Your Band Sucks

March 15, 2014

Your Band SucksEven if you don’t have a band, and most of us don’t, there are individual components that make up who you are, and if they aren’t playing in concert together, your band sucks. To clarify, let me begin by defining a word that bothers me, then I’ll get back to how your own personal one-man-band sucks (hopefully not). There is one word I dislike as much as the word Yoga because of its connotations. I may dislike it more, but not by enough to discern at this point, and that word is spirituality. Yoga and spirituality go together, and in one subjective viewpoint they can be obvious and beautiful; but in another, the skeptic, doubtful, close-minded viewpoint, a misguided or misunderstanding one, the two words together are ugly and laughable, a point of embarrassment for anyone who dares use them without joking. So which is correct? Probably neither, and it is irrelevant. It is the differing comprehension of the meanings of these words that is at fault, much like when using the word God.

Grumpy Band Sucks

So, onward we proceed to discuss not God, not the creation of the universe nor the creation of the creation of the universe of the universe. Let us first agree that the human body is a thing, much like all things are things, but the human body has the appearance of a unique identity through a complex collaboration among different areas of that body, performing specialized tasks. To be a person, with a name, and unique identifiers to be singled out from any other similar other human being, even a genetic clone like a twin, is the result of a whole that is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.

We can compartmentalize these parts into three categories, thereby simply adding the sum of only three parts, and coming up with one whole that is greater than the sum of these three parts. This whole we will call the fourth part, slightly greater than any human body, yet fully containing the whole human being. This fourth part is the right of every person, the skill of utilizing these three parts of the human body no matter if your body feels lacking in some way, and this fourth part is also absent from many people who do not understand how to be alive in the sense of making themselves whole. The three parts identified are the Intellect (the mind), the Body (the entire physical mass of your living flesh that occupies space), and the Heart (the emotions that are felt). We can say Mind, Body, and Heart while understanding the delineations of how these three do not overlap each other even though the words can be confusing if we think the mind is the brain which is part of the body and the heart is in the body so it is all body. But, just as the mind is separate from the brain, and emotions are separate from the heart itself, these assumptions are misleading and the delineations should be recounted or simply different words used.

Now with these three parts defined, dwell on your own experience of owning and using them. Confirm that you have them and define them within you. See that they are separate and individual. Also see them in the next closest people in your life and think about how they are expressed so that you perceive them. Think of every human being on this planet as owning, using, and expressing these three aspects of their being that contain everything that is who they are. That’s right, now back to you, everything about who you are is contained in these three categories independently expressed by you out in the world.

Now if these three things that make up all of you are used together, sympathetically, they resonate into something bigger and greater and unexpected, a greater whole. What this means is that when using the Mind and being aware of the Body and Emotions, not just being all-Mind, or all-Body, or all-Emotion, all three aspects of you are included in everything you do or don’t do. When you live this way, a greater whole emerges in a wisdom state, a knowing that is mind-knowing, body-knowing, and heart-knowing, so you KNOW with not just your little 3 pound brain and your Mind, but you know completely, with your whole self. This knowing which is still you, not God or even a god, not the universe or any universe, but you. This “you” is spirituality.

Bass Solo

Now look up the definition of spirituality as all popular dictionaries define it. Here is an example, and see how wrong, confusing, and lacking of explanation the definitions are in comparison to the above:

World English Dictionary

spirituality  (ˌspɪrɪtjʊˈælɪtɪ)
n  , pl -ties
1. the state or quality of being dedicated to God, religion, or spiritual things or values, esp as contrasted with material or temporal ones
2. the condition or quality of being spiritual
3. a distinctive approach to religion or prayer: the spirituality of the desert Fathers
4. ( often plural ) Church property or revenue or a Church benefice

spir·it·u·al·i·ty [spir-i-choo-al-i-tee] Show IPA

noun, plural spir·it·u·al·i·ties.

1.

the quality or fact of being spiritual.

2.

incorporeal or immaterial nature.

3.

predominantly spiritual character as shown in thought, life, etc.; spiritual tendency or tone.

4.

Often, spiritualities. property or revenue of the church or of an ecclesiastic in his or her official capacity.

