn’t develop early the capacity to self soothe (or lost it along the way from using it up too early in life)
– why I need my friends so much more than they need me
– why I sit in a room alone, thousands of miles away from family, on what actually is Easter night in my lineage (which I’m not sure I identify with, but maybe I should start somewhere).
– why I need more cats
– why I’ve been consumed with loneliness lately (and by lately I mean the past 6 years or so)
– why I need my students so badly (temporary surround of relationships that disintegrates abruptly at the end of each semester)

Stephen gave us homework: to draw our web of relationships. Start with a blank piece of paper, put a heart in the middle (yours). Then intuitively position people (and animals) on that map according to how close they are to your heart. Then work at the web of relationships. God knows, I do work at it. But I tell ya, this is bad news for a Romanian immigrant living in Indiana.

Happy Easter, y’all.

Personal mission statement

“To pay attention means we care, which means we really love.” Attention is the most basic form of love.

(J. Krishnamurthi quoted in Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance p. 222)

Someone asked Desikachar, “What should be the priority of yoga in Western countries?” He had replied: “Relationship. Relationship between the teacher and student, between the person who wants to learn and the person who wants to give… [In the West] information is given but there is no relationship. I hope this doesn’t happen in India. Without relationship yoga is like a dead body. Relationship is prana.

(Lucy Edge, Yoga School Dropout, p. 252)

I’ve been haunted by these quotes for the past few weeks. Together, they seem to define my personal mission statement. This is what I want to be and do when I grow up.

I often tell students that “caring is my strategic advantage.” As a teacher, I know that I teach a lot more through relationships and that subject matter (in my case, computer graphics) is a pretext for teaching other, more important things. Yes, relationship is prana.

I am wondering what the best context would be for carrying out my mission. Academia is not bad, but I may be able to do better. What professions create the best conditions for living this work? Is what I am describing friendship? Mentorship? Parenthood?

Dare to create (but…)

[cross-posted from my CGT 512 blog] – with some special notes about yoga and innovation here.

One of the things I love most about Purdue (and makes me feel at home here) is that I get to work with so many people from all around the world. I can’t help but notice the legacies of various educational systems leave on students. These are just my observations, and I’m most probably over-generalizing here, but here I go:

We often hear complaints about the American education system: kids don’t learn the fundamentals; they can’t spell; critical thinking suffers. People coming from educational systems such as China, India, and (I’d say) Romania do learn the fundamentals. They can understand and synthesize ideas. Their work endurance is much higher. They simply put in more hours without expecting to have as much fun.

And then I saw in the news this story about a 17-year old girl who built a neural network that diagnoses breast cancer that’s 99.1% sensitive to malignant cells, in her trials.

And then I stumbled upon this company that makes plush toys from your dog’s photos in order to generate funds for animal shelters. It began with a little girl’s idea and her insistence, and, of course, parents who went along with it. 

My observation is that people like me, who come from the Romanian, Indian, Chinese educational systems (they must have some things in common) are really good at learning, understanding, explaining information. But we are afraid to create. I know in Romania at least, we are told that we first have to master all that came before us before we can start creating. It is a daunting task, and by the time we’re done, it’s often too late. We have this reverence for the “great thinkers”… I remember how shocked I was when I first started grad school in the U.S. that you could argue with Aristotle. “What do you mean, question Aristotle? He is ARISTOTLE!” I am still amused, outraged, and in awe of American irreverence and the freedom people take (even people who don’t understand Aristotle well) to just argue – to improve, to innovate, upon Aristotle’s ideas (and by “Aristotle,” of course, I mean any big name).

Creativity and innovation cannot be attributed solely to the educational system. Culture and economy inform entrepreneurial spirit. And yet, the question has been bugging me, What kind of educational system does it take to foster creativity and innovation? What are some practices that we should include in the way we teach and learn, that will encourage and foster creative, innovative thinking?

I leave you with a TED talk by IDEO’s David Kelley on building creative confidence. It doesn’t answer my question, though, so please let me know. What have been your experiences in school that you feel have helped foster your creative, innovative thinking?

