Getting Comfortable To Breathe

-1You’re upset, your mind is churning, and it seems to be a constant state. People are telling you to “Find your breath,” or “Let go of the emotions.” But you’re really not sure what they mean.  But you take their suggestion and try some breathing exercises that range from slow breathes in, with an equally slow exhale. You might even fiddle with your nostrils with your fingers while trying to breathe in one and out the other, even though you have the cold from hell and you think the boogers from Mars are going to fly out in a huge green mass. But worse is when someone suggests you meditate, and all you can think of when you hear an Om is “How long do I have to do this for?”url

Then there’s the physical aspect. You haven’t sat on the floor since you were a kid.  Your thighs feel like they’re on fire, your hip joints are stretching, and your butt is falling sleep. Your neck starts to ache, and what’s with your shoulders?  Up or down?  And what is that loud, annoying ventilator sound that the person next to you is making?  If you’d wanted to listen to a vacuum cleaner, you would have stayed home. Maybe this breathing stuff –this pranayam isn’t for you. You don’t understand why it’s supposed to help,  and you really can’t take one more 1-2-3-4-5 hold 5-4-3-2-1.  Isn’t there a way to keep it simple?

Yoga Props

Use bolsters, pillows, blocks or blankets.

Sure there is! The teacher may be sitting cross-legged, but a  good one knows that everyone’s body does things differently. If your legs don’t cross, by all means, grab 2 blocks, or a blanket and put them under your knees. Sit on blanket or a bolster, lean against the wall, lie down. If there’s a chair nearby, use that. Experiment at home with rolled up towels, a pillow, or yoga blocks.

Then do yourself a favor and get to class 20 minutes early. Set yourself up with whatever you need.  Find a spot near the wall so you can lean back on it. Get comfortable and experience the restorative benefits of breath.

Watch Rodney Yee go over getting comfortable, and telling you the rudiments of breath.

Yoga Teacher Training: Pushing the boundaries toward healthcare

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This weekend, Rodney Yee used his influence to urge both the medical field and the yoga community to utilize one another’s resources. He called for more yoga in hospitals, and suggested that teachers get as much specialized training as possible. The program he and his wife, Colleen Saidman are part of is one that teaches doctors and nurses a simple sequence of yoga, breathing and meditation through Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program.

Jillian and I have been talking to yoga teachers here on the West Coast. There’s no shortage of wanting to help veterans, there’s just an issue of how to find students. For all the training one has, outreach is a completely separate component. Outreach is 99% of the success of your efforts.  I don’t think it’s enough to train people and then expect anyone to make inroads without either the insight or support.

The veteran community is not an unapproachable group requiring a million secret handshakes. But you do have to take the time to get to know them, and your efforts must be consistent. In other words, if you want to reach out to veterans, you will have to go to them. In every community there are groups –who either support the troops or are veterans. It’s a matter of contacting them and having a two-way conversation.  You just can’t email them a press release, you really have to reach out to them, invite them to your studio –for a free class, and take it from there. And guess what? There is no reason to rush. Figure out what they need, and go from there.

Jillian and I have spoken about one of the roadblocks we see trauma sensitive yoga training programs falling into: thinking that their program is so special, it has to be at a retreat center that not only is difficult to get to, but means someone has to take several days off work to attend, plus spend quite a bit of money on airfare and lodging.  With all the training programs taking place on the East Coast, this does not bode well for those on the West Coast.

Let me put it to you this way:  most of the yoga teachers we know are itinerant. They teach at lots of places everyday, cobbling together a way to make a living. In Southern California, some drive 50-100 miles a day between home, and all the studios. Many live paycheck to paycheck. They simply can’t afford to take that time off in order to attend a training far away. Rent, car payments, groceries, and kids have to be fed.

The program that can get around this will be the one that most people end up taking. Smart will be the program that is scheduled over a weekend at a large hotel near an airport, hospital, wellness center, or college in a major metropolitan area that most can just commute to.  Or the program that makes large portions of their program available as an online course –not necessarily a conference call. (This would involve developing a curriculum much like universities or the military already has, and uses for thousands each day). Why should a trauma sensitive yoga teacher’s training course be any different from a continuing education course held at a major medical center for nurses, physicians and other allied health professionals? 

There are lots of issues to ponder. Yee’s call for more training and inclusion into medical institutions brings up other issues such as requirements and certification. What will be the new mold for a yoga teacher wishing to join a treatment team? Will a 200 or 500 yoga teacher training certificate be enough? Will hospitals show preference in hiring a yoga teacher who has a master’s degree in counseling, social work, kinesiology, or psychology? Who will set the requirements? Will states insist on credentialing and require a license to teach yoga in a clinical setting? Will yoga be billable under the ICD-9 (or ICD-10)? 

Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, what will this mean for the yoga teacher who just wants to help local veterans at their studio (this will probably constitute the largest group). Is the yoga community heading toward more regulation or are we heading toward more sharing of information along social networks for free or a low cost?

It’s an exciting time. We look forward to an ongoing dialog.

My Yoga Space: Wedged in between the bed and a window

This week, we’re kicking off a weekly series showcasing individual yoga spaces. Because many people new to yoga start with a home practice, we thought it would be fun. So if you have a photo of where you practice yoga, please send it to warretreat at gmail dot com. Our only requirement is anyone submitting a photo be actively interested in working with or be a veteran, active duty, family member or part of the war community.