It really is no wonder that the word spirituality makes people like me cringe and the misuse of the word, or should I say the disuse of spirituality as the fourth sum of everyone’s three parts, is ruining its own chances. One very welcome benefit of living with spirituality realized within yourself is the independence of the self. Many people without understanding spirituality are too dependent on one or more of other people’s three parts, pulling and draining from them what their own body craves naturally, the greater sympathetic resonance of all three categories of self. In using the word resonance, it applies to the way sound energy resonates objects and causes them to ring at their resonant frequencies. Your three parts can be focused to ring at their resonant frequencies to the highest extent of their amplitude like three notes being played on an instrument, or like three instruments being played together in concert. Within each of us is a trio of musicians dying to play together the most beautiful music imaginable at the loudest volume. When they don’t it’s like your band sucks because they’re each only interested in their own terrible solo projects. So when you see somebody lacking in spirituality, don’t even try to talk new-age mumbo jumbo, just know that their band sucks, and no one is coming to their shows.

Balance

April 4, 2012

In the celebration of life and movement, let’s go over some of the most beautiful yoga poses that incorporate balance. We will discuss what makes balance so important for health and vitality, and how your balance can and will improve as long as you periodically test your balance and let your body do what it does without having to think about it in your frontal lobe.

Balance training ensures neuromuscular efficiency of what is termed the kinetic chain, or the combination and interrelation of the nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems. In balance training at entry level, very little joint motion is involved, and the goal is to improve reflexive joint stabilization contractions, thereby increasing joint stability. This is achieved by placing the body in unstable environments where it must react by contracting the right muscles at the right time to maintain balance. All entry level balance movements are done standing on one leg, and aside from the rudimentary single-leg balance itself all movements incorporate motion in all three planes: frontal, sagittal, and transverse.

Photograph by Gosia Janik

What this all means is that if you are looking to strengthen your core and are currently working with core stabilization movements that do not require balance, such as the previously described Cobra pose and Two-Legged Table, balance stabilization in conjunction with core stabilization will get you to poses that incorporate both, in combination with breathing to create momentary synergy of these three aspects.

There is much to cover in describing how to properly stay in Natarajasana, or King of the Dancers Pose. It is similar to the poses One-Legged Royal Pigeon and Bow, both of which do not incorporate the balancing aspect but do bind the hands and feet in a backbend. After this is detailed, we will close with beginners Balance Stabilization movements that will build up the neuromuscular efficiency of the entire kinetic chain to make the balance aspects of Natarajasana feel like second nature.

Natajarasana by Sharon Ellis

The King of the Dancers pose is an advanced backbending standing balance posture. You’ll notice immediately that the back is arched upward very much like Cobra pose, and in this pose as well you must find the deeper, more intrinsic back muscles to perform the action of spinal extension. This is because although the movement and mobility is obvious, breathing once you are in the pose is most important, and using the larger superficial muscles like the latissimus will interfere with your breath. Using the deeper spinal muscles also frees up the mobility needed to find the full range of the scapulae. Motion of the spine should be concentrated in the thoracic while the lumbar is stabilized by the eccentric motion of the psoas minor, rectus abdominis, and obliques. The intrinsic extensor muscles of the spine reponsible for creating and maintaining spinal extension are the intertransversarii, interspinalis, rotatores, multifidi, spinalis, semisponalis, splenius capitis and crevicis, longissimus, and iliocostalis.

The arms are lifted overhead, and with the proper scapular motion assisted by the serratus anterior, the humerus or upper arm bone will be just behind the ears with the scapula lifted and coming together to hug the ribcage at the rear. The shoulder joint will be supported by the supraspinatus and subscapularis, so scapula mobility properly gets the arms in position while making sure the glenohumeral joint is not overmobilized and there is enough mobility in the thoracic spine.

Natarajasana Front by Sharon Ellis

In the standing leg, the muscles of the feet and forelegs are active for balance. The hamstrings are lengthened and can work eccentrically to resist tipping forward too far, while the quadriceps extend the knee. The gluteus medius and minimus and the tensor fascia latae work eccentrically keeping the pelvis level.