As much as I love innovation in technology and as smitten as I am with new and shiny things, I am very conservative, though, with innovation in yoga. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it can even be dangerous. I think there is value in preserving a tradition that has been developed over years of very deep practice. Unless you have practiced enough yoga to be able to feel and control prana and know how it is affected by asana, I don’t think you are in a position to innovate. You may, but you don’t really know what you’re messing with and what the consequences may be. I am appalled and scared by this trend that every yoga teacher create their “brand” of yoga. It must be a result of making yoga a product that is marketed and needs to be differentiated from other products, I guess. I understand that every teacher sees something that others do not, from their own personal angle, colored by their own personal experience. I understand teaching from their own perspective, teaching what it’s like from them. After all, every teacher shares her/his own energy. That’s different and unique enough for me.

Like most of us, I’ve been enjoying watching the Olympics – but as I learned about the personal sacrifices kids like sweet Gabby Douglas had to endure, I thought to myself, “it’s not worth it.” I came across a couple of opinion columns on Huffington Post that spell out more eloquently than me what the problem may be, what the values underlying the Olympic sacrifice are and how they influence collective thought (aka culture & society). I am copying below the sentences that sum up the argument for me:

The pedestal … gold … success … grit and determination and resolve and tenacity — suck it up and grin and do it again and again because today’s record will be broken tomorrow and Tuesday’s excellence is Thursday’s mediocrity and Saturday’s failure. Redefine “success” as prestige and mint it into a medal, then market it throughout society and see it bloom.

Apparently not. It’s all about “winning” — and since there can only be one champion, the vast majority collapses from a broken heart. And don’t celebrate too long. Next year’s gauntlet menaces for all the Little Leaguers and Big Leaguers and those far beyond the world of sports. Businesses can’t just make a profit; they must quash the competition and reign as Number One. In Washington, the party that’s lost its mind bare-knuckles with the party that’s lost its vision — and insanity’s apparent candidate shifts his views like a cold-calling salesman plying for customers. Win and only win. Don’t present a coherent program and argue for it; just launch attacks that are obvious plays for votes and nothing more — because it’s all about “me” and a pyrrhic November victory with no mandate to govern. Stand on the pedestal in January, then plow into the exhausting campaign for the next election. There’s no break.

They’re also unwitting icons of a nation in which relationships are swapped for medals and that transient moment on the pedestal. We do them no dishonor when we see that, nor do we help them by turning a blind eye to the price they paid for their brief triumph. We’re all paying that price. Perhaps it’s too high. – read the entire article by Charles Redfern

This other article discusses the unbelievable performance of 16-year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, that may very well be the result of grueling training in “Olympic factories” where the life is hard and athletes train because they were chosen, not because they wanted to. The author compares that with the more easy-going attitude of Great Britain, who may be satisfied with bronze. She also analyzes what these Olympic values mean for culture, society, and business:

You might, in fact, think about the things we call “success.” You might think that winning a medal if you’d taken drugs definitely didn’t count as success, but that you weren’t at all sure that winning a medal if you’d lived your life as a kind of prisoner did. You might think that annual economic growth of nearly 8 per cent sounded great, until you found out about the chemicals, and the nets. You might, in other words, think that sometimes the price of success was too high.

And if you were a citizen of a country that used to be a leading world power, and was now only the sixth biggest economy in the world, and which happened to be hosting the Olympics, you might be pleased. You might think that the opening ceremony, which was funny and charming and a little bit mad, told the world that we had a lot to be proud of, but that the most important thing about our country wasn’t our pride. You might think about the young men who won a medal that hadn’t been won for 100 years, and who practiced because they wanted to, and entered the Olympics because they wanted to. And you might well think that there were times when bronze was worth an awful lot more than gold. – read the entire article here.

I like these two articles because I believe it’s important to stop and consider what values we learn to believe in as we worship the Olympics and admire Olympians. I hope the paragraphs I extracted here motivate you to read them and consider: What does it mean to succeed? What is the price that’s worth paying for success? What does it mean for our society when there can only be one winner?