This is my yoga space. As you can see, it’s small. This isn’t a glamorous space, nor is there much of it. During the week, I don’t go to the studio, as my shift spans a time where it isn’t possible to catch the scheduled classes. So I have this area next to bed, by the desk, a dresser and the window that’s just big enough for me to stretch out my arms if I’m laying down. I’ve also acquired some blocks, a bolster and blankets. None of these are necessary, but they’re really nice to have. You can use beach blankets, quilts, books, and pillows. I roll up the mat after I use it because both cats and dogs like to claw them!

In the morning, I usually start off with Rodney Yee’s AM Yoga.  I like the 20 minute segments, and I can pick and choose whatever I feel like working on. I love that he doesn’t do a lot of chatter. Later –usually in the evening, I’ll find a free online class or delve into one of my many DVDs. Right now, I’m looking forward to receiving Hala Khouri’s Yoga For Stress Reduction DVD in the mail.

For those of you just starting out –you don’t need a lot of room. Just big enough for your mat.

Challenging the Exclusivity of Yoga

The truth is, for “yoga progressives,” what would give us the bigger kick is the elusive crossover opportunity.

Yoga and iRest instructor, and Marine wife Cheryl LeClair of North Carolina’s Second Wind Eco Tours shared an interesting article that appears on  The Society Pages, Sociological Images Blog. Contributing writer Christie Barcelos takes a critical look at the yoga population, and also the images being touted sell an idealized image by Yoga Journal.  Barcelos points out that by appealing to a seemingly homogenous group, yoga becomes exclusive rather than inclusive. This is a recommended and thought provoking piece.  What follows are my thoughts about the article.

Black Leg Acres --Totally Cool, Let's Go.

Yoga (as a phenomenon) is commercial as Barcelos points out. The cost of a class, or even a pass can be beyond the means for those who have to choose between yoga and groceries.  Compounding the financial demand is what’s touted commercially. But searches for “the right” mat, clothing, blocks, retreats and workshops can be costly, and isn’t what really matters. This being said, intentional exercise is exclusive whenever it involves cost. In other times people would get their work out by walking, plowing the fields, or doing chores. Now we spend money to buy the equipment or pay to “work out.” Either we do yoga or buy forty acres and a mule.

The "truthiness" of yoga exclusivity

But for all the “truthiness” of exclusivity, people who do yoga aren’t necessarily exclusive to yoga. The average American participates in many sports –from T-ball to football, volleyball, walking, bicycling, hiking, and skiing. Yoga is one of many things they have tried in their lifetime, often doing yoga one day, something else the next.

Before anyone gets upset about missing the transformational side, one must never assume everyone who walks in the door seeks something spiritual, or even knowledge about the 8 limbs of yoga. If they live better by feeling better, we can accept and be grateful for that. But it is worth remembering that in the United States, yoga is often combined with beliefs redolent with both subtle and overt political undertones. This is something we are acutely aware of here at the War Retreat. Our experience has shown it can be distancing and even destructive when trying to build a relationship of trust.

Barcelos examined 186 covers of Yoga Journal and found a consistent image based largely on an idealized version beauty and fitness. Tiresome, yes, but Yoga Journal is not a spiritual guide. They are writing it to inform and make money by targeting a specific image of health and wellness that is proven to be profitable. In this regard, Yoga Journal is like other magazines touting lifestyle. It doesn’t make it right, and arguments over western standards of beauty, body image, and gender influencing just makes the editorial decisions at Yoga Journal disappointing and dated. But the truth is, for “yoga progressives,” what would give us the bigger kick is the elusive crossover opportunity.  Dave Emerson leading a yoga nidra session for top drivers at NASCAR; Cheryl LeClair leading a workshop at a conference of military bloggers;  the yogalebrity Rodney Yee taking the track in an episode of Top Gear. Yee, the son of an Air Force Colonel, no doubt burned rubber while growing up on airbases. (Rodney, come back to us).

Give Back Yoga Foundation

What Barcelos’ survey on imagery didn’t factor in was the scope of yoga –where it’s practiced, efforts to expand its reach and reasons why.  Many people come up with a variety of movements, practice at home and that is their yoga. (Watch Kevin Kline dance in The Extra Man). As more online programs develop, people have more options.  Yogis Anonymous offers free online classes 24/7. In studios,  Paul Zipes’ Yoga For Vets, is soliciting yoga teachers nationwide to offer 4 free classes to veterans, and the Give Back Yoga Foundation works steadily to bring yoga to forgotten populations. Both efforts add ballast. For those without  online access –books and DVDs can be found in almost any store or library.

The path clearing through the vines of popularity to scientifically affirm yogas’ therapeutic validity is underway. Studies have been funded by the NIH, the Samueli Foundation, and also  by the US Military to gauge the effects of yoga on patients with complex, chronic PTSD. The results of the newest long-term study, utilizing brain imaging comparisons by Bessel van der Kolk’s team at the Trauma Center at JRI, is due out this Fall. Lastly, despite the narrow statistics Barcelos shares from a 2008 demographic study of the yoga community,  the number of reasons people try yoga ranges from wanting to look good, to treatment for full-blown chronic, complex PTSD. We can never make assumptions about why people try yoga.

Paul Zipes former Navy Diver, Founder, Yoga For Vets

Last year Jillian and I, along with Sue Lynch who is the founder of the non profit yoga organization There And Back… Again, agreed that we need to take the “whooshiness” out of yoga and in its place settle on a more common language. After all, what we want is nothing more than people understand how stress manifests itself in their body, releasing of tension from muscles and mind, finding their breath, and feeling better. Or as Paul Zipes once said, “I just want veterans to get a good night’s sleep.”