In the lifted leg, the hamstrings create hip extension and knee flexion, and the vastus lateralis and medialis come into isometric or concentric action to extend the knee, resisting the hand on the foot and increasing hip extension as the pose deepens. The gluteus maximus extends the hip along with the adductor magnus. The legs should be kept adducted and internally rotated to avoid overworking the lumbar spine or overmobilizing the sacroiliac joint.

This pose minimizes the excursion of the diaphragm so it should rarely be held for long durations. With the shallower breathing afforded by the pose, the muscular effort required to maintain the stabilization of anterior and posterior musculature working against each other combined with deep spinal extension soon cannot be met with the demand of sufficient oxygen supply. With the need to breathe deeper, stabilization from the abdominals and diaphragm is lessened, which could lead to a higher risk to the spine and shoulders. For this reason, monitor the breath and the body’s natural requirement for more oxygen as a signal to come out of the pose. Before that moment comes, however, keep in mind what you will be lengthening: the triceps, the latissimus dorsi, the pectoralis major, and the rhomboids in the arms and related muscles. Related to the spine, the rectus abdominis, obliques, and the intercostals (open your chest). The hamstrings and abductors in the standing leg, and in the lifted leg the iliacus, psoas major, and rectus femoris.

To systematically and progressively train your balance, begin with an easy exercise and move on to harder ones. The following exercises are safe and progressive. You can change the parameters on your own to make them progressive in all areas by moving from simple to complex, known to unknown, stable to unstable, static to dynamic, slow to fast, using two arms/legs to single arm/leg, and having eyes open to eyes closed. These exercises can be performed to higher proprioceptive challenges on the floor, a balance beam, a half foam roll, an airex pad, or a dyna disc. By progressing and changing variables like speed of motion, range of motion, duration, frequency, types of resistance (body weight versus dumbbells, tubing, or cable), and body position (Two-leg/single-leg–stable/unstable), you can design a program for your balance training that will keep your kinetic chain reactive to keep you on your feet in any situation.

To prepare for all of the following, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and pointed straight ahead, hips neutral. Lift the chest, retract the shoulders slightly, and tuck the chin. Draw the navel in and activate the gluteals.

1. Single-Leg Balance

Lift one leg directly beside the other with hands on hips, keeping hips and shoulders level. Hold for 5 to 20 seconds. Slowly return to original position and switch legs and repeat.

2. Single-Leg Reach

Lift one leg beside the balance leg, and move lifted leg to the front of the body, hold for 2 seconds. Return to original position and repeat. The leg can be moved to the side of the body and also reaching behind the body as a progression.

3. Single-Leg Hip Internal and External Rotation

Lift one leg beside the other, keeping level hips and shoulders, but this time lift the leg as if you were stepping up to a low stool, so your femur is now parallel with the ground. Rotate the hip of the lifted leg by tracing the arc of a circle with the bent knee to the side of the lifted leg. This is internally and externally rotating the hip of the lifted leg, and hold for 2 seconds. Switch legs and repeat by turning the other knee and hips outward to the other direction and holding for 2 seconds. The spine and hip should move as one so as not to rotate the spine.

4. Single-Leg Lift and Chop

Lift one leg beside the balance leg while holding a medicine ball in your extended arms. If you lift the right leg, hold the medicine ball beside your left thigh. Lift the medicine ball diagonally over the right shoulder, rotating the body so the ball is over the balance leg. Hold for 2 seconds, slowly return to the original position, repeat, and switch legs.

When performing these balance exercises, keeping the hips level will decrease stress to the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, or LHC. Make sure to contract the gluteal musculature of the balance leg through all balance exercises to help stabilize the lower extremity. Lastly, make sure the knee of the balance leg always stays in line with the toes. If you struggle with balance, these simple yet challenging exercises will ensure you can handle the intermediate and advanced poses in your yoga practice, as well as every movement you make anywhere you go where your stability suddenly is questioned and needs a reaction.

I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since last winter when I first met James Fox and a group of us got acquainted with his experience and why it’s so important. Here is someone that speaks my language: an authentic yogi who knows the value of practical language that can get the message across to anyone. When using absolutes like “anyone”, that most certainly includes incarcerated men in the American prison system who have never experienced yoga. The added benefit here is that there is no dilly-dallying with the yoga that Fox teaches, which happens to be the only yoga there is. If you ever felt like you have been doing yoga for a certain amount of time, or have attended x number of classes but you still don’t quite get it, the lack of gray area in Fox’s approach guarantees you won’t be left in the dark.

To go along with the weekend-long workshop, we received four hand-outs, the first one setting the tone for what was to come. The heading reads, “Do not lose heart…”. By the end of the training, this first sheet of paper held the most significance. I was one of only 6 men attending. It was a packed house, packed with 25 women, some of whom also had experience teaching the incarcerated. There were many questions and many discussions about specifics, and after we used our brains to think it all through exhaustively, we were left with our intuition. When you are alone in a room full of men who operate mainly with a strong connection to the survival instinct, the animal nature of man, the part in direct opposition to the thinking, rational mind, it is your intuition and non-thinking gut feeling that ultimately will prevail in this work.

James Fox was very clear that he does what works for him. Another teacher may have a totally different way of approaching a class, and completely different things may work for different teachers. His way is not the only way, it is his way. Another person may be more successful getting to students through different intuitive action. The lesson is to be yourself, and intuitively do what you think is the best thing within the guidelines of what needs to be done.

One of the brick walls that people questioning what he does in prison constantly beat their heads up against is, “Why do these incarcerated people deserve to be taught yoga?”, and the answer is simple if you become aware of the world in which we live. If you realized that you or one of your friends and family could be incarcerated tomorrow, and that a majority of incarcerated prisoners will be released and in traffic with you, buying groceries with you, at the gym with you, even possibly doing yoga in a class with you, then you’d realize that prison is not some place we send bad people and forget about them forever. Prison is made up of people in our communities, and prisoners are released back into our communities. If you would prefer to have people in your community bringing the prison way of life to your everyday life, then by all means, oppose this work.

From an economic standpoint, more tax dollars go to running prisons than education. Prisons are number one on the list when dividing up state budgets, and paying into this broken system means your children don’t get the education they could get, and increases the likelihood that they will themselves become prisoners under the current system.

Men and women in prison are met with constant resistance. These are human beings that are being told every minute of every day that they are not worthy of being treated fairly. These people go into prison with addictions that continue within prison walls without difficulty. Whatever psychological and emotional issues were present before incarceration are still there and possibly amplified through constant stress and anxiety. If a prisoner has a health issue in prison, it is not going to be cured or treated properly, but most likely will get worse. The person who was in need of rehabilitation before prison becomes a person in greater need of rehabilitation in prison.

Enter Taoist Yoga. Taoist practices seek to exercise the path of least resistance. Tao means “the flow of the universe”, and the goal of Taoist Yoga is to bring the mind and body into harmony for self-healing and spiritual development. After explaining these principles, James Fox took us through two Taoist Yoga sessions over the weekend. The structure of the flow had us access our grounding energy by using the legs and feet primarily in the beginning, and ending with postures focused specifically on the torso and upper extremities. Further balance was infused by mixing yang and yin poses. The yang poses are considered assertive, and strength oriented, exercising muscles and bones, whereas the yin poses are receptive, targeting joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue. The yin poses promote the flow of chi energy to the organs of the body.

Wording is very important in getting to individuals who, although coming in voluntarily, can be turned off very easily if the wrong sentiment is expressed. Phrases like “open your heart” are a no-no, and forget about anything in the realm of “feel the love” or similar phrases a yoga instructor may be caught saying in the free world. Instead, postures that are heart openers are a priority and explained simply and clearly with descriptions like “gently bring your shoulder blades together”.

If you ever thought practicing yoga was difficult, imagine participating in a practice while coping with substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, and the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that come with prison life. Students enter the class coming from the impact of trauma, they are physically over-stimulated and mentally under-stimulated, they are hyper vigilant, and mental imbalances are very common. Knowing these things about your students dictates that the program must be straight and to the point, a fast track to enlightenment. It’s as if there is no time to waste because there is no telling what can happen when they leave you back into the unpredictable world of prison.

The strongest sell James Fox incorporates is the fact that volunteers can walk in to the room and leave prison behind. Once it is realized this is true, no prodding is necessary for students to give it their all. One has to resort to behavioral facades to survive in prison, but these behaviors have no place in James’ yoga class inside the walls of San Quentin. Firm boundaries are drawn and as long as respect in both directions is demonstrated, progress can be made. Outside of the constant noise there is a quiet place that can serve as the highest reference for peace and relaxation, something you can’t find inside a prison. Meditation before and after the asana practice is a must in James’ classes, and the concepts of OM and Namaste are explained clearly and practically, with great success.

The saving philosophical and instructional teachings expressed in Fox’s classes include the ultimate goal of self-realization, the 8 limbs of yoga, and mindfulness as the foundation for practice. Sound heavy? This is emergency room yoga, and I can’t help thinking that Fox’s classes are the perfect model for all classes in America, especially during this time when the yoga boom in the West is all about having a great ass and wearing the trendy outfits that “help” you “do yoga”.

Can a prisoner be self-realized? Let’s rephrase the question, and ask, can someone in prison discover who they truly are? Maybe not among the din of distraction that has to be dealt with, but definitely in a yoga class where spirituality is discovered by connecting the mind, the heart, and the body. I walked away from this workshop understanding that I can be an incarcerated individual at any time in this country, and so can everyone else that attended, Fox included. If a yoga practice is right for you outside of prison, then it is also right for those inside prison, and even more so. Do not lose heart…

More Yoga Muscles

November 10, 2010

Do you, or have you ever gone to a health club? Whether you belong to a gym or not, it can be an intimidating place because of the way most health clubs are run. You enter through the front door and have to pass the front desk by either signing in or swiping a card across a laser, or having an employee enter a number into a computer for you. Now you enter the facility and it’s all up to you. Everyone is there for varying reasons, working toward different goals, and at different stages of attaining those goals. How do you know what to do once you join a health club? You’ve paid your money, you’ve shown up in your workout duds, and you’re in a sea of people off doing their own things. Some people may be coupled with personal trainers, guiding them through focused plans with supervision. The truth is, if you don’t feel confident that you know enough about your body and what brings results without hurting yourself or pushing you along that edge that will promote changes that you want, hiring a personal trainer is a good idea. And this brings me to Yoga.

No matter who you are, what level of fitness you are at, or what your physical fitness goals are, a personal trainer will tell you, among other things, that the suggested place to start is stabilization training. This doesn’t mean benching, or squatting, or curling, or pressing anything that comes near your maximal strength ability. Think of putting your fast twitch muscles on a temporary vacation so you can concentrate on your slow twitch muscles, the ones that require oxygen to work and can endure longer durations of use. These are the muscles that stabilize your body when you think you’re not doing anything, like standing straight, sitting upright, bending over, or moving your body to change positions for any reason. This is one of the reasons Yoga has become so popular here in the US as a fitness trend. As a whole, Americans do less from day to day because more of their work and home activities are becoming more automated, causing a deterioration in the conditioning of the stabilization muscles of the body. Yoga happens to condition exactly those muscle groups through the asanas, preparing the body for movements that can be built upon a strong core.

Of course, there are many different kinds of Yoga that one may choose to practice, and all or some of the above may not apply to your practice. Also, in order to build a solid stabilization base, very specific core adaptation variables have to be chosen for the possible goals of any individual. A general fact is that Yoga produces a stronger body, and is much larger in scope than stabilization exercise. Yoga goes beyond the body and tunes what can be referred to as the psychology, awareness, and spiritual aspects of living, something that is absent from all forms of conventional fitness training that deal only with the body, its systems, biomechanics, motor control, and flexibility. Yoga is not flexibility. If it is any one thing, it is steadiness. It is important to understand that while most people will be drawn to Yoga for fitness or social reasons, the goal is to move past all physical connotations and attachments, as these are only inroads to the destination. In the gym, the destination is just another road, and this is perfectly fine if you understand it.